The colorful houses, constant barking of chained up sled dogs, and the ever-present icebergs floating just off shore were just a few of the amazing things that the magical little town of Ilulissat has to offer. But for me, one of the biggest highlights of our stay in Ilulissat was visiting the vicarage where polar explorer and anthropologist Knud Rasmussen was born and raised. The building is now home of the Ilulissat Museum, which contains numerous exhibits on Inuit culture and history in addition to artifacts from the life of Knud Rasmussen. I have to admit that I had never heard of Knud before visiting Ilulissat, but it didn’t take long for me to become a full blown Knudist.
Part of Knud’s success as an explorer and social scientist came from his ability to seamlessly interact with both Danish and Greenlandic cultures. I think that’s probably why Knud’s story struck such a chord with me. My wife is from Costa Rica and we are expecting our first child in less than a month. We worry that the child will feel more comfortable with one language and culture over the other, and therefore favor communication with one side of the family more than the other. Knud, who had a Danish father, the vicar Christian Rasmussen, and an Inuit-Danish Mother, Sophie Rasmussen (nee Fleicher), was not only able to integrate himself into both cultures, the embracement of both cultures is what made him so successful.
Knud spent most of his childhood in Ilulissat, but traveled to Denmark to study at the age of 12, which kicked off a lifetime of travel and exploration. After graduating and working as a correspondent for several newspapers, he joined the Danish Literary Expedition to contact “the new people” of Thule – Inuit communities that had so far had very little contact with outside cultures. Knud collected a great deal of information about their way of living, myths, beliefs, and culture. The expedition was so successful that Knud was motivated to embark on further expeditions, including exploring more of Greenland and visiting the native peoples of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Through his travels he realized that the language and beliefs of many of the Inuit were similar. He was even able to easily communicate with the peoples he encountered in Canada and Siberia using his native Greenlandic language, Kalaallisut.
In addition to all the exploring and reporting, I was particularly impressed by the creative ways that Knud brought attention to the Inuit way of life, such as by making the film “Palo’s Wedding”. It is a remarkable film and I encourage everybody out there to watch it! It can be hard to find, although you can buy it on Amazon, and there are a few short clips on youtube. Greenlandic filmmaking lives on, by the way, check out the recent horror flick Qaqqat alanngui. Not to be missed!
Knud’s adventures were not without their challenges (such as being deported from Siberia), but he nonetheless visited Inuit communities throughout the world and brought attention to their relatedness, migration patterns, complex belief system and the remarkable adaptations to polar life. As a reward for all his work Knud was awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Copenhagen and Edinburgh.
In addition to the exhibits on Knud, the Ilulissat Museum had a number of exhibits on Inuit culture in the past and present. A favorite of mine was a special exhibit on how climate change is perceived by the people of Greenland (link). Despite the fact that the arctic is experiencing climate change at about twice the rate of the rest of the world, the majority of Greenlanders see climate change as either a distant threat or of minimal consequence. Doesn’t feel too far from home, to be honest! Check out some of the photos from the exhibit below. My favorite by far is the boy upset that climate change is affecting Christmas.
All in all the Ilulissat Museum was an excellent stop and very educational. Definitely worth a visit if you happen to find yourself in a majestic town of Ilulissat!