The exhibit “Iñuit Qiñiġaaŋi: Contemporary Inuit Photography” brings Inuit perspectives on modern life in the Arctic to the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. (Kelli Park photo)

As Bowdoin College’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum welcomes visitors into a brand-new, modern space, the curatorial staff has set course for the future with a fresh vision that gives more attention to Indigenous perspectives and modern life in the Arctic.

The relationship between Bowdoin College and the Arctic dates back to 1860, when students and faculty began traveling north to study Arctic cultures and environments. Later, Bowdoin graduates and explorers Robert E. Peary, class of 1877, and Donald B. MacMillan, class of 1898, led historic expeditions to the Arctic.

Peary is reputed to have been the first man to reach the North Pole in 1909, although a rival explorer claimed to have beat him. The architecture of the historic Peary home on Eagle Island, Harpswell, reflects a ship and faces north to symbolize his passion for the Arctic. Peary purchased Eagle Island in 1881 for $200 and is said to have kept his Greenlandic sled dogs on a nearby island.

In 1967, Bowdoin College created the Arctic Museum and, in the 1980s, its Arctic Studies Center was established. The museum staff has known for the past few decades that a new space was needed. In early 2021, after a year’s delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, construction began on the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies, now home to the museum.

“The old space was beautiful and charming in its way, but it was never designed to be a museum space,” said Genevieve “Genny” Lemoine, curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. “It was very exciting to be able to work with the architects and the designers on this space.”

The Center for Arctic Studies is the first commercial construction project in Maine to use mass timber, a pioneering wood-based product that was sourced from Austria. Museum staffers say the building was assembled like “a huge piece of Ikea furniture.” The museum space is climate-controlled, solar-powered, and wheelchair-accessible, unlike the previous facility.

“Iñuit Qiñiġaaŋi” collects work from five Inuit photographers. (Kelli Park photo)

A display of photographs by Brian Adams, curator of the “Iñuit Qiñiġaaŋi” exhibit. (Kelli Park photo)

The space, however, isn’t the only change taking hold.

“People continue to have a very stereotypical view of what it’s like to live in the Arctic,” said Lemoine, whose archaeological research has taken her across the Canadian Arctic and northern Greenland for 30 years. “If we only show them our historic images, they’ll still think that people live year-round in igloos, when, in fact, Inuit culture is a modern culture.”

“They’re working hard to live in the modern world on their own terms and to maintain fundamental aspects of their society — hunting seals and using seal products and getting out on the land when they can, even if they’re working a 9-to-5 job in the community,” said Lemoine. “They’re still Inuit.”

The museum is shifting its narrative to emphasize modern Inuit culture.

“We’ve been moving the museum in this direction for many years,” said Lemoine. “The original exhibits naturally focused on Peary and MacMillan and the work that they did. It had a lot of content about Inuit society, but mostly in relation to their work.”

Although the work of Peary and MacMillan is still a significant part of the museum, the current narrative weaves in information about how contemporary Inuit live traditionally off the water, the ice and the land, while adapting their practices to the changes and challenges of colonialism, modernization and climate change.

Lemoine reveals that one of her favorite objects in the collection is a necklace carved of a single piece of walrus ivory from Greenland. Miriam MacMillan, who explored the Arctic alongside her husband, gave the necklace to the museum long ago, with no information. The beauty of the piece and the skill required to create it are not the only reasons Lemoine calls it a favorite.

“More than 20 years ago now, I was working with some Inuit elders in our collection when I opened the drawer where the necklace was stored and the two women, who were sisters, looked at it and said, ‘Our father made that,'” said Lemoine.

The sisters’ father had worked with MacMillan in the 1920s.

“There we were, working with the descendants in the collection as well. It really exemplifies the continuity of Peary and MacMillan’s long history in some of these communities and our own work in some of these communities,” said Lemoine. “It really nicely tied that together and gave a lot more meaning to this already beautiful object. It’s those kinds of moments that are really the most exciting.”

The “Collections and Recollections” exhibit on the third floor of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. (Kelli Park photo)

Lemoine and Susan Kaplan, director of the museum, recently started an initiative to collect contemporary Inuit photography as a way of centering the perspectives of the Indigenous community. The museum hired Inupiaq photographer Brian Adams to curate a new exhibit and purchased 30 prints with funding from Bowdoin alumni.

The exhibit, “Iñuit Qiñiġaaŋi: Contemporary Inuit Photography,” dismantles stereotypes about the Arctic while showing aspects of modern Inuit life through the eyes of five Inuit photographers: Adams, of Alaska; Jenny Irene Miller, of Alaska; Jennie Williams, of Labrador, Canada; Niore Iqalukjuak, of Nunavut, Canada; and Minik Bidstrip, of Greenland.

“We wanted an Indigenous person to curate it and we wanted a photography expert to curate it, and Brian is both of those things,” said Lemoine. Adams chose the photographers. He was reluctant to include himself, but the curatorial staff insisted. Adams and the other photographers then talked about their work and selected the images that would be included in the exhibit to share an in-depth look at modern life in the Arctic. Attempts to reach Adams for an interview were unsuccessful.

“It’s such a diverse range of photography that really highlights the talent and the different directions that young photographers in the Arctic are taking their work,” said Lemoine. The exhibit will remain in place for one to two years.

Through this new lens, the exhibit offers glimpses into the stories of those whose lives are carved by the north.

“There are modern people living up there and these days, with climate change, they’re facing challenges and problems that they don’t have much control over. … They didn’t create climate change, but they’re among the first people to have to deal with it in a very significant way,” said Lemoine. “I hope it makes people think a little bit about globalization and the interconnectedness of what’s going on today.”

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, go to

Kelli Park pursues her interest in culture as a freelance writer and photographer, teacher of multilingual learners, and part-time faculty at the University of Southern Maine, which recently gave her the opportunity to travel to Greenland as part of the Arctic Education Alliance. She lives in Cundy’s Harbor and seeks out adventures near and far with her son, Kieran.