Queen's professor wins award for Inuit Art History project

Union Gallery

Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellowship given to Norman Verano

Professor Norman Verano in his office.
Photo: 

Throughout his career, Queen’s Art History professor Norman Vorano has been working to shed light on the histories of some of the inaccessible parts of Northern communities.

Recognized for his efforts, Vorano received the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellowship for his work with Inuit artwork and communities, as announced on September 19.

The Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Fellowship celebrates outstanding work done in the social sciences and humanities and is awarded to pieces that speak to four main themes: “Human Rights and Dignity, Responsible Citizenship, Canada in the World and People and their Natural Environment,” according to the foundation’s website.

Vorano’s road to this recognition started in the 1990s when he realized nobody was teaching Inuit art history in southern Canada. Vorano began to pursue his passion for the subject by educating more Canadians on the artwork of northern communities.

His position as the curator of contemporary Inuit art at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa from 2005-2014 furthered this goal. At the museum, Vorano had the opportunity to meet Inuit visitors and hear their stories about the material pieces the museum had on display. This position sparked the idea for his current project that bridges the divide between Indigenous knowledge and museum artifacts. 

Vorano recognized the disconnect between Indigenous communities living in the North and the pieces of their material culture that were taken during colonialism. Currently, these pieces are largely inaccessible to these northern communities because they are solely stored in southern museums. 

Vorano’s project, currently called the Arctic Cultural Heritage Research Network (ACHRN), works to address this inaccessibility and will be focused on user-generated content, or what Vorano calls a “Web 2.0 model.” It will use technology to create an online portal in which Inuit people can access digital museum catalogues to view collections and input their own knowledge on the pieces to be viewed by the public.

This project aims to assist in the ongoing process of reconciliation and allow for the naming, mapping and reclaiming of art and culture that was taken and erased during settler colonialism. Vorano hopes the success of this project will provide a proof of concept that can be expanded and replicated at museums around the world where Inuit art was taken for display during colonial exploitation.

As a recipient of the Fellowship, Professor Vorano received $225,000, which will first be used to set up an advisory committee tasked with determining the aims, governance structure and ethical implications of the project. This stage of the project will seek to determine things like who is able to add to the portal and who it can be shared with, as some may only want their stories available to select communities and individuals.

A portion of the grant will also go towards hardware purchases, and later to creating sites around the Arctic where community members will be able to access the portal, view the collections and participate in creating the user-generated content.

Vorano sees a “general strength in Arctic research at Queen’s,” and the hopes this project will inspire collaboration with the other departments looking at northern communities. He sees a strong link between what the stories in Inuit art pieces can tell viewers and the University’s Arctic environmental research efforts.

Vorano also hopes that in the future, members of Inuit communities will be able to come to Queen’s to further build the reciprocal nature of the project through collaboration and teaching, as the success of the project requires Inuit participants.

Professor Vorano recognizes the “daunting responsibility to now deliver an impact” with this project, but is grateful and “happy that the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation saw the value in the work.”

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