Guest Post: Interning at the Arctic Museum

Previously we mentioned the recently donated collection of materials belonging to W. Elmer Ekblaw. Today we have a guest post from one of our interns, Alex Brown ’13, who has been working with the collection since September. This summer she is working at the museum as a Gibbons Intern helping us in the early stages of developing an interactive component of our Crocker Land exhibit. Here she describes some of the adventures she and Annie Streetman ’12 had last year while working with the Ekblaw collection.


Alex Brown '13 (R) and Annie Streetman '12 (L) examining the Ekblaw collection

Interning at the Arctic Museum, by Alex Brown, ‘13

In September of 2011 the grandchildren of W. Elmer Ekblaw donated a collection of material relating to the 1913 Crocker Land Expedition. The gift includes journals, papers, books, specimens, and an abundance of artifacts. For the last year, the museum has been studying and processing the collection in preparation for an exhibit planned for 2014. Annie Streetman ’12 and I spent many hours working on the collection during the 2011-12 academic year.

When we first encountered the Ekblaw collection it appeared to consist of boxes of stuff.  Over the last year as we sorted and catalogued we came to know the collection intimately. Our journey began with preliminary inventory and the daily mystery of uncovering the true identity of objects. It felt like a real life game of pictionary.

Knife/razor sharpener

For instance, the object resembling a pencil sharpener turned out to be a device for sharpening razor blades and knives. On the other side of the spectrum, some objects such as the forceps matched modern tools right there in the lab. Every artifact was meticulously examined, catalogued and labeled. Writing condition reports proved a challenge for some artifacts; for instance, how does one describe a box of rocks? (We went with “rocky!”)

Jar with walrus teeth and seal claws

We learned how to distinguish walrus ivory from narwhal ivory, and got into a long debate about whether the objects in a jar were polar bear claws or bird beaks (which look surprisingly similar in a old glass jar). A few hours later our curator, Genny, answered the question for us.

Elmer Ekblaw kept meticulous records of his time in the north. As the most productive scientist on the expedition, he studied geology, botany, ornithology, glaciology, and even anthropology. A combination of scientific and personal objects make up the collection. When going through it, some pieces almost make you feel as if you yourself are preparing for you own expedition north. Other pieces bring the camp at Etah and years spent there to life right there in the lab.

Detail view of the cockpit of an Inughuit model kayak with a harpoon head, line, and drag


Looking at a crack in the skin covering of a model kayak we found ourselves immersed in a discussion of how one would have dealt with such a problem in a full sized kayak in preparation for a walrus hunt.

One of the most surprising artifacts came up while we were examining a group of specimen boxes. We opened and catalogued box after box of eggs. But then we came across one box labeled “young of Tringa cauntus.” Curiously we opened it to find small stained envelopes inside. Not sure of procedure, we called Genny and waited for her to proceed.

Box with envelopes housing young birds

Carefully, Genny opened the first envelope and pulled out a hundred year old baby bird specimen.
Just another day at the Arctic Museum.

A Crocker Land Expedition Who’s Who

A major expedition such as the Crocker Land Expedition (CLE) involves many people at home and in the field, but the official members of the expedition inevitably draw the most attention. We will be writing about a wide variety of people in this blog, but this seems a good time to introduce the expedition members. The full stories of their many adventures on the expedition will emerge as we delve into their papers and journals, but this can serve as a ‘pocket guide’ to the key players

Donald MacMillan in front of Borup Lodge on his return from the Crocker Land trip, spring 1914

Donald Baxter MacMillan, an 1898 graduate of Bowdoin College, became the sole expedition leader after the death of George Borup. In 1913 he abandoned his graduate studies in anthropology at Harvard to devote himself to organizing the expedition. His northern experience at the time included a year with Peary on the 1908-09 North Pole expedition and three summers in Labrador. You can read more about him here.


Ekblaw ready to set out on hike to collect specimens, ca. 1914.

Walter Elmer Ekblaw (1882-1949) was teaching at the University of Illinois when he was appointed geologist and botanist with the CLE. Through his participation the university became one of the sponsors of the expedition (with AMNH and the AGS). He published extensively on his research when he returned home and went on to complete a PhD in Geography at Clark University, where he taught until his death in 1949. His grandchildren recently donated a terrific archive of his Crocker Land papers, photographs and other material to the museum, so you can expect to read a lot more about him in this blog.


Maurice Tanquary posing in his furs at Borup Lodge, ca. 1914.

Maurice Cole Tanquary (1881-1944), also a graduate of the University of Illinois and a friend of Ekblaw’s, taught at Kansas State Agricultural College when he was appointed zoologist for the expedition and returned there after the expedition. His primary area of specialization was entomology, and in later years he became renowned for his work with commercial beekeeping. Tanquary’s family donated his photographs, lantern slides and journals to the museum in 2006.


Harrison Hunt posing in furs, Borup Lodge, ca. 1914.

Harrison J. Hunt (1878-1967), another graduate of Bowdoin College (Class of 1902), was hired as the surgeon/physician for the expedition and was one of the expedition’s most avid hunters. He had a successful medical career in Bangor, Maine on his return home. In 1980 his daughter, Ruth, published a book, North to the Horizon: Arctic Doctor and Hunter, 1912-1917, based on his journals and reminiscences.


Fitzhugh Green on the sea ice during the Crocker Land trip, spring 1914.


Fitzhugh F. Green (1888-1947) was a graduate of the US Naval Academy at Annapolis (1909). He was an Ensign in the US Navy when he was appointed as Civil Engineer for the Crocker Land Expedition. He was also responsible for taking astronomical observations. After this expedition he went on to have a long career with the Navy and became a writer. His books include a biography of Robert E. Peary and an account of his experiences on the Crocker Land Expedition. Green’s papers are held by the Georgetown University Library, and some of his CLE journals are housed at Bowdoin College and the AMNH.

Jerome Allen posing in fur clothing, Borup Lodge, ca. 1914.

Jerome Lee Allen was the electrician and wireless operator for the expedition. He oversaw electrification of the expedition quarters, as well as installation of a telephone system, both ‘firsts’ for such a northerly location. His chief responsibilities were to maintain the batteries that ran the electricity and install and operate a wireless station to both send and receive messages. Had the communication system worked it would have been another, and more important, first. Sadly, for reasons largely beyond his control, his efforts were not rewarded. He went on to work with radio and other technologies for the US Navy, where he had a long and distinguished career.

Jot Small in a sealskin parka, Borup Lodge, ca. 1914.

Jonathan “Jot” Small, a boat-builder and childhood friend of MacMillan’s, was the expedition’s cook and all-round handyman – though everyone agreed he was a much better handyman than cook. He was employed by the Toppan Boat Manufacturing Company and went on a number of MacMillan’s expeditions both before and after Crocker Land. Eventually Small returned to Provincetown, his childhood home, where he opened a boat-building shop.