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  • Ettienne LeFebre

Arvia’juaq National Historic Site: Spreading Inuit Cultural History Virtually

This post is part of a series of case studies investigating innovation in historic site interpretation. The case studies explore new technologies, advanced approaches to storytelling, community engagement, and multi-sensory experiential learning. Research and writing for the series was completed by Ettienne LeFebre during her 2023 summer internship with Groundwork, with contributions and oversight by Gretchen Hilyard Boyce.


Arvia’juaq National Historic Site, also referred to as Sentry Island, is located in Nunavut, Canada near the community of Arviat in the Canadian Arctic. The cultural landscape represents the cultural history of the Caribou Inuit people, particularly the Pâdlimiut Inuit in Arviat. The interpretation of the site highlights the relationship between the Caribou Inuit and the land, its resources, and the cultural knowledge associated with it. Although Arvia’juaq Island is a significant historic site in Canada, it is located in the remote Canadian Arctic and has low visitation. Arvia’juaq’s lack of accessibility leads to low public awareness about the site’s Inuit and First Nations history and culture, an underrepresented community that lacks visibility in traditional historic scholarship.


Dawson et al, Map of Arviat and Arvia’juaq National Historic Site, 2018.

The creation of a panoramic virtual tour by University of Calgary Masters student Cecilia Porter, in collaboration with the Arviat Caribou Inuit community, addressed issues of accessibility in a technology-driven and community-focused way. While the Arvia’juaq National Historic Site virtual tour exemplifies how online tools can be utilized to increase public awareness about a remote historic site, it also demonstrates the innovative ways in which public historians can collaborate with and aid the communities whose history is being interpreted.


Porter and her collaborators constructed the Arvia’juaq tour to showcase both the physical environment and cultural knowledge of the site. The tour offers an interactive slideshow of panoramic images of various locations on the island, which gives users a 360-degree overview of the island and its topography. Each panorama has buttons users can click to initiate a pop-up with text about different cultural and archaeological features of the islands, oral history transcriptions, and videos of Arviat community elders describing different features. This function allows users to gain context for the images they are viewing. The images were created using drones and pole-mounted digital SLR cameras. The images themselves offer a unique insight into the climate of the island, as the beginning images were shot under an overcast, foggy sky while later images were shot under a clear sky. Although the tours’ creators were initially concerned that the overcast images were not usable, consultation with designers affirmed that these images created interesting and mysterious visuals for the tour. Additionally, the diversity of weather indicates to virtual tourists that Arvia’juaq is a dynamic, changing environment situated in the Arctic, not simply a static, scenic picture.


University of Calgary, Arvia’juaq tour panorama one, https://www.aina.ucalgary.ca//arviajuaq/Tour.html.

The main interpretive strategy of the Arvia’juaq virtual tour centers on its involvement and encouragement of community participation in the project. Local Inuit elders and knowledge-holders were consulted alongside historians and archaeologists to provide content and context for the tour. All of the videos on the tour feature Arviat community members teaching the history of the site, some in both English and Inuktitut, the language of the Caribou Inuit. Community members explored early versions of the tour and gave their own suggestions for improvement. Arviat schoolchildren also participated in the development of the tour by designing the buttons used to navigate different functions of the tour. This design choice not only gave the tour a more local visual aesthetic, but also ensured close participation and community ownership in the historic interpretation of their culture. The tour is currently utilized by local Arviat schools to aid Inuit children in learning their own culture and language, as well as by community elders who may not be able to physically access this important cultural site. Tour developers ensured that the tour could be downloaded to mobile devices, which enabled Arctic communities with poor internet reception to access the tour.


University of Calgary, Arvia’juaq tour panorama thirteen, https://www.aina.ucalgary.ca//arviajuaq/Tour.html.

The Arvia’juaq virtual tour is not only an outstanding example of the ways virtual panoramic tours can bring more engaging visibility to less accessible historic sites, but also how these tours can be co-created and utilized by the communities whose history and culture is being interpreted. The community collaboration sets the Arvia’juaq Historic Site panoramic tour apart from other virtual tours, and brings increased awareness to the history of the site for both visitors and the current contemporary peoples of the region. Despite some slight technological deficiencies, the tour exhibits the technological and interpretive potential of the community-driven strategies Porter and collaborators utilized to create the tour.



About the Author

Ettienne LeFebre is currently completing her Master’s degree in Public History at Sacramento State University, with a focus in historic preservation and cultural resources management. Her research centers around the diversification of historic resources, increasing public interest and engagement at historic sites, and the preservation of intangible heritage. She specializes in California and Southwestern U.S. history, and aims to preserve historic resources related to the complex and diverse histories of these regions for the benefit of contemporary communities. In her free time she enjoys hiking along the American River, reading, creative writing, and exploring Sacramento’s incredible food scene.


References


“Arvia’juaq National Historic Site.” University of Calgary. Accessed July 10, 2023. https://www.aina.ucalgary.ca//arviajuaq/Tour.html.


Dawson, Peter C., et al. “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveler.” Études/Inuit/Studies 42, no. 1 (2018): 243-268. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26775768.


Directory of Federal Heritage Designations. “Arvia’juaq and Qikiqtaarjuk National Historic Site of Canada.” Parks Canada. Accessed July 10, 2023. https://www.pc.gc.ca/apps/dfhd/page_nhs_eng.aspx?id=836&i=58771.

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