Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Visit the Greenland National Museum, Where the Past Is Still Delightfully Present

Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, is packed with attractions: cafes and boutiques, monuments and historical sites, churches and cultural centres. But if there’s one point of interest you absolutely must experience, it’s Nunatta Katersugaasivia Allagaateqarfialu—the Greenland National Museum.
Nuuk museum carved tupilait

© Dennis Minty

Carved representations of tupilait on display at the Greenland National Museum in Nuuk. Today such carvings make for popular collectibles.

Sprawling across a complex of heritage buildings in the charming Old Colonial Harbour district, the Greenland National Museum is a celebration of the island’s 4,500-year-old human past, as well as its enduring, distinctive Inuit lifeways.

The setting alone is impressive: Danish-style historic structures, perched on the waterfront overlooking the sweeping Nuup Kangerlua fjord. The museum complex is the result of extensive restoration work, especially on the old Royal Greenland Trading warehouse (once the only concrete building in Greenland), in preparation for the opening of the museum in 1978.

Museum buildings left along Nuuk waterfront

© Dennis Minty

The Greenland National Museum (left) is a wonderful addition to the colourful Nuuk waterfront.

Inside the museum, wonders abound: permanent collections and temporary exhibitions showcasing the geology, natural history, archaeology, material traditions, arts, and evolution of Kalaallit culture.

Highlights? Well, there’s the oldest intact skin boat in the world, the Peary Land Umiaq, dating from 1470. There are displays on traditional Inuit dress, highlighting the island’s assortment of regional clothing styles. There are interactive features, such as a touch exhibit where you can feel the fur and bones of an array of Greenlandic creatures. There’s a compelling—and surprisingly non-paternalistic—black and white film highlighting Greenlandic culture in the 1940s.

Nuuk museum kayaks skin boats

© Dennis Minty

Kayaking and boating remain important facets of Inuit culture today.

Nuuk National Museum exhibit traditional Greenlandic beading

© Dennis Minty

Beautiful and intricate beadwork is a quintessential part of Greenlandic women's regalia.

And especially, there are the world-famous Qilakitsoq mummies. Nestled in a discrete, darkened alcove, the mummies are three women and a six-month-old child who died in the fifteenth century near the present-day community of Uummannaq. Environmental conditions freeze-dried their bodies, preserving them in a poignantly lifelike state.

Since their discovery in 1972 these mummies have enlightened us about ancient Inuit life, including what they wore, what beauty practices they held (the women had facial tattoos, a practice that continues into today), what they ate, and their state of health. Perhaps just as importantly, the mummies stir the emotions of anyone who views them, inspiring an intense sense of connection to the Arctic past.

Qilakitsoq Greenland

© Dennis Minty

Qilakitsoq, Greenland where the mummies were found has become a deeply respected site.

As valuable as the National Museum is to Greenland’s history, its function is also political. With the introduction of Home Rule in 1979, one of the first responsibilities ceded to Greenland by Denmark was over its cultural heritage preservation. In 1982, the museum began reclaiming items removed during the colonial era. Since then, it has received roughly 35,000 repatriated artifacts, mostly from the Danish National Museum.

After you’ve spent an hour or two (or three or four) here, be sure to exit through the gift shop, perusing the postcards and excellent books about Greenland, many available in English and some in French. And, be sure to tour the smaller structures in the museum complex, including the restocked cooper's workshop and the display of whale-blubber vats and presses.

About the Author

Aaron Spitzer

Aaron Spitzer

Historian, Political Scientist, Journalist

For more than twenty years, Aaron has obsessively explored, studied, documented—and yammered about—the world’s polar places.

For a decade he ran Up Here, the journal of Canada’s north, which in 2010 was named the country’s best magazine. Before that, Aaron edited Canada’s northernmost paper (Nunatsiaq News), the world’s southernmost paper (Antarctic Sun), and the highest-circulation paper in the Alaskan “Bush” (Tundra Drums).

Aaron recently left Arctic journalism for Arctic academia. He earned a master’s degree in Northern Studies at the University of Alaska in 2015, and is now working on his Ph.D. at the University of Bergen, Norway, where he examines the opportunities and challenges of Indigenous governance in the circumpolar world.

Join Aaron Spitzer on: