A Unique Donation

Our librarian and archivist Ashlynn Prasad on an exciting new donation. 

Often a donation to the archives contains items that relate to one subject. For the VMM this is particularly true because our collecting focus is maritime and Arctic material. We recently received a donation that deviates from this norm in a beautiful way. It relates to maritime exploration in the Arctic, but it also tells a story of an artistic and thoughtful young man.

Pamela Middleton and Deborah Kirk recently donated the Arthur Ernest Emmerson collection. Arthur Emmerson was their uncle. They never met him because he was lost at sea at the age of 32, but the family kept his records and cared for them over the years.

What makes this collection so special is that Emmerson was a prolific writer of poems, prose, articles and even songs. The collection includes much of this work. There are even records of his ideas for inventions and patents he applied for. 

As I began to process the material I wondered if he might have become famous for one of his inventions or for his writing if he hadn’t been lost at sea at such a young age. And I pictured him settling in below deck to write his poems or stories or maybe perform one of his songs for his ship mates. Did he bring a typewriter along with him? Did he travel with blank sheet music?

typed out poem image
An Inuit woman and a white man in 1940s
sheet music

The collection includes material related to Emmerson’s maritime career that began when he enlisted in the Merchant Marines at the age of 19 in 1942. He worked on various ships as a mess man throughout the 1940s and eventually becoming a radio operator for the Department of Transport. This job took him all over the world with stops in China, the Philippines, Poland, Norway, England and more. 

One of his most interesting stints of work took place in the hamlet of Kugluktuk, then known as Coppermine, in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. During Emmerson’s time in this area, he wrote letters to his family describing his experiences. He also took several photographs of the area and the Indigenous people who lived there. These letters and photographs were part of the collection donated to the VMM.

The photos Emmerson took are exceptional as well. Photos of Indigenous people taken by settlers are not uncommon. But these photos are captioned with the names—the real names—of the Indigenous people. And Emmerson did his best to get the Indigenous language spelling right. This is not common.

We are pleased to be entrusted with the care of the Arthur Ernest Emmerson collection, a well-preserved and carefully organized collection of important historical materials. They chronicle an important time in the Arctic and provide a glimpse into the life of a remarkable young adventurer.

We hope to make this collection available to the public later this year.

Processing collections takes time and resources. Consider making a donation to help us in our efforts.

All images on this page are from the VMM collections.