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NORRIS: While the weather is downright sultry in Houston, the Menil Collection has a cool exhibit. It's about ancient Arctic cultures.

NPR's Wade Goodwin checked it out and found a rare display of artifacts from a place that's not well known.

WADE GOODWIN: When you picture archeologists hard at work in some far flung dig, you probably imagine the deserts of the Middle East or the ruins of South America or the Great Savannah in Africa. But in the early 1950s, archeologist and anthropologist Ted Carpenter created a unique trail of discovery by going alone to the Canadian Arctic to live with a family of Inuit hunters.

Mr. SEAN MOONEY (Curator, "Upside Down," Menil Collection): Going there was nothing and just surviving on the land with an Arctic family. And he wintered in Arctic Canada in 1951, '52, during a period of extreme famine.

GOODWYN: Curator Sean Mooney helped Carpenter create the show "Upside Down," staged first at the Musee du quai Branly in Paris and now at the Menil in Houston. The show exists inside a lovely recreation of Arctic color, light and space.

Mr. MOONEY: In mind, the Menil installation is a bit more successful in creating that sort of simple, clean, white environment.

GOODWYN: In winter, the horizon recedes, Carpenter wrote about life in the Canadian Arctic. There is no perspective, no outline, nothing the eye can cling to - a land without bottom or edge.

Ms. KRISTINA VAN DYKE (Curator, Collections and Research, Menil Collection): We first came and knocked down all the walls. And then we had to build the floor up.

GOODWYN: Kristina Van Dyke is the curator for collections and research at the Menil.

Ms. VAN DYKE: So when you enter the space, what you see is just this vast white space, and the white floor actually goes all the way to the edge of the wall and starts to curve up towards the wall.

GOODWYN: Part of the exhibition is a circular maze of cases of ancient Arctic figures, ornaments, and tools made from walrus ivory, bone, wood and metal. Artifacts from Dorset, Ekven, Ipiutak and other Old Bering Sea cultures are displayed.

Ms. VAN DYKE: There's a Maori pendant. The attachment to the pendant is actually on the figure's feet. So when the object is hung on a necklace, the pendant hangs facing down - upside down - and that you as a wearer actually bring it up. You put it in your hand and bring it up to look at it, in order to orient it right side up.

GOODWYN: Thus the exhibition's name: "Upside Down." Many of these artifacts are transformative. Van Dyke says these pieces were not carved to be displayed on a table or inside a case, but to be handled, twisted and turned.

Ms. VAN DYKE: If you look down on the object, you see what looks like a human figure with the face turned up and arms extended. Now, if you look at the object again in profile, from another angle, you see what looks like a seal with seal flippers. And this is a really important idea, it goes back to this idea of imminence, one thing can change into another.

(Soundbite of Eskimos chanting)

GOODWYN: As beautiful and unique as the ancient artifacts are, the exhibition space itself gives them a run for their money. Speakers hanging from the ceiling move sounds of the Arctic wind and Eskimo chants in waves across the large and largely empty white space. Visitors have to put on booties or take off their shoes so as not to scuff the pristine white floor. As you approach a far wall, the floor, almost undetected, becomes a wall of ceremonial dance masks floating shadowless in space.

Ms. VAN DYKE: And to me, this is the most effective and beautiful part of Doug's installation, this corner. Because it's just - you're, like you're having almost like an out of body experience; and you really can't tell where one thing starts and another ends.

GOODWYN: The exhibition is ending on a sad note, though. Ted Carpenter died July 1st at the age of 88 in Southampton, New York. He leaves behind a collection of ancient artifacts and intellectual insights into the nature of these Arctic tribes.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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