Think of the Arctic and a vast expanse of snow and ice probably comes to mind. The region is not usually known for its art, nor is it famous for its culture, even though it has been inhabited by humans for more than 30,000 years.
But that may be starting to change. A new exhibition opening soon at the British Museum in London marks the most extensive exploration yet of Arctic culture and the indigenous people who live there.
The show is part of a trend: the Arctic has been coming into greater focus in recent years. It is the fastest-warming region on the planet, and the reduction in ice there is making it more accessible to the outside world. It is also the subject of growing attention from countries and companies that want to access its natural resources.
The Arctic encompasses not only the icy Arctic Sea, but also millions of square kilometres of land across North America, Europe and Russia. Eight countries claim land inside the Arctic Circle, and the region is home to dozens of indigenous peoples, including the Inuit in Canada and Greenland, the Sami reindeer herders in Scandinavia and the Sakha pastoralists in Russia.
The exhibition takes an unusual approach to telling the story of the people in the Arctic. By freely combining objects that span from 32,000 years ago to the present day and come from all parts of the region, the show draws out the themes that connect these cultural groups. Resources are extremely scarce, with few trees and plants, so materials such as reindeer antler, walrus ivory, mammoth tusk or whale bone are often carved into useful items like needles or scrapers. No part of an animal goes unused — even seal gut can be transformed to make a waterproof parka.
Curator Amber Lincoln says an “economy of form” unites many of the objects. “There is this real attention to the world, to people’s bodies, to animals’ expressions, that gets translated into the function of these tools and garments,” she says. Many of the works are also very practical, like a warm toddler’s suit made from caribou-fawn fur.
The power of nature is another unifying theme. In a landscape dominated by the seasons — the sun never sets in summer and barely rises in winter — weather and the elements often show up in the art. One mask from the Yupiit in Alaska represents the North Wind and even has a blowing tube to make the sound of the howling gale.
“In the Arctic, the environment that surrounds people is often their main source of life — work, food, wellbeing, social life and art,” says Tatiana Argounova-Low, an adviser on the exhibition and a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. “That’s why they feel changes in the environment much more acutely than people who live elsewhere.”
In Argounova-Low’s hometown in the Russian far east, home to the Sakha people, one of the most visible changes in the environment is the melting permafrost. As the ground softens, surprising things emerge, such as the ivory tusks and bones of mammoths. Ancient humans prized mammoth ivory; many of the oldest items in the exhibition are carved from it, including needles and spears dating back 32,000 years. Today, even though mammoths have been extinct for thousands of years, carvers are using mammoth ivory again.
The great warming of the region — the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the planet — provides a sombre context for many of the items on display. All the Arctic cultures are highly adapted to snow, ice and cold conditions. It’s hard not to look at these items and wonder how long it will be before things such as snow saws or snow beaters (used to get the moisture out of fur clothing) might only appear in museums.
“For centuries, people have adapted and thrived in these ecosystems of ice and snow,” says Lincoln. “We pose the question, if the ice is gone, if the permafrost thaws, what might happen to these diverse cultural groups?”
The historic sweep of the display presents a reminder that this way of life was under threat even before the rapid warming of the Arctic began. Today, about 400,000 indigenous people live in the region, only one-10th of the total population.
Impacted over the centuries by explorers, colonial traders and extractive industries, Arctic people have faced challenge after challenge yet found ways to survive. Perhaps that should give us hope that we can overcome today’s environmental challenges too — while there is still some ice left in the Arctic Sea.
Leslie Hook is the FT’s environment and clean energy correspondent. The Citi exhibition “Arctic: culture and climate” is at the British Museum, London, from October 22 to February 21 2021
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