Arctic: Culture and Climate

Arctic: Culture and Climate


Nearly 400,000 Indigenous Peoples live within the shrinking Circumpolar region, divided between eight nations, including the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Greenland (which is a Realm of Denmark). They comprise forty different ethnic groups in the Circumpolar North, including Inuit, Aleut, Alutit, Sakha and Sámi, and each has its own culture and language, which can be broken down into four basic families, including Uralic, a vast language branch that includes Finnish and Hungarian, as well as influences from the Manchu-Tungus language family and Turkic. 

This exhibition aims to show their diversity and the hardships these peoples have endured over the years, in one of the most inhospitable parts of the planet, that is changing at an alarming rate. Sea ice that has been frozen in place for 100,000 years, will be gone in the next fifty. The melting Arctic ice will impact not only the people of the region, but on a global scale, sea levels will rise at an unprecedented rate. Currently, Arctic People experience the most extreme annual variation in temperature on the planet, with yearly ranges from -40°C to +30°C. Scientists agree that by 2050, annual temperatures will have risen by 4°C, while, only two years ago, mid-winter temperatures at the North Pole were above zero, resulting in the melting of ice on a massive scale. 

Much of this exhibition is about the peoples and their culture and how they have survived over the years, with reference to clothing, hunting, fishing, whaling, herding, trading and food. The artefacts that have been assembled are stunning in their craftsmanship, ingenuity, colour and materials. Clothing is of paramount importance, as it is a matter of survival, literally life and death in temperatures that were historically far lower than they are today. The exhibition has been designed by Opera Amsterdam, who have captured the Arctic light and bottled it. All the way down one side of the gallery and around a cove at the end, runs a sky backing, with a sloping white shelf ground row and a dead straight horizon. There is an almost imperceptible light-change, from dark blue to milky dawn, as the Arctic year unfolds, with each month lasting roughly 2 minutes. Beyond the ice-shelf can be heard the sounds of barking dogs, cracking ice, howling winds, snowmobiles whizzing past, and the hollow sound of absolutely nothing. This was the same design company that gave us the absorbing and the fascinating I Am Ashurbanipal at the BM a couple of years ago. Costumes and other artifacts made over a hundred years ago are displayed in a most dramatic fashion against the skyline, and show the extraordinary ingenuity with which they were made, using virtually every part of the animal that had been tracked and killed. Some costumes and boots are made of a variety of animal parts, including sealskin, sinew, reindeer, caribou and beaver fur, smoked moose-hide, reindeer neck-hair, sea mammal gut, salmon skin, as well as wool, cotton, plastic, glass beads, and beach grass. Everything is used, including sails made of sea-mammal intestine and sinew from two hundred years ago, or an ice scratcher from the 1860s made of pine, walrus ivory, seal claws and a tanned hide thong. There are extraordinary objects and some of the more decorative pieces are sublime in their simplicity, with a supremely elegant Aleut wooden kayak from the 1800s. 

Dotted around the exhibition space are photo blow-ups and video screens showing various activities involving rituals, a sledge ride and the manufacture of garments, including a pair of boots called nulea kamiit, made from a delicate sealskin, that are not worn for hunting or on long journeys, but are kept as decorative footwear for special occasions. At the time of the summer solstice in June, the people who live in the region of Sakha, in northeastern Russia, celebrate the festival of yhyakh, the awakening of the environment after the long winter, which includes singing, dancing, games and horse racing. An exquisite model of the summer festival, carved out of mammoth ivory around the middle of the nineteenth century, is mirrored by a contemporary piece, also intricately carved from mammoth tusks by a Sakha artist, Fedor Markov. Ivory from woolly mammoths is becoming more available as Arctic ground melts and reveals these giant mammals. There is an inflatable, waterproof sealskin whaling suit made in the early 1800s, into which a brave Kalaallit fisherman would climb, before jumping on the back of a sleeping whale from a boat with his harpoon. There is a mixture of ancient artifacts and items of clothing with their modern equivalents, and this underlines the notion that many of these skills have not been lost. What we are losing, however, is the Arctic itself, and there is a most sobering animated map at the entrance to the exhibition displaying how much of the ice we have lost, and how much more we are going to lose in the coming years, unless mankind does something drastic.

Don Grant

British Museum

Until 21 February 2021

Admission £18

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