Home Science British Museum exhibition exhibits how Arctic tradition is underneath risk

British Museum exhibition exhibits how Arctic tradition is underneath risk


An exhibition at the British Museum explores Arctic culture and climate change

A lady views the work Kaktovik, Alaska, US by Brian Adams, that includes on the Arctic: Tradition and Local weather exhibition on the British Museum

NEIL HALL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

An animated globe on the wall exhibits a stunning, beneficiant white snow cap over the North Pole and the Arctic in 1979 that shrinks, then shrinks and shrinks once more till by 2100 it’s a mere fingerprint, skimming the highest of Greenland and the farthest tip of the Canadian archipelago.

This apocalyptic introduction greets guests firstly of the British Museum’s newest exhibition, Arctic: Tradition and Local weather. It’s a clear and sobering reminder of the opposite imminent emergency we face, however this exhibition is extra in regards to the hope present in human resilience and adaptation, and cultural change within the face of catastrophe.

There’s one other message, too, for a world constrained by covid-19 and more and more mediated by screens. After scant contact with the surface world for months, the present reminds guests that they’re nonetheless primarily bodily beings – beings with the facility to destroy the planet as a lot as to cherish it.


At present, practically 400,000 Indigenous Individuals nonetheless stay throughout the Arctic. Over the previous 30,000 years, their ancestors survived excessive and quickly altering circumstances, together with the top of the final glacial most and the results of colonialism.

Amber Lincoln, the exhibition’s lead curator on the British Museum, desires guests to come back away with a recent appreciation for the individuals who stay within the Arctic and for his or her tales – going past the statistics to lives which can be being affected by local weather change.

The present’s historic artefacts, artworks, starkly stunning images and immersive movies mix seamlessly to inform their tales. All that is set towards a really efficient mild and soundscape, which creates the altering mild and sound of the Arctic yr – every month lasts 2 minutes and fades into the following so the scene seems to be in a state of fixed change.

When the Arctic shrinks

Indigenous communities are discovered throughout the Arctic, from the northern reaches of Scandinavia and Siberia to Greenland and the northern vistas of Canada and Alaska. Their lifestyle now faces even higher upheaval because the Arctic has misplaced 75 per cent of its sea ice up to now 50 years, and the permafrost that acts as bedrock has began to soften.

One picture exhibits an underground ice cellar deep within the permafrost, which is utilized by the Inupiat of northern Alaska to protect whale meat. As soon as the permafrost melts, such underground fridges could not be out there.

Elsewhere, a 19th-century belt, a knife and hanging baggage for amulets and tobacco that might have belonged to reindeer herders such because the Khanty or Nenets of Russia are springboards to speak in regards to the much less anticipated results of local weather change on the area. It isn’t solely shrinking Arctic ecosystems: in 2016, some 2350 reindeer on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia died after consuming anthrax spores launched by the melting permafrost.

Even probably the most stunning displays – a commissioned work by Sakha artist Fedor Markow to indicate the spring solstice celebrations of the Sakha individuals of north-east Russia – resonates with the theme of adjusting climate and its significance within the Arctic.

The miniature mannequin, drawing on conventional carvings, is exquisitely chiselled from mammoth ivory (with particular permission, in fact). Ivory from woolly mammoths is changing into extra out there as Arctic floor melts and releases its frozen treasures.

Most hanging is the unbelievable sustainability and respect for nature of the communities – one thing lengthy misplaced elsewhere on the earth. Whereas caribou, walruses, seals and whales are nonetheless hunted, each scrap of flesh, bone, baleen, sinew and pores and skin is used for one thing.

An astonishing whaling swimsuit that belonged to a Kalaallit hunter in Greenland within the early 19th century – the one one among its type – exhibits what individuals might do with sealskin. Waterproof and inflatable, it could have supplied heat and buoyancy to the wearer, leaping from his boat straight onto a sleeping whale to harpoon it, in line with the caption.

One other sustainable spotlight is a bag fabricated from fish pores and skin. As Lincoln asks: “Who would have thought salmon pores and skin could possibly be so sturdy and exquisite?”

Arctic: Tradition and Local weather is a superb exhibition, however a few of my enjoyment comes from a uncommon alternative to expertise the great corporeality of life unmediated by a display screen. For a short time, I might really feel one thing of Arctic life, by way of the sounds of an ice-bound world, mild like nowhere else – and simply marvel at some extremely intelligent garments common from sealskin and fur.

The exhibition has clear classes in regards to the mindset of individuals working with nature: every part, from animals to the ice itself, turns into a dwelling, linked a part of the every day world, not a separated-off space of entitlement and exploitation.

In a world the place a lot human expertise has been pressured on-line, such exhibits are the extra useful for reminding us about our bodily nature and that there’s a actual world to combat for.

Shaoni Bhattacharya is a advisor for New Scientist primarily based in London

Arctic: Culture and Climate  is on the British Museum from 22 October 2020 to 21 February 2021

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