Given the huge amount of land that the Arctic covers, it’s a wonder we know so little about it. People have lived there for 30,000 years, yet it wasn’t until 1909 that the first person reached the North Pole (no, not Robert Perry, but his partner on the expedition, the Black explorer Matthew Henson, recently the subject of a show at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery). A new exhibition at the British Museum explores the rich history of the Arctic’s frozen landscapes and its indigenous communities as well as the threat of climate change, clear as day for populations accustomed to spending their lives on solid ice.
Four million people live in the Arctic, which consists of six states along the Arctic Ocean—parts of Russia, the Nordic countries, Canada, and the U.S. The Citi exhibition “Arctic: Culture and Climate,” on view at the British Museum through February 21, displays objects from more than 40 indigenous groups, including the Nenets of Russia, the Sami of Northern Europe, and the Inupiat of Alaska. From the reindeer-herding Dolgans of Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula, we see an animal hide decorated with glass beads, ivory buttons, and brass chains—functional art to be passed down through generations. A sketch by 19th-century British explorer G. F. Lyon, on loan from the Russian Academy of Sciences, offers a look inside an Inuit snow hut on Winter Island, Canada, complete with red curtains on the windows, a crowded bookshelf, and a fireplace. A mask symbolizing the north wind, made by the Yupiit people of western Alaska, recalls their age-old tradition of honoring the winds that guide their hunts. There are also sleds and umiaks, mammoth-ivory scrapers, kayaking mitts, walrus-bone harpoons, and modern refitted snowmobiles.
What unifies these diverse Arctic communities is the extreme environment they share—subzero temperatures, whole months of nighttime, sunlight bouncing blindingly off white snow—and its slow change over time. “Arctic indigenous peoples experienced climate shifts that gradually took place over hundreds if not thousands of years,” says project curator Peter Loovers. “Thirty-two thousand years ago, there was a specific emphasis on mammoth hunting. Around 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, there came a shift to polar bear, caribou, and bison hunting, the domestication of dogs, and fishing. These gradual shifts are in stark contrast with the current climate change that alters the environment in a generation or two.” He adds, “By 2100, there will hardly be any summer sea ice left in the Arctic. We want to juxtapose this idea of climate shifts versus climate changes.” Along with the ice, a way of life is in danger of melting away—a threat made especially real by an exhibition that transports you straight north. —Julia Vitale