There were two exhibitions just starting at the British Museum in March 2020 when the UK went into its first lockdown in response to Covid-19. One was Tantra and I read the exhibition guide for that last year. The other was Arctic Culture and Climate.
The circumpolar North has been inhabited for nearly 30,000 years. The exhibition explored this history and the ways the peoples of the Arctic have adapted to their environment, as well as examining the impacts of climate change happening now and how Arctic peoples are responding.
It starts with looking at how Arctic peoples in the past and now have arranged their lives to work with the seasons and the different weather and conditions that resulted. This involved moving with herds of reindeer or occupying specific sites only for short periods in the year. Some activities were only performed in certain seasons and some animals only hunting at certain times. The book then looks at the ways Arctic peoples used the materials available to them to produce clothes, tools and vehicles. Particularly in terms of clothes and the use of sealskin and furs the Arctic peoples were technologically sophisticated at an early age. When the Vikings reached these lands they found their clothes and tools quite inadequate.
There is consideration of the evidence for pre-historic settlement of the Arctic. Much is considered to be underwater in the Bering Strait – once a land bridge between Russia and the Americas but submerged at the end of the Ice Age. It’s also worth noting that many recent archeological finds are the result of commercial development of the sites and this has happened less in the very far North. Some have been found and the material that has been discovered is challenging the colonial view of the peoples of the circumpolar North. Whether people started in the east, in Siberia, and moved west is not clear. The finds in north-east Russia appear to be oldest, but the evidence is far from complete. Regardless, there was much communication and trade around the arctic circle, much more so than there was north to south.There is a discussion of the contact between the Arctic and the southern peoples from the sixteenth century onwards and the impacts of trade and colonization.
Lastly, the exhibition looked at the lives of the peoples of the circumpolar North as they are today. It talks about indigenous liberation movements and the campaign for rights to land and traditional hunting practices. It also looks at how traditional technologies have incorporated modern materials. The impact of climate change is particularly felt by the Arctic peoples as they are closest to some of the most dramatic effects. Loss of ice and rising sea levels affect the animal populations, hunting techniques and the land that settlements are built on. Over the last 30,000 years, there have been several periods of warming and cooling which have caused great change in the lives of the peoples living through them and it is hard from this distance to know how well people adapted. It seems that modern peoples have more ability to know what it is happening, but less flexibility to change how we live.
The book itself is lovely: a hardback book with a white cover and some gorgeous photographs of objects and landscapes. In amongst the pages covering the exhibition artifacts are essays looking at art, or specific clothes-making techniques, or one town’s experience of the effects of climate change. It’s a shame I missed the exhibition as this book made me wish I’d seen it.