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Volume about Indigenous Arctic peoples from the British Museum suffers a shortage of Indigenous voices

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: March 27
  • Published March 27

Arctic: Culture and Climate

Amber Lincoln, Jago Cooper, and Jan Peter Laurens Loovers, editors. Thames & Hudson/The British Museum. 304 pages, 2020. $60

’Arctic: Culture and Climate, ’ by Amber Lincoln, Jago Cooper, and Jan Peter Laurens Loovers, editors.

“Arctic: Culture and Climate” was a recent exhibit at the British Museum that is just one of millions of events across the globe at least partially derailed by the pandemic. An examination of the many Indigenous peoples of the northernmost region of the Earth, it explored the history, cultural practices, artifacts, political status, and more of the residents of a remote part of the world that is moving to center stage owing to the impacts of a warming planet. It was a timely presentation, even if the timing proved problematic.

In contrast to the last global pandemic a century ago, however, we live in an age when the internet allows us online access to these exhibits, and when the books published in conjunction with major installations are distributed globally. Hence we have this new volume with the same title as the show, edited by Amber Lincoln, Jago Cooper and Jan Peter Laurens Loovers, curators and employees of the museum. Like the exhibit, it’s a volume that encompasses the entire circumpolar north, and that displays both the the benefits of having the British Museum, as well as a major shortcoming that the longstanding institution still seems unable to overcome.

First the benefits. The British Museum is a storehouse of the world’s cultural heritage, in part owing to England’s one-time occupation of much of it. One can fairly argue that a significant portion of what it holds was illicitly obtained in the course of empire, but the institution’s collection is vast, and its prestige means that other museums around the world, and in particular the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia, contributed to this exhibit.

The results are found on every page of this sprawling book, combining images and text and offering a sense of the human diversity of the Arctic, from the whaling cultures of the Western Hemisphere to the reindeer herders of Europe and Asia. These are Indigenous groups that have adapted to arctic conditions in very different ways based on their available resources and the differing natures of the lands and ice they inhabit. Yet their prehistoric roots converge.

The first half of this book explores the cultures found in the north, comparing and contrasting with extensive illustrations the livelihoods pursued by Arctic peoples. One finds that the Sami people of Scandinavia and northwestern Russia, whose lives are tied to reindeer, face similar challenges as the Inuit who are spread from Alaska to Greenland, and for whom whales rest at the core of their subsistence lifestyle. Hunting tools, clothing, watercraft, sledges and more are discussed, as well as common toys, spiritual tools, artwork, and other items, showing marked similarities and differences among them.

The challenges aren’t limited to survival in forbidding climates. Indigenous peoples across the entirety of the Arctic live under the governance of European, or European-originated, governments that have treated them in varied times with neglect, paternalism, contempt, and occasional respect.

The second half of this book explores the history of inhabitation of the region. Much of what we know prior to the arrival of Europeans is limited to archeological finds and oral histories, but we do know a fair bit. The earliest humans to reach the Arctic did so some 50,000 years ago. And for a species that evolved in tropical jungles, the newcomers were nonetheless able to adapt to a climate that, though warmer at the time than it is now, was still quite cold.

The historical chapters explore how people spread through the Arctic and how archeologists pieced together the process. In the popular imagination, as well as in fact, early settlers hunted woolly mammoths. But they also pursued much smaller game, as diggings in old campsites reveal. Whaling, some might be surprised to learn, came much later. According to an included table, the western Arctic was inhabited 14,000 years ago, but whaling did not commence in earnest until the time of Constantine.

Assorted Indigenous cultures emerged in the Arctic, with different groups supplanting each other over time, either due to ecological shifts or warfare. But the arrival of Europeans brought them all under external rule. Russia moved eastward across Siberia and into North America, Britain came the opposite direction from the opposite side, and Denmark grabbed Greenland. Wars weren’t fought for these lands, but the Native inhabitants weren’t offered a choice in the matter, and violence was frequently committed by both the intruders and by the inhabitants defending themselves.

And here is where we find the problem with this book. While it was produced in conjunction with Indigenous groups, for a book focused on their history and present circumstances, there aren’t many actual Indigenous voices found here. A few essays are included, but the bulk of the writing is by academics. They might know their topics well, but the shortage of perspectives from the very people this book is actually about is alarming.

This is particularly evident in the chapter titled “The art of resilience,” which is authored by Lincoln. Here, readers are introduced to artworks exploring the impact of western incursions into Arctic regions, a story that should be told by the artists themselves. Instead it’s given by the exhibit curator. This is such an obvious shortfalling that one wonders why no one seems to have thought of it.

So we’re left with a good book, but one that should have been much better. A work of this size, involving this much effort, should have been a vehicle to provide people struggling to be heard a chance to present their stories to a broader public. Instead they’re still getting filtered through a museum that already has a longstanding reputation for cultural insensitivity. An opportunity to give voice to people whose lives are being irrevocably altered by climate changes, brought on by the impacts global economics, instead puts them on display. Which is what the British Museum and other institutions were essentially doing a century ago. We need to do better than this.