Arctic: Culture and Climate Review - warnings from the Circumpolar North
Hunter's Dream (2012) by Andrew Qappik - Inuit: Pangnirtung, Canada
Last week, I had the honour of slipping into the 'Arctic: Culture and Climate' Exhibition at
the British Museum just before it shut its doors due to the newly enforced Tier 3 restrictions in London. I don't take saying the word honour lightly, but this is exactly the feeling that followed my steps as I emerged from the visual and cultural reconstruction of Arctic existence, charting thousands of years of resilience. Images of blazing white landscapes lost in indistinguishable horizons; indigenous artwork; pieces of original clothing and tools all worked together to depict a unique culture that places people as part of a living, breathing ecosystem. This stands in opposition to global capitalist logic which places people and nature in distinct spheres, and has always treated nature as an infinite, and extractable resource. Ecofeminist theory argues that we have been able to sustain the chimera that economic growth is a neutral process that pursues freedom through individual wealth, precisely because the costs of these incursions are relegated to that which has already been devalued - Indigenous people, womxn, peasants, colonised territories and nature.  And in this exhibition we see value in what the global capitalist system has rendered invaluable. But, we also see the perverse and inequitable cost of climate change burdened first on those on the Arctic frontline, whose inter-generational knowledge is becoming increasingly worthless as melting permafrost, rising sea levels, and unstable weather patterns have entirely changed the ecosystem they once knew and understood.
Kivalina, Alaska, 2007 - Brian Adams, Anchorage, Alaska. From the series Disappearing Villages
The Arctic currently has 4 million inhabitants which are located across territories covering Russia, USA, Canada, Denmark / Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.  However, only 10% are indigenous to the region and belong to one or more of the 40 different cultural groups. (Although I refer to the ‘Arctic People’ in this piece, they are not one and the same. I do not seek to essentialise them, this is just for writing practicalities.) Indigenous people’s identities are not bound by colonial notions of nationhood but instead are connected to their land in a way that is ineffable to all non-indigenous people. It is their profound relationship to the environment which forces us to reassess ours.
The exhibition exalts an immediate shift of perspective as your first steps puddle over an atlas of the circumpolar north. My dad (because going to museums with your parents is cool) called me over to another map and remarked how much closer the U.K is placed to the North than he thought. This birds-eye visual creates a rapport, a reminder that we are not that far away even if our experiences in this London concrete jungle couldn't be further apart from those on the frontline. It also places the Arctic at the centre with both its people and its environment simultaneously playing the protagonist in this exhibition’s narrative. It is a tale mixed with enchanting lustre, and deep sadness as it is undergirded by the knowledge that the Arctic is currently the fastest warming region of the world. The exhibition strives to provoke such emotions: it is a global call to arms which exposes a people's adaptability and a sustainable way of life that is almost unimaginable to the highest carbon consuming capitals of the world. Because the real difference, between Arctic culture and the capitals of the world, is that our culture is no longer shaped by the environment surrounding us rather, it is our carbon culture which carves and degenerates the environment.
Whilst I meandered through the multi-faceted and multi-mediad exhibition, I paradoxically experienced a sense of deceleration. Although the differently aged artefacts force you to peruse through huge swathes of time, the way of life that emanates from the walls takes on a slower pace and one that holds a greater affinity to the changing seasons. The exhibition's outstanding feature is undoubtedly the dynamic light sequence that is paired with an arctic seasonal soundscape which transports you away and into the Arctic. You feel an incessant need to keep glancing back at the wall so that you can catch the dark bluey-purple hues blossom into a lightening spring. The seasonal lights remain front of mind due to aesthetic appeal, but also aptly mirrors the relationship of the changing seasons to the Arctic people and how their hunting routine depends on it.
Inupiat Elder Delano Barr talking on climate change
Inupiat Elder Delano Barr, in a 2 minute video, explains how climate change “messed everything up” and how they have had to change the way they think and the way they live. Hunting patterns to create food provisions which usually started in June are now carried out in April/May as the warming temperature means the ice has already melted by that time. The warming climate has forced their culture to become evanescent, a fading footprint amongst the melted snow.
I’ve recently been attending online events on how we can better communicate the problem of climate change - how can we use visual representation and culture to stir people, governments, and the world into action? Of course, this entire exhibition is exactly that, as it paints a historical narrative of adaptability and survival from a circumpolar perspective. But it poignantly does so without the mention of a statistic. There are multiple panels which seek to explain the changing effects of the environment, but it steers clear of numbers because it seeks to draw a much deeper connection to humanity.
It was these tiny two figurines, smaller than the size of my pinky and their explanatory transcript placed below them which I believe performed a perfect kind of climate change imagery in a horrifically blazé, apocalyptic manner. The transcript read:
“After producing significant amounts of art the Dorset people disappeared having failed to cope in a naturally shifting climate and competition for resources with Inuit ancestors”.
In the fell swoop of a single sentence the entire process of a people’s extinction was described, making the impermanence of our seeming permanence jarringly obvious.
What is happening now is not a naturally shifting climate, but one that has been caused by a global capitalist system that benefits off of pre-existing colonial power structures, and that will perpetually seek to expand and encroach on the many for the sake of the few.
Our cultural remnants, artefacts, iphones, TVs, cars, museums, buildings and planes may survive, the question these figurines posed was - will we?
The exhibition is open till the 2nd February (Tier 4 willing) and costs £18 for an adult ticket.
 ed. by Ana Isla , Climate Chaos: Ecofeminism and the Land Question, (Toronto, Canada: INANNA Publications &Education Inc, 2019).
 Amber Lincoln, An introduction to the Arctic (2020) <https://blog.britishmuseum.org/an-introduction-to-the-arctic/> [accessed ].
 Zeke Hausfather, Analysis: Why the new Met Office temperature record shows faster warming since 1970s (2020) <https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-why-the-new-met-office-temperature-record-shows-faster-warming-since-1970s>