The British Museum's ‘Arctic: Culture and Climate’ exhibition prompts Clive Aslet to discover how the indigenous life and culture of the northern polar region have been shaped by Earth’s most extreme and dramatically changing climate.
Temperatures in the Arctic range from more than 30˚C in summer, when the sun never sinks below the horizon, to the abominable cold of winter, when day never breaks. The British Museum’s new exhibition, ‘Arctic: Culture and Climate’, explores the life of the people who live with such extreme seasonality, at a time when the landscape of their existence is threatened by climate change. Over this celebration of a largely traditional culture hangs a sense of impending doom.
Yet it is not entirely without hope. Although humans have managed to craft a life in the Arctic for 30,000 years, it was never easy and these resilient folk have developed an astonishing capacity to adapt. Let’s pray this won’t desert them in the future.
Historically, the materials available to Inuit and other ethnic groups were limited, but how ingenious they were in using them! Seal skin can be scraped, air-dried, trampled (to soften it) and made into boots, bags or rein-deer saddles, the skin of small seals used for mitts. Fur from every available source — Arctic fox, wolverine, fox, sable, beaver, squirrel, dog — is pressed into service against the cold.
Beach grass was knitted to form slippers. Horsehair was used to stitch birch bark. In the Stone Age, needles were fashioned from mammoth tusks. Such prehistoric artefacts have been kept in a prime state of preservation by the permafrost. Seal intestines can be turned into waterproof clothing.
In the Tsarist period, Alutiiq women in Alaska sewed ones in the style of Russian officers’ caped great coats to sell to employees of the Russian-American Company, because their husbands, who would normally have brought food, were compelled to act as guides for long periods; those left in the village would have starved without things to sell.
Living in a monochromic region, these people love colour. Jackets can be scarlet or navy blue, the dyes presumably having been bought from European traders. Professional Inuit seamstresses applied tiny patches of sealskin to the trim of fancy boots. Winter coats are decorated with pieces of fur, as well as felt, beads and metal ornaments. Reindeer harnesses could be decorated with patterned beading and ivory. Shamans had their own elaborate costumes and masks, as well as votive figures.
Reindeer and caribou are essential to life in the Arctic. Not only do they provide food and leather, but they populate the imagination. Hunting of caribou mainly takes place in the autumn and, before the invention of the rifle, was a communal activity. Tempted into specially prepared pastures, the wild reindeer were driven by women and children of the village towards men armed with arrows and spears, each weapon marked with the name of the hunter to establish who could take what after the kill.
No part of an animal was wasted; after the meat had been butchered, skin, sinew and bone were all utilised. Bone could be carved or incised — perhaps to create figures of appealing simplicity that seem immanent with the spare shapes of the landscape. It could also serve as the handle to a blade or the pointed tip of a harpoon.
One of many superb photographs on display shows an Inuit woman preparing muktuk, blocks of frozen whale skin and blubber that lie around the snow at her feet like enormous Liquorice Allsorts. That tradition continues, as does the study of animal behaviour to foretell the weather.
Until his death in 1992, the artist Pudlo Pudlat, from Cape Dorset, recorded the wildlife that he knew in pictures such as Loons and Seal in Ocean Swell. In others, he depicted its fate at the hands of man: a military helicopter flying a walrus, a seal and a musk ox to a new location as part of a programme by the Canadian government to move indigenous people out of sensitive locations. For the Arctic is changing, of course. Local people now work in tourism and the oil industry. Transport is provided by quad bikes rather than reindeer sleds.
One exhibit is a snowmobile that has been customised with a reindeer fur saddle and a broken windscreen patched with gut. These are resourceful people, who have always succeeded in adapting to the harsh conditions presented by the extremes of Nature and the sometimes heartless intervention by other humans. Long may they continue to do so.
‘Arctic: Culture and Climate’ is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until February 21, 2021 — www.britishmuseum.org