Arctic exhibition curator Jago Cooper reflects on the profound impact of climate change on Arctic Peoples and their way of life and what we can learn at this crucial time for the future of our planet.
The Arctic experience of climate change
When everything started changing due to global warming, Oh Boy! That messed everything up.
Delano Barr, Shishmaref, Alaska
In many ways, climate change isn't a scientific problem with a scientific solution, it is a cultural problem with a human solution. Our species alone is currently making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and I firmly believe it will be the ingenuity, determination and resilience of people living today that will save it.
The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate brings the experience of climate change to life. It is an exhibition that is rooted in decades of collaborative work between British Museum curators and colleagues, communities and friends throughout the Circumpolar North. It is only through their generosity and sharing of knowledge that this exhibition is made possible.
Listening to the people who are experiencing the first and strongest impacts of global climate change can help us reflect upon our own plans for the future. It is as much about a mental state of being as it is about behaviour and choices. I began getting properly involved in climate change research in the mid 2000s when doing my PhD. I began reading the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change literature, attending the big international climate change conferences and chatting with the world leading climate specialists during the breaks to find out what they really thought. It is a hard truth to realise that the multiple tipping points in the earth's planetary systems will soon be reached and irrevocably impact upon the delicately balanced and inter-reliant global society in which we live – in simple terms the age of humans is in great peril. However, it is always simple conversations with people already living with the impacts of climate change on a daily basis that have provided me with both the sense of urgency and realism that are required to address the challenges involved. Throughout my work since then, I have actively sought to research, understand and communicate the dynamism, complexity and resilience of human societies.
Eight years ago in my interview for my current job at the British Museum I was asked what exhibition I would like to do if I took up my role. Without hesitation, I said that I would like to do a major exhibition on climate change that focused on the lessons we could learn from the history of the human story. I believe the British Museum is an ideal place to base research into the diverse stories of human survival, adaptation, and resilience. These stories from the past and present can help develop an informed and positive mindset for the future. It is the inspirational stories of Arctic Peoples in this exhibition that give me strength and hope for a resilient future.
In the Arctic, climate change isn't a threat in the distant future, it is the experience of daily life right now. This exhibition is a conversation with Arctic Peoples living in their transforming landscapes. Their views give us an opportunity to change the way we look at the problem and consider solutions together.
The beautiful objects, images and stories in the exhibition translate abstract scientific facts into human experience. The science tells us that the Arctic summer sea ice will have meaningfully disappeared within a generation, that temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on the planet. However, it is Arctic Peoples who frame these challenges in their own way as they experience the land melting beneath their feet and coastal villages being swept away. Their perspective and experience, rooted in millennia of cultural knowledge, enable exhibition visitors to see this changing world through a different lens, to reconsider the basis of their relationship with the environment, and reflect on the positive changes that can still be made.
Often a way of thinking is so ingrained in someone's understanding of the world it is never questioned. However, objects can reveal the hidden assumptions that people make about the world around them. Some of the most iconic objects in the British Museum are a public statement of dominion by individuals over their landscape – monuments that materialise a view of the environment as a set of resources just waiting to be used by those with the power, intelligence and technology to exploit them successfully. This view of the world contrasts with how Arctic Peoples have traditionally viewed the planet. For Arctic Peoples, the environment is a living world, an integrated ecosystem in which humans are just one small, and humble element. This means people have to earn the right to take something from the environment, people aren't entitled to just take what they want.
Arctic Peoples believe that killing an animal isn't a person's right, it is something that is earned, and hunting is perceived as the giving and receiving of gifts. This intricately carved arrow straightener carved from walrus ivory embodies, as with many objects in the exhibition, the values of Arctic Peoples. The person who made this believes they had an obligation to use the animal that gave themselves up to the hunter in a respectful way that justifies their death. The beauty and value of what is made with their body is based upon the skill of the craftsperson to make the most of the gift of life they have been given.
This is why this arrow straightener takes on a deeper meaning and explains the intricately carved engravings upon it depicting how the body of the caribou (reindeer) hunted with the arrow should be properly treated after death. The caribou fawn shape of the object celebrates the vibrancy of the living world it is part of and communicates to whoever is using the arrow straightener the correct way to respectfully be part of a living world. It is this opportunity for the smallest of objects to change people's perspectives that makes this Arctic exhibition so powerful.
One of my favourite objects in the exhibition is the enigmatic Inukshuk, built recently by Piita Irniq from Naujaat, Repulse Bay, Canada. We first started talking to Piita in November 2013 with the ambition to create a material connection between the changing landscapes of the Arctic and London.
An Inukshuk is a stone marker that identifies an important cultural place in the landscape, a seasonal hunting or fishing area. They stand resolute and timeless in the landscape, holding fast whilst the world around them changes. They are a symbol of Inuit resilience that stands in the exhibition to encapsulate the importance of this cultural knowledge passed down through time. Piita came over to London and went down to the Gallagher quarry in Maidstone to pick out the pieces of Kentish ragstone himself, bring them back to the Museum and build this Inukshuk for the exhibition in the conservation studios located just 50 metres from where it now stands. This Inukshuk will be an eternal memory of Piita's contribution, allowing his ideas and views to live on long after the exhibition doors have closed.
It is this sense of time passing and a world rapidly changing that is often most daunting when thinking about the future. All generations in the Arctic are united by the climate challenges that face them and there is a great focus of attention on preparing the next generation for the transformed world they are inheriting.
During the development of this exhibition, the Embassy of Imagination arts initiative in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, were asked to help reflect upon how children in the Arctic face this inherited future. During 2019 and 2020, young artists and knowledge keepers from Kinngait and Pangnirtung in the Arctic created Atigiit, Silapaat a collaborative artwork.
This collection of 10 translucent silapaas, thin outer parkas, were made from fragile Japanese paper and used as a canvas for children to print their reflections on life in a transforming Arctic. The combination of a traditional clothing design similar to gut parkas made for hundreds of years, now created with a new fragile, temporary and non-local material, is a powerful metaphor for a transforming world. In their own words 'this artwork honours the actions and responses to climate change that have long been led by Inuit communities, informing and inspiring the rest of the world'.
We are calling for reciprocal Global action and solidarity during this time of transformation.
Embassy of Imagination, a socially engaged art practice.
This exhibition has only been possible due to the leadership of contributors across the Circumpolar North, the generosity of sponsors and lending institutions around the world, the tireless dedication of Museum colleagues and the visionary commitment of lead curator Dr Amber Lincoln and project curator Dr Jan Peter Laurens Loovers.
Read more blogs from the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, which ran from 20 October 2020 to 21 February 2021.
Lead supporter Citi
Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald
Buy the beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibition. Included in The Times' Best Art Books of the Year 2020.