Although the British Museum, along with many institutions worldwide, remains closed, last month would have meant the opening of their exhibit Arctic: culture and climate, which explores the relationship between circumpolar Indigenous groups and the Arctic, and how climate change is testing their adaptive capabilities and threatening their way of life.
What feels like eons ago now, but was really just late January, Online Editor Jessica MacDonald spoke to lead curator Amber Lincoln to get her take on why this exhibition is so crucial today, how curators have chosen to map the relationship between land and people through Indigenous art, and what it means to talk about the Arctic as a living space.
Unknown Artist Woman’s hat or ládjogahpir, Sámi, Norway. (pre-1919) Wool, horn, cotton and silk
Jessica MacDonald: What was the jumping off-point that prompted the Arctic: culture and climate exhibition at the British Museum?
Amber Lincoln: Years before I came to the museum, the head of the Americas, Jago Cooper—who's actually an archaeologist by training, but works on climate-related issues over long, millennial scale time periods—was interested in talking about climate changes with this depth and cultural perspective in mind. He imagined this exhibition about the Arctic and climate change discussions. Then they hired me. I'm a permanent curator in the museum, but I happen to have a research background in the Arctic. I worked and lived in Alaska for a long time, and worked with Iñupiat and other Indigenous circumpolar people, using museum objects for contemporary Indigenous purposes.
I guess that was the origin story of the exhibition, but in terms of the question of ‘why culture, why climate?’ I think it's one of those instances where many things come together at once. The British Museum has quite a spectacular Arctic collection, and much of it hasn't been on display before. Johnathan King, who was curator here for decades, travelled often up to Iglulik (Igloolik), NU, and worked with people, growing the collection by buying from seamstresses there. We had a good mix of community collaborations, which also included my own research connections, and I think theoretically we really wanted to take this topical issue of global climate change—something that we're all dealing with—and add to that discussion. To think about that as a long-term millennial scale perspective, examining what is different about climate change now versus past examples of climate variability.
Unknown Siberian Artist Ivory model sled with dogs (n.d.)
JM: What is different about climate change now versus past examples of climate variability, and why did you want to think about it in relation to circumpolar Indigenous groups specifically?
AL: Change is often about speed, but also about how people adjust, and how culture plays a role in our response to change. I think those are important perspectives, and I think circumpolar Indigenous peoples offer quite rich perspectives on dealing with change. Certainly in the past 300 years in the circumpolar North there's been quite a bit of social, political and economic change, on top of the elements of weather and temperature variations people deal with. I think these perspectives, both the historical and the culturally-specific perspectives from the North contribute new ideas and new forms of dialogue to this urban discussion of global climate change.
JM: You’ve gathered together a mix of archeological artifacts and contemporary artworks to use for the exhibition, some of which are viewable online now. What is the compositional split between contemporary and historic works, and why do you think having those perspectives represented together is important?
AL: There are many 19th and 20th century objects that are part of museum collecting histories, of European explorers and colonial state governments, historical objects like beautiful clothing, decorated tools, ivory and stone. Then we also have a very deep past with the archeological material. I wanted a lot of different kinds of Indigenous perspectives in this exhibition, and a very rich pathway to this is through Indigenous artists.
We've commissioned three pieces for the exhibition: one is an Inuksuk by Piita Irniq, another is a model carving in mammoth ivory from a Sakha master carver Fedor Markov, and then a third is an art piece that is facilitated by the Embassy of Imagination, the Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, youth collective. They're doing this wonderful thing with youth from Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), NU, and Kinngait to talk about connections between perceptions of climate change, land use, the future. It's drawn on Japanese paper and Inuit garment forms, and it's in process as we speak.
Andrew Qappik There's Another One (2012) Coloured stencil drawing
JM: Beyond commissions, what other examples of contemporary Indigenous art are represented?
AL: We have contemporary art that speaks to many of the themes that we've brought in. There is political art from Joseph Senungetuk, for instance, about whaling and cultural autonomy, exploiting local resources, but there's also Inuit art that shows the economy of form in getting the most expression out of the least movement, the least carving, the least work, the least embellishment, which subtly reiterates the point of getting the most out of what you have. Themes of being efficient with your material, being efficient with your lifestyle and not wasting materials are all beautifully demonstrated by Inuit art.
One of our star pieces is Kenojuak Ashevak's Nunavut - Our Beautiful Land (1992), which is on loan from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. We’re also featuring Andrew Qappik in a piece called There's Another One (2012), an ice-fishing lithograph that really shows how sea ice is used, how important it is and the life underneath ice.
Another contemporary art highlight, and one of my personal favourites, is a beautiful wallhanging by Hatti Akilak called Arctic Foliage (1974) with bright, bright colours, which people sometimes don't imagine the Arctic having if they've never been there. We're really hoping to emphasize an inhabited space, a lived Arctic. It's not just cool polar bears and icebergs. This is an inhabited place. If you haven't been there, this message gets lost sometimes.
Hatti Akilak Arctic Foliage (1974) Felt and wool wall hanging
JM: The British Museum traditionally puts an object on the promotional materials for exhibitions. For this particular exhibition however, you went with a photograph by Kiliii Yuyan that depicts a traditionally-made boat on the ice. Why choose that piece?
AL: That was really exciting for us, [putting a photograph on the cover]. Normally, the poster and all of the promotional materials would be an object, but we really pushed from the very beginning to explain that these objects have to be understood in context. It has to be a very immersive exhibition, because it's much easier to appreciate the ingenuity that comes out of the Arctic when you know what it's like there and when you know what materials are available.
We were really pushing—and I should say that I'm lead curator, but Jaco Cooper is co-curator, as is Peter Louvres, and all three of us were really pushing—to have a photograph. We were going through various options, and when I saw Yuyan’s work, his films, his still photography—he really gets to the warmth of the Arctic, the warmth between people and the love that people really live with. I think his photos are so powerful because he spends a lot of time with people, and it shows. He grew up in the States, he is Chinese American and Indigenous Siberian, so he really brings a wonderful perspective. He brings this real devotion to his work, he spends time with people, and I think northerners really appreciate that. We're so thrilled that he's part of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.