Rich Cultures At Risk From Climate Change: A Chilling Exhibition At The British Museum

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
September 30, 2023

y crawling into the suit through its central aperture and subsequently sealing it shut, the hunter ensured complete waterproofing using the sealskin material.

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A reindeer camp carved from mammoth ivory. Copyright the trustees of the British Museum

We’re in the midst of a climate emergency and the polar ice caps are rapidly shrinking — a short graphic shows how much they’ve disappeared over the last century. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t impact most of us directly, but for the indigenous peoples who live within the Arctic circle it’s wreaking fundamental changes on their way of life.

The British Museum’s exhibition celebrates the rich and diverse cultures found at the northern extremes of the planet, stretching back 30,000 years. It’s a set of cultures built on and around the ice and with the Arctic ice shrinking, now is the time to highlight the spirituality, ingenuity and art of the Arctic peoples who have survived in one of the world’s toughest environments.

A waterproof whaling suit made from sealskin. Photo: Tabish Khan

One of the most striking objects in this exhibitions is a 19th century waterproof suit made of seal skin, which we learn was used by hunters to sneak up on sleeping whales before launching themselves on the whale and harpooned it.

As well as practical items there are some beautiful artworks on display including a miniature reindeer camp elegantly carved from mammoth ivory and a scene of canoes and local birds exquisitely carved on to a walrus tusk.

Copyright the trustees of the British Museum

The course of the Arctic peoples’ history has been irrevocably altered by the eventual interactions with Europeans, and the violence that largely underpinned those. We see slides including early trading between north and south, and an illustration showing Englishmen shooting at ‘Eskimos’  who are firing back with bows and arrows — a scene that would be followed by torture and interrogations of the Inuit by the English sailors.

Sustainability has always been at the core of how the Arctic peoples have lived — maximising available resources by digging into the permafrost to create meat cellars, crafting bags out of fish skins and using icebergs as a fresh water source — and the exhibition also looks at this.

Most British Museum exhibitions tend to use a historical period as their fulcrum, and while there’s plenty of history here this show is focused on the lives, traditions and and cultures of Arctic peoples spanning centuries — and looking at how the traditions of their ancestors are being maintained, adapted, or forced out of use as the world changes around them.