20 March 2015
Above: illustration from 'Alaska, its history and resources...' [BL: 10460.dd.17].
On Monday the Library hosted scholars from the US, Canada and Europe for a day-long discussion on the significance of Alaska and the Arctic to the United States. As you'll see from the programme (at the bottom of this post), the day covered a lot of ground, with discussion ranging from Alaska in film, to the artwork of William Bradford, the USS Nautilus and much more in-between.
The diversity of the day was drawn together by our keynote speaker, Dr. Michael Robinson, who provided a fascinating overview of American interest in the Arctic, charting its growth through the Alaska purchase, the press mania of the search for Franklin and the Cold War geopolitics of the DEW Line. The talk also intersected with some of the Library's wider work, most notably our Digital Curators' innovative research in the digital humanities. Dr. Robinson charted the rising use of the term 'Arctic' in nineteenth century publications, with early results showing how events, such as the search for Franklin, caused imaginative interest (in the form of writing and publishing) in the area to spike.
Above: illustration from 'Alaska, its history and resources'. Courtesy of the BL Flickr pool.
The day was inspired by the change of Chair for the Arctic Council, coming later this year, as Canada hands over to the United States. Lines in the Ice has been lucky in the amount of relevant events that have fallen around its time in the Entrance Hall Gallery, what with HMS Erebus being found in the summer of 2014, and we were keen to draw connections to this event in Arctic politics too. As a result, we wound up the day with a public panel called, 'The Future of the Arctic', which hosted representatives from the Canadian High Commission, the Lords Select Committee for the Arctic, the US Embassy and the scientist Dr. Gabrielle Walker in conversation with the public, all chaired by Professor Klaus Dodds.
Excellent audience questions and thoughtful answers from the panel made this an engaging and insightful event. It also drew together the strands of the day. Mention of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station tied in with a paper by Team Americas' own Rosanna White while discussions about the agency of Arctic indigenous peoples in global politics connected to an earlier paper on the Harriman Expedition by Jen Smith.
Overall the day articulated a core point similar to that of Lines in the Ice, that our contemporary interest in and experience of the Arctic does not exist in isolation of the area's history. At a time when the challenges facing the area are immense we must not be bound to this history but learn from it to create a viable future for all of those who live in Alaska and the wider Arctic regions.
Thanks to all our participants who took the time and effort to be part of this discussion, Team Americas hopes to keep in touch with you in the future.
ALASKA, THE ARCTIC AND THE US IMAGINATION
Monday 16 March 2015
The British Library Conference Centre
Session 1: Emerging research on the Polar Regions
- Claire Warrior (Cambridge and National Maritime Museum), ‘Museums, families and the continued creation of Arctic histories in Britain’
- Michaela Pokorná (University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway), ‘The Old Frontier in a New Garment: The Last American Frontier in Charles Brower’s Fifty Years Below Zero (1942)’
- Rosanna White (Royal Holloway, University of London/Eccles Centre), ‘Ceremonies of Possession: Performing sovereignty in the Canadian Arctic’
- Johanna Feier (TU Dortmund University, Germany), ‘North to a Greener Future: The Filmic Construction of Alaska’s Far North’
- Kim Salmons (St Mary’s University, Twickenham), ‘The Greely Arctic Expedition: A New Source for Joseph Conrad’s short story “Falk”’
- Michael Robinson (Hillyer College, University of Hartford), ‘American Visions of the Arctic, 1815-2015’
Session 2: Bringing the Arctic home
- Judith Ann Schiff (Chief Research Archivist, Yale University Library), ‘Yale’s Arctic Archives’
- George Philip LeBourdais (Stanford University), ‘An Aesthetics of Ice: William Bradford’s Arctic Regions and America’s New Ecology’
- Susan Eberhard (University of California, Berkeley), ‘Panther Adrift: Loss, Commemoration and William Bradford’s Arctic Landscapes’
- Jen Smith (University of California, Berkeley), ‘(Re)imagining Race, Nature, and the Colonial Frontier in Northern Spaces through the Harriman Alaska Expedition Archive, and the Harriman Retraced of 2001’
Session 3: The Arctic and US politics
- Matthew Kahn (Northwestern University), ‘The North Hope: Energy Development, Environmental Protection, and Competing Visions for Alaska’s North Slope’
- Charlotte Hille (University of Amsterdam) and Ruud Janssens (University of Amsterdam), ‘National Security and Polar Profits: United States government perceptions of the Arctic from USS Nautilus to NSPD 66’
- Dawn Alexandrea Berry (Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, HI), ‘Greenlandic Resources and the Future of American Security Policies in the Arctic’
- Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway, University of London), ‘Re-imagining Alaska: Building scientific bridges with Beringia (c.1967-2014)’
18 February 2015
Above: a first encounter between Ross and the Inuit of Prince Regent Bay [Shelfmark: G.7399]
One of the themes Lines in the Ice draws out, across the length of the exhibition, is that the story of exploration does not occur in an empty land. It can be easy to forget this, we still often imagine the Arctic as a remote and hostile place and the narratives of explorers that were left to us often treat the indigenous people they encountered as an aside from the grand adventure at hand. This overlooks the crucial role Inuit and other indigenous peoples have played in the exploration of the Northwest Passage and other areas of the Arctic. Indeed, even exploration of the Antarctic owes a debt to indigenous knowledge; Amundsen used many techniques he learned from Arctic Inuit on his quest for the South Pole (although it's worth noting Amundsen always stressed how much his success owed to Inuit knowledge).
As well as Amundsen there are other expedition leaders who buck the trend of underplaying Inuit culture and agency. Sir John Ross, captain of the 1818 expedition to chart the Northwest Passage, took a great deal of interest in the cultures he encountered, especially the Inughuit. Ross was the first European the Inughuit had encountered and he spent a large amount of time in his published account detailing this encounter and what he learnt about a group he called the, 'Arctic Highlanders'. Indeed much of Ross's account was devoted to discussing the cultures, landscapes, animals and plants he came across, much to the chagrin of Sir John Barrow. Barrow thought Ross had given up his quest for the passage too early, perhaps even spuriously, and so Ross's fascination with the people and ecology of the Arctic was mocked by Barrow for years to come.
Above: Ross and his crew also took an interest in Arctic flora and fauna, although a more invasive approach was taken in the 19th century [Shelfmark: G.7399]
Adding interest to this story is the fact that another historic perspective of Ross's expedition still exists. Playing on a sound point in Lines in the Ice is an account of Ross's arrival told by Lena Kingmiatook, a 20th century resident of Nunavut. This account is an oral history handed down over the generations and it tells us how disorientating contact with these outsiders and their gigantic ship was. We are also reminded that culture clash is not one sided, with the Inuit account focussing on the odd smell that came with the kabloona (white people), and that both groups attempted to mediate first contact in a friendly and productive way, as the local shaman and elders worked to generate a productive first meeting.
Kingmiatook's account stresses to us the strength of Inuit oral history as a means of passing information across generations, something the 2014 finding of Erebus, in an area local Inuit long claimed the ship lay, also reminds us of. For Lines in the Ice we have been fortunate to be able to tell these two stories together as the result of a loan from the Canadian Museum of History. More on this collection can be found here, there is also a book on Inuit-explorer interaction, 'Encounters on the Passage', held at shelfmark: YD.2009.a.764.
10 February 2015
Above: frontispiece from vol. 2 of Scoresby's, 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' [copy on display in Lines in the Ice, G.2602 & G.2603]. Image from Archive.org
By now daily life of Lines in the Ice is well into a rhythm of showing tours around the gallery and responding to the most frequently asked question, 'what is your favourite item?' In truth, the question is impossible to answer as I love everything on display and some of my absolute favourites didn't make the cut for narrative reasons (see this previous piece on Equiano). However, there is one piece that tells a story I always like to dwell on, that of William Scoresby.
Scoresby is often marginalised in the history of the search for the Northwest Passage but his long running disagreement with Sir John Barrow is a key part of the narrative. Even in the nineteenth century there were some (like Barrow) who still believed that open sea water could not freeze. Scoresby argued the opposite; he knew it could as he had seen it with his own eyes - as the captain of a whaling vessel.
Above: sea life illustrations from Scoresby's 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' [copy on display in Lines in the Ice, G.2602 & G.2603]. Image from Archive.org
The days when whaling was an important form of British employment and commerce are, thankfully, long gone. Nonetheless, for hundreds of years whaling was an important part of people's diets, local economies and, indeed, the very working of England, Europe and America's cities. Before fossil fuels came along it was the fluids and fats of whales that lit London, not to mention underpinned its highest fashions. As a result whaling was big business and whaling parties were some of the first groups to make commercial use of the finds of Arctic explorers.
Those who ran the gauntlet, year in, year out, to the Arctic built up a body of experience about the sea ice that was far superior to the skills held by sailors from the Navy, such as Parry or Franklin. This meant whaling captains were often employed as ice-masters on expeditions searching for the Northwest Passage and some, such as Scoresby, even published their own research on the properties of snow and ice.
Above: Scoresby's detailed drawings of snow and ice structures, from 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' [copy on display in Lines in the Ice, G.2602 & G.2603]. Image from Archive.org
Our forgetting of the importance of whalers in the history of Arctic exploration, as well as the knowledge, skill and artistry that went into publications such as William Scoresby's, 'An Account of the Arctic Regions' is what makes this item so intriguing to me. If people like Barrow had listened to those like Scoresby, who provided evidence and their own hard-won opinions to argue for the unfeasibility of the Northwest Passage, a very different history of Arctic exploration would be discussed today.
More importantly, by forgetting how involved whalers were in this process we are also at risk of ignoring the fact that where explorers went, traders, trappers and whalers inevitably followed and did huge amounts of damage to the areas they worked in. In many ways they reshaped the ecology of a significant part of the world and they also instigated massive changes within indigenous societies. Therefore, while we may no longer need the work that was once done by these commercial crews their role in creating the world we know today, as well as in charting and using the Northwest Passage, should not be forgotten.
23 January 2015
Above: 'The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle', image from Archive.org. BL copy at: P.P.5280.
January may be almost over but, just in time, here is Team Americas' first blog post of 2015 (and so Happy New Year to you all). This lapse is despite writing, just before Christmas, about the positive health benefits of spending the winter creatively - especially when stuck in the ice. So, with that in mind, let's pick up where we left off, with more on the power of print in the Arctic and the Antarctic.
While the last post focussed on the 'Illustrated Arctic News' this was far from the only publication assembled near the poles. Some were even printed and formally published. One early item that almost made it into Lines in the Ice was, 'The North Georgia Gazette and Winter Chronicle' written, assembled and circulated on board Capt. W. E. Parry's 1819 voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. Parry was actively concerned about the mental well-being of his crew during the over wintering and convinced his officers and surgeon that a newspaper focussing on events and entertainments would be a good way to alleviate the boredom.
As well as warding off boredom and stimulating the mind these papers also provide a record of the voyage, one that is markedly different in content and tone from the official narratives published upon a ship's return to home. Humour, poetry, some irreverence and, later, whimsical illustration were all hallmarks of these publications, as shown by the 'Illustrated Arctic News' on display in the Lines in the Ice gallery.
Above: 'The South Polar Times', September 1911, copyright British Library. Manuscript and print copies held at the British Library.
Since Parry's time these newspapers and magazines have become a permanent feature of polar exploration and have subsequently featured in the search for both Poles. 'The South Polar Times' was arranged during both the expeditions of Capt. Scott. Meanwhile, in a feat of imperial splendour Shackleton took a letterpress to Antarctica in order to publish the continent's first book, 'Aurora Australis'.
The act of publishing on Antarctica is significant too. It fixes the British imperial presence on the continent, by noting the place of publication in the book, and as such makes a claim to some sort of limited mastery of the space. As with the planting of flags the publication of this book has overtones not just of claiming the space but of bringing British civilisation to and further developing its culture from the ice of Antarctica.
Above: 'Aurora Australis', cover, 1907, image from Wikipedia. BL copy at: C.175.h.11
Needless to say, this was not a new idea either. As writing and publishing had long been done in the Arctic so the idea that these acts somehow laid claim to space were also implicit within the act. Instead, Shackleton's method merely takes this process to a new level. This short history of writing on the ice reminds us how much is shared between Arctic and Antarctic exploration, as individuals, ships and methods of survival were transferred between the Arctic and Antarctic circles. The prsence of 'Aurora Australis' also provides an opportunity for a neat(ish) nod towards Australia Day, rapidly approaching on Sunday 25th.
P.S. one last thing, Lines in the Ice is now extended until April 19th! So even more time for you to come and enjoy the show.
18 December 2014
Above: winter in the Arctic, from The Illustrated Arctic News [BL: 1875.c.19]. Courtesy of Images Online.
While researching Lines in the Ice one thing that has repeatedly struck me is the scale of the Arctic expeditions. Today we tend to embody these journeys in a single person, Amundsen, Franklin, Frobisher, Parry, Ross, and so on, but the reality is that even the smallest expeditions (such as those led by Dr John Rae) were made up of at least a handful of men. Meanwhile the largest expeditions, such as that led by Franklin in 1845, were more like mobile communities, over a hundred men all sharing adventure, danger and cramped surroundings.
At no time of year is this brought home more than Christmas. While many prepare for a break, time with family and all the comforts of the festive season, my mind is drawn back to the various documents the Library holds that recount how sailors in the Arctic tried to make the winter more bearable. The Illustrated Arctic News, on display in the exhibition, is a wonderful example of how crews attempted to pull through the darkness and boredom of the Arctic winter. The heavily illustrated newspaper, published on board HMS Resolute then reprinted upon the crew’s return to London, depicts various winter celebrations, a Guy Fawkes bonfire (seen above), a festive ball (complete with formal dress for men and women) and note on Christmas Day celebrations, but its production was also a tool for warding off boredom.
Above: the winter may be long and dark but the sun would eventually return (and hang around), from Arctic Expeditions from British and Foreign Shores [BL: 10460.g.1]
It may be hard to imagine today, given the level of access to learning in the UK, but many sailors signed up for Arctic expeditions to get an education. While the winter may have been cramped, cold and dangerous it also meant little work could be done and so sailors would be taught how to read, write and do maths. This was not purely philanthropic on the part of the officers, it was mostly a way to keep the crew occupied and avoid depression, but, combined with good pay, the possibilities offered by a winter’s education were appealing to many sailors. Papers such as The Illustrated Arctic News, while organised by officers, were part of this system of education as they provided an output for the lessons learned by the crew.
Of course, should the crew make it through the winter (low supplies, the ship being ‘pinched’ by the ice and many other risks were a constant danger) the sun would eventually return and a summer of back-breaking work would begin. As the temperature rose and the sun stayed in the sky for longer the crew could look forward to trying to navigate (and manually cut) the ships through the ice, man-hauling impossibly heavy sledges over land and all the other chores involved in Arctic exploration. Should they make it home, however, even if the Northwest Passage remained undiscovered, the crew would hopefully carry a unique record of their endeavour and a little more education with them.
Above: the return of the sun means getting back into the field, from The Illustrated Arctic News [BL: 1875.c.19]. Courtesy of Images Online.
Lines in the Ice will be open until spring 2015 but, given Christmas is such a feature of the exhibition (even Santa makes an appearance), the festive season may be a good time to come and have a look around (just be sure to check the Library’s opening times). Meanwhile, Team Americas are gearing up for the festive break, so happy holidays everyone!
24 November 2014
Above: an overview of Henry Ashton Barker's Panorama, from 1819.
Lines in the Ice is now open and continuing a long tradition of bringing the sights, sounds and experiences of the Arctic to the heart of the city. One thing that struck me in researching and selecting material for the exhibition is how much has been published about the Arctic and our exploration of it - the volume suggests a ravenous market for accounts, stories and information.
This is undoubtedly true. A number of items in the exhibition speak to the market for Arctic tales, especially during the British Navy's nineteenth-century quest for the Northwest Passage. One display item in particular, The Illustrated Arctic News, is a lavish facsimilie of the onboard newspaper of HMS Resolute. It tells two stories simultaneously, the lengths officers and their crew went to in order to stave off the boredom of a dark winter in the Arctic and the hunger the population of Britain had for stories from these expeditions.
Many similar items did not make it into the exhibition. One that almost did, and is well worth mentioning here, is a book related to Henry Ashton Barker's Panorama in Leicester Square. During the nineteenth century panoramas were a popular entertainment, giant works of art that brought the foreign landscapes of the empire home for metropolitan Londoners to see. The expeditions of Franklin and others generated a number of these installations, but this one from 1819 captured my attention.
Above: detail from the panorama.
This book, a souvenir and guide to the panorama, provides written details of the content of the panorama but also a handy sketch, presumably to help the reader orientate the account with particular parts of the display. The sketch, while not lavishly reproduced, suggests the scale of the panorama and the sheer volume of things to see. It is worth noting that some of the details are a little off - viewers would be forgiven (despite this being about the wrong Pole) for thinking the above birds (noted as point 8) are penguins, or more realistically, Great Auks. Instead, they are puffins...
Above: a later Leicester Square panorama, depicting Capt. James Ross' 1848-49 survey of Somerset Island.
Erroneous depictions aside the book reminds us of the hold the Arctic has long had on our imagination and the connection to the entertainments of Leicester Square also provides a sense of the scale of interest in the high north. Indeed, it was far from the only Arctic panorama on display in Leicester Square between 1819 and 1860, as a flick through a compendium of these panorama guides (found at shelfmark: 10349.t.15) will show. That being the case, we're pleased to continue this tradition of bringing the Arctic to central London. Hopefully it will inspire as much curiosity, interest and questioning about the Arctic as the panoramas of previous centuries.
09 October 2014
Above: frontispiece portrait from, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' [BL: 1489.g.50]
When I started planning 'Lines in the Ice' there were certain stories I already had in my mind, events from history I thought would surprise the viewer and grab attention in the exhibition space. Alas, not all of these pieces of the narrative make it into the final cut for various reasons including space, the shape of the narrative or because another item tells a similar story better. One such event I wanted to discuss but has recently fallen victim to the hard decisions of exhibition planning is the Arctic expedition on which Olaudah Equiano travelled.
I must confess, before starting work as a curator, at no point had I ever sat down and read all of Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative'. Previously I'd read and discussed key sections but had never made time to digest the account cover to cover. That was until I held the Library's first edition copy and its details began to jump out, the portrait at the front, the extensive list of subscribers (filled with names sure to catch any historian's eye), etc. From then on I was hooked and Equiano's narrative has been one of my favourite items to talk to visitors about (the BL holds quite a few copies).
Equiano is well known to many as the author of 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano' and, as a result, prominent figure in the campaign against the slave trade. Fewer people realise that Equiano's life was underpinned by travel across the British Empire and beyond, as a slave, an indentured person and an independent businessman at different times. Indeed Equiano's travels were long, complex and varied - as evidenced by his presence on the 1773 journey of Captain Constantine John Phipps to Spitzbergen, part of an attempt to find a passage to Asia via the North Pole.
The connection between Equiano and this particular attempt on the North Pole was Dr Charles Irving, a scientist renowned for his work on water purification to whom Equiano was contracted. Equiano's opinion of the voyage is a wonderful critique of the deluded idea a passage existed via the Pole, stating the journey was, 'to find, towards the north pole, what our Creator never intended we should, a passage to India'.
Above: a dramatised depiction of Nelson's encounter with a bear. From, 'The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson' [BL: 1859.c.5]
It is a shame Equiano's role in this journey is little known today, especially given the frank opinions he expresses in his Narrative. Instead the journey is more often remembered for the presence of one Horatio Nelson, who attracted considerable attention with his ill-conceived hunting trip. That being said, the presence of both individuals underlines a point I made in a recent post about Franklin, which is how important these potential routes have been at various points in the histoy of the British Empire and Europe in general. Indeed, so notable were these journeys of exploration that they drew some of the greatest writers, thinkers and explorers of the time.
That Equiano did not make it into 'Lines in the Ice' is the fault of Phipps's destination; British attempts on the North Pole and Northeast Passage are not a focus of the early part of the exhibition. That being said, given the restricted length of exhibition labels, maybe Equiano's interesting journey is better suited to the extended space of a blog post. For those of you who'd like to read more about Equiano you can find copies of 'The Interesting Narrative' as well as Vincent Carreta's biography, 'Equiano, the African' [BL: m05/39533] here at the British Library.
11 September 2014
Above: a camping scene from one of Franklin's earlier overland expeditions [G.7397]
With 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage' coming up in November it would be remiss not to pass a few comments on Canada's locating one of Sir John Franklin's ships. When news of this year's search came through I must confess I hoped they would find something (perhaps a spoon?) but I was doubtful something as significant as a ship would be found.
A few *spoilers* for 'Lines in the Ice' are in the following but rest assured there will be plenty more to see when it opens. So, for those reading on, a potted history of why Sir John Franklin found himself in the Arctic as executive officer of the ships Erebus and Terror. Leaving Britain in 1845 this was Franklin's third time in charge of an Arctic expedition and his fourth aboard one of the many voyages of exploration championed by Sir John Barrow. His previous two Arctic expedition commands had seen some success but also great hardship and starvation (leading to he and his men, famously, eating their boots).
Above: Previously found Franklin artefacts (including a spoon) [Shelfmark: 1781.a.6].
In all these expeditions Franklin was searching for the Northwest Passage, a new trade route to Asia that would dramatically cut journey times for British sailors. English and, later, British sailors had been searching for the route at least since the time of the Tudors, largely hoping to break Spanish and Portuguese trade monopolies with the Asia. By Franklin's time, however, the aim was more broadly political, as much a way of expressing British power over the seas as it was an attempt to find a trade route that may, or may not, be practically viable. Indeed, while we think of this story as being one of Arctic exploration (and of Franklin as an Arctic explorer) it's perhaps worth thinking about the broader context at play here.
After all, Franklin was not just a polar explorer. He was a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, deafened by the roar of conflict but otherwise unscathed, and in between Arctic journeys he served in the Greek war of independence and was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land. Further, by 1845 he was a fixture of Lincolnshire and London society. In short, his career spanned the globe and he was as much a citizen-officer of the British Empire as he was anything else.
So, when Franklin went missing with his ships (which had also seen a diverse and international series of duties) this was not a disappearance of an Arctic specialist on the edge of the world; instead a British officer vanished trying to bring a space into the service of the globe-spanning British Empire. While the distinction is subtle it helps explain the significance of this event, why we remember it so strongly and why such bad-feeling ensued when Dr. John Rae announced the grim fate of Franklin's crew.
Above: a man-hauling party from HMS Investigator. Dragging huge weights across the ice was a fate awaiting a number of Franklin's crew, as well as those searching for them [Shelfmark: 1259.d.11]
Parks Canada's locating of a Franklin ship also operates in a wider context than the narrow geography of the Northwest Passage. It allows Canada to perform geopolitical sovereignty, display technical expertise and set a media agenda on a global scale - this story is being read far and wide beyond Canada and the U.K. For 'Lines in the Ice' this is quite a happy development as it is a further example of the exhibition's main point, that the Northwest Passage and Arctic Ocean exploration in general are areas of global significance. Embedded in all of this are complex networks of cause and effect, especially considering that the Arctic is not an unpopulated space for Europeans and Americans to express their desire for exploration.
Indeed, Inuit who lived in what is today Canada have played an integral role in other nation's exploration of the Northwest Passage - and paid a heavy price for it. A great Franklin search example of this was sketched out by Ken McGoogan in the Globe and Mail and there are many more such stories to tell; but that is for another blog post and the exhibition itself.
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- E-Resources on European Colonization in the Americas to c.1650
- Commemorating Roberta Bondar's voyage into space
- Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'
- All Cooped Up: Notes from the Arctic
- Over the Ice: Polar Exploration from the Air
- The Future of the Written Word... and the Arctic
- Discovering the Northwest Passage
- The Man Who Ate His Boots
- Symposium: Alaska, the Arctic and the US Imagination
- Perspectives on the Passage: encountering the explorers