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Visual library sheds new light on Arctic history

It’s always enlightening to see the village or city you live in as it was long before you were born. For people living in the Arctic however, this is very difficult if not downright impossible. The ARCVIS project aimed to right this wrong by digging into archives from the 19th century.


It has become difficult to view the Arctic through a prism that doesn’t involve melting ice caps, starving polar bears and threats of unbridled natural resource exploitation. The fact that these lands have a history and people of their own is often an afterthought, if it’s even considered at all. With the project ARCVIS (Arctic Visible: Picturing Indigenous Communities in the Nineteenth-Century Western Arctic), Eavan O’Dochartaigh wanted to cast a new light on these regions. Despite COVID-19 and all the technical difficulties it posed, she managed to compile an online collection of archive sketches, engravings, lithographs and photographs, which will provide a better understanding of the region’s history and culture.

Why did you see a need to re-explore the history of local Arctic communities? What did you hope to uncover?

Eavan O’Dochartaigh: The dominant and enduring imaginary of the Arctic is of a space devoid of people, and yet in my doctoral research I kept coming across visual representations of Indigenous Arctic peoples (such as Inuit, Chukchi, Yup’ik, Iñupiat and Inuvialuit) in pencil sketches, watercolours and other media such as photographs, engravings and lithographs. I had expected my PhD thesis to focus more on depictions of ice, seascapes and landscapes and I realised there was a need for further research there. I hoped to uncover representations of people in archival collections that were not well known – particularly those in the pre-photographic era – and to map the geographical origins of the representations.

How did COVID-19 make this more difficult?

The pandemic hit in the first year of my project and made it impossible to access items in archival collections that do not have all their material online. I think there is often a perception now that everything is available digitally. In reality, archival repositories do not necessarily have the resources to make their collections freely available online. There is also a lot of ‘hidden’ material in archives. For example, illustrations in personal diaries may not be catalogued individually. As I could not travel to, or even order, material from archives, I had to focus on collections that had large amounts of relevant material online. Examples include the polar art collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute’s museum and the collections of Library and Archives Canada.

Did you have to reassess the goals of your research as a result?

The pandemic meant that I couldn’t take the project in the planned direction. For example, I had planned to carry out archival research at various institutions. Travelling to these institutions was then of course impossible and as many of them were completely closed it was not even possible to order material. I was fortunate enough to be offered a book contract by Cambridge University Press during the pandemic which enabled me to channel Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) funding into this research. With the support of my project officer, I have been able to use these funds for image permissions. Most importantly, it meant that I could use otherwise unspent funding to make the project book gold open access, meaning that it will be freely available online. The book focuses on the visual culture of mid 19th century British naval expeditions to the Arctic and is based on my PhD thesis. The work I did during the MSCA fellowship was important in shaping revisions to the manuscript.

Are there any photographs that stand out for you?

There is one picture I feel particularly strongly about. It’s a portrait of a Yup’ik woman from Alaska created in 1851 and located in the museum archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute. There are many features about this portrait of Koutoküdluk that mark it out as significant and it is quite unusual in the context of Arctic exploration. The woman is named and the portrait is quite sensitively done. The marks and blemishes that overlay the painting show that it was handled repeatedly and suggest that the woman had a significant impact on the maker of the portrait. Another striking picture is a portrait of an ‘explorer’ by a Chukchi artist. It shows the subject as rather helpless, in contrast to the images we usually see that show a more heroic type associated with Arctic exploration.

What sort of lasting impact will this project have?

I have collected a significant amount of data on representations of Indigenous peoples in the western Arctic and I plan to publish this data on an online platform over the coming months. The platform will gather data from different archival repositories around the world that are not always easily findable or accessible, particularly for people who live in the Arctic. I think the most important outcome will be the geographic display of this data, enabling people who live in the Arctic today to see visual records of people from their own region taken in the 19th century.

How will this research challenge the common view of these communities?

I hope that it will make people realise that the Arctic is more than just an empty, icy space. So much of the focus today is on melting ice that the people who live in these regions are often forgotten.

What comes next?

I have just started an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellowship at the National University of Ireland, Galway, which provides me with the opportunity to build on my research. Besides consolidating and publishing the data I have gathered, I am now interested in images of the Arctic which challenge our preconceptions, particularly those that show a complex and biodiverse region. Both the work done during the MSCA fellowship and the current fellowship will come together in a second book on visual representations in the 19th century Arctic.


ARCVIS, Arctic, archives, museum, history