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Reporting period: 2019-04-01 to 2020-09-30

The Arctic is Changing – this is now a dominant trope across global politics and global civil society. It is often argued that environmental changes are ‘opening up the Arctic’ – producing new opportunities and challenges for shipping, resource extraction, national security and regional governance. A number of political scientists have begun to refer to this as a ‘NEW NORTH’.

In these debates, however, there is a resounding silencing of Arctic Cultures. This project argues that the way in which the Arctic is currently being constructed is not new at all. Indeed, such debates are part of a long history that has depicted the Arctic as a region-without-culture, and this has facilitated the dispossession of indigenous peoples and cultures and the silencing of indigenous voices for around 500 years. And that it continues to do so.

This is because the Arctic continues to be understood through the dominant framing of a Natural Region – that is a region where the environment dominates culture and cultural formation. Notwithstanding important critiques of nature-culture binaries, the framing of the Arctic-as-a-natural-region remains heavily influential in the study of Arctic peoples and societies. A core aim of the research is to investigate this discursive formation, to discover how it emerged and to depict what the consequences have been for inhabitants of the Arctic.

The project argues that this framing of the Arctic emerges from the very first contacts between Europeans and Inuit in the late 16th century. It was evident in early European exploration, when the Arctic was depicted as blank space on maps; a space of absence to be perennially discovered by the (always male) Arctic explorer and to be competed over by rival nations. These spatial formations persist in the recent scholarly debates about the New North.

ARCTIC CULT investigates the construction of the Arctic that emerged from the exploration of the region by Europeans and North Americans and their contacts with indigenous people from the middle of the sixteenth century. During the exploration and colonisation of the Arctic, particular texts, cartographic representations and objects were collected and returned to sites like London, Copenhagen, Berlin and Philadelphia. The construction of the Arctic thereby became entwined with the growth of colonial museum cultures and, indeed, western modernity.

This project aims to delineate the networks and collecting cultures involved in this creation of Arctic Cultures. It involves research at museums, archives, libraries and repositories across Europe and North America, as well as in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. ARCTIC CULT aspires to establish new understandings of the consequences of colonial representations and decolonial processes for debates about the Circumpolar Arctic today. ARCTIC CULT aims at the historical deconstruction of this dominant narrative by recovering the histories, voices and objects that comprise Arctic Cultures and uses this to rethink the spatial imagination of the Arctic.

The team is undertaking unprecedented comparative and trans-national research across Europe, North America and the Arctic. ARCTIC CULT connects research in cultural history with museum curation, focusing on a diverse range of materials (such as historical archives, maps, images and ethnographic objects). These are pursued through four specific cases each addressed by a post-doctoral member of team. Each case pursues a different element of the overall project goals.

Through the research, the project is developing connections between archives and museums and helping train a new generation of students of Arctic Cultures. The project will produce a number of articles and books for scholarly audiences. In addition to this, ARCTIC CULT has created a website and a series of workshops, and an exhibition and major international conference are planned for the end of the project, as well events for the interested public.

The ARCTIC CULT project runs from October 2017 until September 2022 and has a budget of nearly €2million. The project team all have office space in the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.
The objective of the project is to transform a number of cross-disciplinary debates in Arctic Studies and the study of cultural formations by remedying a number of deficiencies in the existing historiography of the study of Arctic Cultures. Moreover, it aims to place the continuing importance of the framings of Arctic peoples and cultures at the heart of debates about the future governance of the Arctic. The project aims to answer the following research questions:
1. How did ideas of the ‘Arctic region’ develop through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
2. How did conceptions of the cultures of the Arctic Region develop through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? How pluralistic were conceptions of Arctic cultures? What sorts of theories and disciplines contributed to the classification of Arctic cultures? How were representations, objects and practices of Arctic peoples and cultures used in debates about disciplinary remits and agendas?
3. What sorts of contacts occurred between European and North American explorers, scientists and scholars and the indigenous peoples of the Arctic? What sorts of collection practices were implemented at sites in the Arctic? What traces of these remain in the archive? How were objects, materials and representations from the Arctic catalogued back in the major cities of Europe, the US and Canada?
4. What sorts of relationships existed between scholars of Arctic cultures in different states and empires? What sorts of correspondence networks existed? How were objects and representations studied in the metropoles, and by whom?

In order to address these questions, a research team of six members has been composed, involving the Principal Investigator (PI), four Post Doctoral Research Associates (PDRAs), and a Project Coordinator (or Administrator). Archival research has been conducted at a range of sites, including the Justus Perthes Collection, Forschungsbibliothek Gotha (University of Erfurt), the Arctic Institute (Copenhagen), the Map Section of the State Library of Berlin, the Map Department of the British Library (London), the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers (London), and the Thomas H Manning Polar Archive at the Scott Polar Research Institute. Fieldwork to sites in Greenland, Nunavut and Svalbard has been planned. Some of this was scheduled to take place in late 2020 and spring 2021. However, events relating to COVID-19 and the global lockdown have meant that this timetable has been delayed.

A number of presentations have been developed from this research in Vancouver, BC, Canada, Arctic Circle in Iceland, London and many other conferences. An active presence has been maintained through a social media account, @ArcticCult, and this has grown the audience for the project and research. A website has been developed, and through a regular blog by the Arctic Cultures team members, many visitors from the general public have learned about the research.

From this, a number of scientific publications have been developed that are currently in review or preparation.
The research progress to date has contributed to a number of related themes in the cultural formations of the Arctic. These include the continuing resonances of the history of exploration, the tensions between scientific nationalism and cosmopolitanism, and the consequences of cultures of collection for Arctic Studies.

There is a continuing legacy of exploratory praxis on understandings of Arctic cultures. This is evident in different ways, and has been uncovered in work by the PI, PDRA1, PDRA2 and PDRA3. The search for imagined locations, such as the Northwest Passage, Ultima Thule or the North Pole, has influenced the development of the study of Arctic Cultures. This exploratory imagination has shaped the conception of Arctic cultures ever since, and the team have uncovered evidence of this across different archives. A further element of the study of the peoples of the Arctic has been a persistent nationalism within historical accounts of Arctic science, exploration and peoples. This is connoted by a focus on specific parts of the Arctic that were associated with particular states, such as the Danish concern with Greenland, or the Norwegian interest in the High North and the Svalbard Archipelago. However, there is also evidence of resistance to these statist agendas by some groups of Arctic scientists and individual scholars. Through the process of the team undertaking research across different archives simultaneously, the project has traced the international connections of different Arctic scholars and scientists as they attempted to develop scientific cosmopolitanism. The project is deliberately transnational and comparative in its approach to sites of collection, precisely because so much polar history has hitherto been entwined within national historiography, particularly in the work of PDRA 2 and PDRA 3. Research by PDRA 1 has also revisited the key sites, actors and objects in and from the Arctic through which nineteenth-century disciplinary formations between anthropology, geography and other social sciences were established.

The project also aims to developing international networks between collections in the major cities of Europe and North America and those in the Arctic. The development of these connections through fieldwork is an aim of the second half of the project, although this is subject to the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Further, through the use of PDRAs it aims to develop a new generation of interdisciplinary scholars that will be expert in the intellectual formation of Arctic cultures and in their collection and exhibition.