‘On creativity and resourcefulness’ by Justin Dillon

The British Museum describes its “Arctic culture and climate” thus: “the objects in this immersive exhibition reveal the creativity and resourcefulness of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic […] It tells the powerful story of respectful relationships with icy worlds and how Arctic Peoples have harnessed the weather and climate to thrive”. The exhibition epitomises why museums contribute to defining our culture, challenge what we think we know and provide us with a mirror by which to judge ourselves and our values.

The Arctic Peoples live on the front-line of climate change. People have lived in the Arctic for over 30,000 years developing rich cultures which are well illustrated by artefacts, photographs, audio-recordings and video. However, the last 300 have seen major, irreversible changes resulting from colonisation, exploitation and environmental damage. A graphic visualisation of the actual and predicted retreat of the sea ice from 1979-2100 shows just how much the traditional way of life is under theat. The Arctic Peoples are likely to be the world’s first climate migrants.

The exhibition is a collaboration between museum professionals and Arctic community leaders, scholars, story-tellers, artists, educators, hunters, herders and seamstresses. It is, appropriately, vast and unlike any other exhibition that I have seen. As an educational experience, it questions the nature of contemporary schooling; boundaries between subjects don’t exist, traditional wisdom is acknowledged and objects teach us without words.

As a lesson in comparative education, our way of life doesn’t come out of it very well. While we might feel pleased with ourselves for taking out the recycling or using a ‘bag for life’, the Arctic Peoples are literally on another planet. How would you make a bag in the Arctic? You need something that is strong, waterproof and light. The Yup’ik in southwestern Alaska, like many Arctic communities, make bags (kellarvik) from fish skin (iqertiit). Eat the salmon, scrape the skin, soak it in urine, rinse and then rub with fish oil or animal brains to soften them and then tan them in the open air. Different conditions affect the tanning process, so an intimate knowledge of the weather is necessary to make a good bag. Seams are sewn with sinew from beluga whale or caribou.


Fish-skin bags (photo. British Museum)


It’s not just the choice of material or the initial preparation of the bag that shows creativity and wisdom intertwined. The construction and the decoration show how every part of an animal is considered useful.


Fish-skin bag detail (photo. British Museum)


The fish scales face outwards on most of the bag. However, to make the decorative strip, the skin is reversed so that the scales face inside the bag leaving a softer texture facing outwards. The material is coloured brown by rubbing it with a mineral, such as ochre (an iron-rich clay) or by dyeing it with the bark from the alder tree. The perforated white band is thought to be made of oesophagus which is held in place by a thread thought to be caribou throat hair. Seal oesophagus (nerutet) is inflated and then freeze-dried outside during the winter which results in it being bleached white. Arctic People’s use the weather as a tool in the manufacturing process.

Such objects manifestly demonstrate astonishing levels of resourcefulness. The relationships between materials, culture, weather and human creativity are illustrated in every part of the exhibition. We see humanity and the environment as one.

Videos and photographs allow us to hear the voices of Indigenous people and to see celebrations and other aspects of communal life. The exhibition also challenges our views of the relationship between humans and other animals – witness Brian Adams’ photograph of Marie Rexford preparing whale meat.

“Marie Rexford prepares muktuk, frozen whale skin and blubber”,

From the photographic series “I am Inuit” by Brian Adams

As someone who researches museums, botanic gardens and science centres, I am constantly impressed by the pedagogic techniques that exhibition designers use to engage the public. Erminia Pedretti and Ana Maria Navas Iannini (2021) write about the emergence of “fourth-generation science museums” which are committed to “criticality, social responsibility, and civic agency” (p. 1). However, it’s not just science museums that are becoming more vocal in challenging existing hegemonies – “Arctic culture and climate” shows that the museum sector more generally is helping to create a better future by questioning our views of the past.

During the pandemic, museum attendance has plummeted. Originally scheduled to run from October 2020 to February 2021, the exhibition closed permanently in early February, as a result of the pandemic. The good news is that the Museum created a digital page which includes a 14-minute curators’ tour.


Pedretti, E., & Iannini, A. M. N. (2021). Towards Fourth-Generation Science Museums: Changing Goals, Changing Roles. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, 1-15.