The Arctic has always been a source of fascination for outsiders – the name we call it today is derived from the Greek for bear, a nod to the Ursa star constellations located in the far north, and a Greek sailor, Pytheas, claimed to have reached the lands with the frozen seas. But humans have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years now, and it’s their stories, rather than an outsider’s view, that Arktis – medan isen smälter (Arctic – While The Ice Is Melting), the new exhibition at Nordiska museet, aims to present. Stretching to 2000 m2, and containing over 250 pieces and over 450 photos, along with documentary footage and art installations, it’s a portrait of people and their home, both their past and their present time of crisis, as global warming changes the region. We spoke to the people behind the exhibition to find out more.
Matti Shevchenko Sandin, Exhibition Producer
When running an exhibition on a place as large and diverse as the Arctic, detail plays an important role, and the details and the drive of the exhibition are the responsibility of Nordiska Exhibition Producer Matti Shevchenko Sandin.
So I guess the reason the Arctic is an active question right now is obviously the climate crisis, but to go back to the start, at what point did the idea for this exhibition come into being?
It was quite a long time ago, the museum process is something you need to plan for a long time, especially when research is involved. The museum started talking about it five years ago, and it really got going three years ago. The study process began two and a half years ago, with the production starting 18 months ago. So it’s been a long process with a lot of different levels, with science and research and searching through our own collections, both for the objects and the stories. Now we present a large exhibition, with a high grade of creativity and beauty. We want to reflect the Arctic on many levels.
One thing you mention a lot in the press material is that four million people live in the Arctic, and you also mentioned that you focus more on culture, rather than on science and the environment. Do you think that people outside the Arctic almost forget that people live there? And so, was a big part of this exhibition to shine a light on the people that live there?
Yes, to get closer to them, and to start telling their story. There’s a lot of energy in the Arctic, and it’s been connected to us economically for hundreds of years. You had, back in the day, the whaling industry and the mines, but we also get a lot of knowledge from the Arctic. We learn a lot about clothing, how to keep dry in certain environments. In the Nordic countries we are all part of the Arctic area, and humanity needs it. Both for the climate and for our survival. We want to inspire people to become more curious about it, and to get more knowledge, more than just the pictures you see in books. If you look at pictures of the Arctic, you hardly ever see the people. If you google ‘Abisko’ for example, you only see a mountain. A beautiful mountain, but you hardly ever see the locals.
You’ve chosen some physical focus points for the exhibition, Qaanaaq in Greenland, Vatnajökull on Iceland, Rovaniemi in Finland, Svalbard in Norway and Arjeplog and Abisko in Sweden. Was it important to have some actual focus points, so you had some concrete locations you could dig into the history of?
Yes, they came from our research groups who recommended them, for example the National Museum in Iceland recommended Vatnajökull, as we had made a small documentary about the streams of tourists travelling to watch the ice melting. Abisko was obvious because of the archaeology there. Then we had a fantastic collaboration with some researchers from Denmark, who had a film made by the hunters in Greenland about their hunting. So the places kind of came to us, some of them are more dramatic, some are more everyday. For example, we met someone from Arjeplog who had a business testing vehicles on ice. So you will meet ordinary people who have their lives there, as well as researchers.
Was it important to keep a balance between history and modernity, in what made it into the exhibition?
Yes, and no. A lot of the objects are historic, as they come from our collections, but we mixed them with pictures and documentary footage. We think it’s like a cityscape, where you see new and old buildings, existing together at the same time. Probably the oldest stories from the Arctic are important to put out there again. I think that people in the Nordics know quite a lot, because it’s part of our culture and self-esteem to be aware of the Arctic areas. But those who have come to Sweden, who don’t have that connection, they are very curious to learn more.
When you were picking out the focus places, you also made sure to have the entire range of the Arctic represented, from Canada to Russia?
Yes, it was important to cover as much as we could. We have the pan-Arctic perspective. In Clyde River in Canada, our fantastic filmmaker Camilla Andersen from Norway made an incredible movie about a place where the old and the new meet, and not in a good way. Her documentary describes how the local language there is constructed about being a hunter. Now they live more statically, so part of their language starts to not make sense. Climate change also makes it difficult. In Svalbard, there’s also a lot of crazy things happening. It’s a very modern society, but with the snow and ice melting you don’t know if your home is safe anymore. But that’s also a place where we found hope about the future. They’re very hopeful, because there’s no other option.
How important was collaboration with other institutions for this exhibition?
It was necessary, because we wanted to have new research as part of the exhibition. We collaborated with Stockholms Universitet, other Nordic universities and other Nordic National museums. We wanted to find new perspectives and stories.
You had some materials here at the museum already, for example the sewn boat [a traditionally-made boat from Nordiska’s collections]. But was it important to reach out to those other institutions for both material and information?
Yes, when you work at a museum you usually go back into the books to find your knowledge. But when it comes to contemporary material, it’s better to look to the researchers at the institutions who have the tools to provide more angles to the stories. It is essential to a project like this. Some objects are very rare and in other collections and you reach out to these institutions to borrow them . We made a pan-arctic exhibition so we really needed the cooperation with the other museums. And they were very generous in this matter.
I also presume for an exhibition like this one, the information and material is quite spread around the world a bit?
We have Lotten Gustafsson Reinius, the Hallwylsk guest professor, shared between us and Stockholms universitet, so we are very close to Stockholm universitet. Through Lotten we could reach out to many research groups. For example, we went to the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, where a researcher from Russia doing research on Yamal. He generously came back to us with material for a film.
Was there anything from the material that surprised you?
Yes. I’m a very urban person, so I knew nothing when we started. I had to study it a lot just to know what I was doing, and I was amazed by most things. You have all these ideas, that it’s empty, there are no people there, it’s cold, but then I fell totally in love with it, because you find so much energy in the Arctic. As a producer, you try and find special objects that you can’t find anywhere else, objects of importance. And in the Arctic, the needle shows up everywhere. Everyone says, if you can’t sew in the Arctic, you’ll die! And it’s also how clever the people are, and how they find out ways to live without carbs. You eat raw meat and blood, and they do it straight out of the reindeer in some places, because there’s nothing else to eat. And they find it normal and delicious of course. So it was the way people find ways to survive and create a culture that amazed me.
The sub-headline of the exhibition is ‘While The Ice Is Melting’, which adds a bit of a sense of doom to the whole thing. So is it difficult, in light of the current situation, to find a balance of despair and hope?
Research is the answer. We have this researcher, Annika Nilsson, who could look beyond the doom. We also realised during the project that people were getting panicked, and when you’re panicked you don’t do anything, you run or blame someone, you’re not a productive person. She looked at the tools we had and what we could do, to be able to start thinking and be sensible. Her texts will be included, and I think people will feel uplifted when they read it. So perhaps you could then, as a whole family, make a promise, to stop eating meat or start cycling more and so on. You will be able to get future updates, and see if you have fulfilled your promise to yourself.
Do you think trying to put practical hope into the exhibition is quite an Arctic spirit thing to do, to be determined to find a way through difficult circumstances?
I think most cultures are built around the doomsday and resurrection story, you find it in the Bible, you find it in the stories of Greenland. So maybe we have to go to that very scary place before we start changing our behaviour, or doing something else, something better, become better versions of ourselves. And all through the exhibition, you can find solutions and another way of living. We won’t give you the recipe to save the world, but we can give you tools to look differently at these situations. It is very dramatic, more dramatic than I thought it was. Even outside of the ice melting, you have things like the tundra melting, which means you can’t cross it with roads, you can’t travel. That’s quite traumatic, and you get very emotional hearing the stories. People can’t return to the places they came from. Nature and culture are so connected, and the further north you go, the line between them disappears even more. People are connected to their reindeer, to their dogs. They’re not just food or tools, they’re a way of living.
The exhibition has a striking design – the guests enter through an enormous, six-metre high ‘ice-block’, which almost cuts you off from the rest of the museum and into another world. From there, the different rooms enclose little fragments of the Arctic’s magic, as the visitors travel down through the ice-block into the blue of the water. It’s the work of artist and design duo Sofia Hedman and Serge Martynov, aka MUSEEA, and we spoke to them about their work.
To start from the very beginning, how did you come to be involved in this project?
Serge: We were asked to submit a proposal, to pitch a concept. And our huge calving iceberg with a crack concept was selected.
One of the things about the arctic is the spectacular landscape, which can include both the nature itself, and also the industry, there’s all these enormous industrial projects that do look spectacular. Was it intimidating or challenging to try and capture that in the exhibition design?
Serge: I think so, because it’s always so epic, so grand. It’s always on a huge scale, so it’s challenging.
Sofia: For us it was important to capture the dualities of the arctic – the past and the present, the beauty and the rawness – as well as to make people feel the urgency to push governments and other powerful entities to create a sustainable future for the whole world. Museums preserve objects for hundreds of years, however, if we do not act now, there is no point saving these objects as we will soon not exist anyway. We do this for our children as we want them to have a future. We also believe it‘s important that the audience feels a sense of hope too, that their changes are making a difference. That you can come here and have a big experience, but also come away with information about this issue. We aimed to create a space where you wanted to be when taking all the information in.
Serge: We were inspired by the colours, textures and light of the Arctic, but understood that we wouldn’t be able to literally capture it, so we went down a more conceptual path. The exhibition design is centred around the idea of cracks.
I think from the quick walk-through I had, there are elements of that widescreen nature in the exhibition. First of all, you have the enormous ice-block.
Sofia: We wanted to create a feeling of urgency, embodied by an iceberg calving and cracking into two pieces.
So talk us through the design concept for this exhibition, as someone would walk through it. So first of all, we start at the entrance with the big ice-block.
Sofia: First the audience is introduced to Arctic which is placed under the North Star. Here the rotating globe is made of charcoal and the ice on top is made of recycled crystal from old chandeliers. We wanted to in some way try to recreate the cognitive shift in awareness, ‘the overview effect’ which sometimes happens when astronauts view the earth from space. They see Earth as a beautiful and fragile little ball, hovering in space. National borders become irrelevant and the astronaut is filled with a deep sense of love for the planet. You then enter the rest of the exhibition which is based on cracks. When the climate becomes warmer, the ice melts and big cracks appear.
Serge: But there are also cracks between tradition and modernity. Older ways of living do not work any more. Cracks also appear between people who believe in climate change and the deniers, between the people who want to earn money off Arctic resources and the people who want to save the planet. The first part of the exhibition is about the history of the ice and movement. Here the exhibition design is built on the concept of ice vs water. In the end of the gallery, the audience is fully under the water. When the ice melts, it impossible to cross the ice, but large scale sea traffic is enabled. The next gallery is the home gallery and here the crack between the movable tent and the static wooden or concrete house is visible. Because of the permafrost, people cannot stay in their houses as the foundations are cracking. Here, the movable tent is actually something more stable. The last gallery is about Resources and here we illustrate the crack between the small scale more circular living and the large scale resource extraction. The first part of the room is very organic and built with hay and straw. At the end of the gallery, the audience walk into a huge oil pipe.
Having spent all this time immersed in this exhibition and this material, have you been struck by anything about the arctic? Have any thoughts come to you that you maybe weren’t aware of before the project?
Serge: After so much research, I think it’s amount of change happening in the Arctic and the urgency of the crisis.
Sofia: I think that the way people relate to resources is very interesting, the circular living. As getting food involves a lot of work, or must be imported, all parts of the animal are taken used and food and materials are valued and constantly reused. We also try to create exhibition designs where the material can more easily be reused afterwards.
Arktis – medan isen smälter, opens October 10, Nordiska museet. For more see nordiskamuseet.se
Main Image: Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Photo: Karolina Kristensson