Researchers’ Blog

The Old Men and the Arctic

The Old Men and the Arctic

On the Danish national radio station, the daily program Apropos recently dedicated five half-hour slots to the Arctic. One of these shows featured Poul Erik Tøjner, the Director of the Louisiana contemporary art museum north of Copenhagen, who, in speaking about his museum’s exhibition Arktis (Sep 2013 – Jan 2014), talked of the Arctic as ‘an idea before it was a place’. While in one way Tøjner’s statement makes sense, it also betrays a particular approach, as can be revealed by posing a simple question: Was it also an idea before it was a place to the Inuit?

Perhaps we cannot know, but the Inuit are evidently not Tøjner’s point of reference. This is one of the problems I found with this exhibition. This is not to say that Tøjner doesn’t have a critical eye for the purposes served by the Arctic for the white males who in both interview and exhibition become both a particular category and a universal ‘eye’ on the Arctic. In fact the exhibition floats undecidedly between these two perspectives. Tøjner is aware that the Arctic can be seen to perform a particular role for white masculinity when he talks about ‘masculinity as a replacement for going to war’. This happened quite literally in the British post-Napoleonic Wars when redundant naval officers ventured in search of the Northwest Passage.

But Tøjner also restricts his critique when he says that ‘it is not about being an imperialist, but it is about demonstrating England’s universality’. Imperialism and empire here is reduced to an issue of physical colonisation, and of course the Arctic was unsuitable for European settlement. There is a particularly Danish dimension to Tøjner’s point, where reducing imperialism and colonialism to sheer physical occupation has been one popular reading. While Danish colonial settlements were limited, the imperial domain was widespread (the east coast of India, coastal Ghana, the US Virgin Islands, the Faroe Islands, Iceland – and Greenland). Specifically in relation to Greenland, this reductive approach to the colonial question makes it possible to speak of the historical relationship between Denmark and Greenland as not quite colonial. In this way Denmark partakes of the general European historiographical amnesia. Colonialism and imperialism were always the purview of other nations – ‘we’ looked after our (non-)colonials.

One of the centre pieces in the exhibition is the dinner tableau from Captain Sir John Franklin’s expedition. The display is complete with plates and cutlery, capturing the moment of that ‘English universality’ of which Tøjner speaks, as it represents the idea of British culture travelling to the ends of the world with a full library, proper dining accoutrements, etc. Yet surely this notion of a sense of cultural superiority is also deeply imperial? Or is empire separate from culture, in which case we can discard most of what we have learned about being critical about imperialism?

The Arktis exhibition generally betrays its own unfocused way of addressing critically what these white males have been doing in the Arctic, and perhaps also continue to do. Can we not engage more critically with the history of Arctic conquest, relating it to the broader history of imperialism and colonialism? If not, then how can we understand the Russian flag at the bottom of the sea in the Arctic, or the Danish Arctic patrol Siriuspatruljen, with its Danish flag brandishing Danish sovereignty over Greenland? Once we have done that, we can perhaps get to the point of stating, ‘Franklin, my dear, I don’t give a damn’.

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