Cold comfort: what can Arctic cultures teach us for our future survival?

How do we survive in extreme climates? From sealskin boots to ‘devilish’ hats, this British Museum exhibition of stunning objects offers an answer

A circular map with the North Pole at its centre details 24 different cultural groups wheeling around the Arctic circle; some 400,000 people. The groups are very diverse. Some, like the Nenets of Siberia, are traditionally reindeer herders, whereas the Inuit have long relied on sea mammals and still derive much of their nourishment and materials from life under the sea ice. No other human cultures experience such seasonality, such extremes of midsummer light and midwinter dark. No other cultures use ice in so many ways: for transport, building material, food preservation. This map makes us rethink our customary projections that locate Arctic cultures as the upper remotes of European or North American or Russian states. To Arctic peoples themselves the distances are shorter, they know their neighbours. Trade and influence around Arctic groups has been going on for millennia.

The revelatory exhibition that has been on at the British Museum, and online, brings these cultures together, and explores their various adaptations to their climate and their remarkable resilience, physically and culturally. As it happens, the show is undergoing a freeze-thaw cycle of its own. Postponed from spring, it opened to the public on 22 October, only to close again on 5 November. It reopened on 3 December to booked ticket holders, but closed again when London went into Tier 3 restrictions. The plan, lockdown allowing, is for it to stay open until 21 February.

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