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Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


The AHRC Material Culture of Polar Exploration Workshops

The AHRC Material Culture of Polar Exploration Workshops

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'Polar Field Stations and International Polar Year (IPY) History:
Culture, Heritage, Governance (1882-Present)'

3-4 May 2007

This is the first workshop of two in the Material Culture of Polar Exploration series, and is directed by Dr. Michael T. Bravo and Prof. S. Sörlin (Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm). Funding for the workshops has been provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Bank of Sweden Tercentenary Fund. Their generosity in supporting our research is greatly appreciated.

Field Stations as Technologies of Travel

Field stations have been one of the most salient and tangible features of IPYs since 1882-83 and through to the coming IPY 2007-08. The polar station is a modern feature, the smaller field cousin of the Laboratory, Instrument, or Observatory. It is a nexus, and a place, where a number of central features of the modern scientific enterprise - laboratory practices and methods, precision instruments, territorial claims - meet in the landscape and sometimes in close vicinity of local groups and populations. Field stations, and the scientific expeditions that created them and used them as vantage points, are inseparable from polar research. They form important parts of the infrastructure of polar research in the past two centuries. They have also served as flag carriers, and as symbols of political, diplomatic and economic ambitions of the nations to which their founders belonged.

Field stations remain a surprisingly neglected element in the study of the creation of scientific knowledge, and in relation to science diplomacy and geopolitical conflict. We also know very little about IPY stations and their significance, some of them more a century old. Nor are yet sufficiently clear about their cultural and historical status - field stations are also legacies of past ambitions, a heritage in landscapes which was shared by science with local groups and indigenous peoples.

Call for Papers

This activity is intended to study the legacies of the International Polar Years using field stations both as a focusing lense and as an empirical object. The project will serve dual purposes. Firstly, it provides an opportunity to do frontline research into how scientific work in the field is and has been carried out, in particular under conditions of at the same time international cooperation and fierce geopolitical competition and complicated relations with indigenous populations. Thus it will move knowledge forward in humanist and social sciences such as anthropology, archaeology, history, political science, and the history, philosophy and sociology of science. Although these disciplines are marked by a significant growth over the past decade or two in the interest in scientific practice and internal disciplinary meta-reflection, remarkably little of that work has been devoted to the field sciences in general and to field stations in particular, which is true globally and not least in polar regions. Secondly, the project provides an excellent platform for multi-disciplinary cooperation on a theme of all-encompassing relevance to the IPY as a scientific and political phenomenon. Through the cooperation between a set of local, national and disciplinary specialists and groups, in the form of an international project consortium, the project intends to make IPY itself the legitimate and significant study of IPY.

Programme Participants

  1. Dr. Michael Bravo
  2. Dr. Ronald E. Doel
  3. Dr. Ann Dozier
  4. Dr. Julia Lajus
  5. Dr. Richard Powell
  6. Dr. Christopher Ries
  7. Dr. Jessica Shadian
  8. Prof. Sverker Sörlin
  9. Dr. Kathryn Yusoff

Programme Abstracts

The programme comprises discussion of nine pre-circulated papers, each paper led by two discussants.

Dr. Michael Bravo

My paper will examine the significance of field courses taught at the Igloolik field station between 1975 and 1995. It might be thought that field courses constitute only a footnote in relation to the higher purposes of research at field stations. However my research has shown that there may be more to field courses than first meets the eye. Training the next generation of field scientists to work in Arctic environments has sometimes been as important to scientists as their own research and points to the fragility of sustaining scientific research programmes. The presence of field courses also help field station managers to justify the resources required to operate field stations, and in turn to enable state officials to justify to politicians that that their investment in northern research. What about the students themselves? How do field courses instill loyalty and commitment in young people? By examining field course handbooks, reports, and diaries, I will explore to what extent field courses enable students to imagine a future as professional field scientists.

Dr. Ronald Doel

Field stations at sea: Pedagogy and practice in the physical environmental sciences

University of Utah / Oregon State University

How new recruits to science learn the ropes of their new profession - not simply what they read but what went on in the seminar room, what ideas and concepts they look seriously and which ones they discarded, what they learned about designing and handling instruments, what they internalized about making predictions, verifying results, and staking claims - is a key question in the history of science. Yet archival collections are often silent about graduate training, since most scientists only begin saving their papers once their professional careers are established.

In the physical environmental sciences - including such fields as oceanography, marine geology, and seismology - many graduate students after World War II were introduced to the practices and culture of science not in a classroom but while at sea. They experienced oceanographic research vessels as field stations, as participants on extended voyages that spanned months and took them to numerous continents and oceans. While serving on these floating field stations, they learned how to formulate successful research projects while absorbing the standards of their disciplines.

Dr. Ann Dozier

Getting the science done: An ethnography of science in Antarctica

Ann Marie Dozier, PhD - Timothy D. Dye, PhD - Nancy P. Chin, PhD
University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, US

Historically, scientific endeavors have driven most Antarctica activities and led directly to the establishment of dedicated polar field stations. McMurdo Station is the largest US scientific base, with over 60 different National Science Foundation funded science teams work annually between August and February (austral summer). McMurdo provides logistical support to science teams through facilities and contracted employees (~700). The scientists (called, 'grantees') form a distinct culture within McMurdo society and were the focus of an ethnographic study from 2002-2005.

Grantees despite being from different disciplines have their own distinct internal structures, social status parameters, separate rights and responsibilities, and socialization norms. The notion that grantees and McMurdo's other cultural groups (e.g. contract workers) are on the ice for common purposes, however, is not universally accepted. Grantees are clear on their on-ice focus and priorities and have a sense of urgency to their requests. Achieving individual grantee needs, especially those that were unforeseen or unplanned for conflicts with logistical operations that are oriented toward serving the entire system in an efficient, equitable, and cost- effective manner.

While all cultural groups in McMurdo must adapt to factors that limit getting their assigned work done (e.g. system, mandates, and weather), they do not agree how this should be managed. The potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding is often high, which perpetuates inaccurate beliefs and myths.

Dr. Ann Jensen

Anne is looking at the scientific field stations in Barrow, Alaska and their associate outlying landscapes and buildings. She is developing a cultural historical context for the stations, understanding their important role in local history and culture and the development of the North Slope Borough as it exists today. She is also examining their place in the history of US polar science, and the roles they played in the 1st IPY (the Signal Corps. Station) and in the IGY/3rd IPY and IBP (the Naval Arctic Research Lab), as well as documenting the roles they are playing in the 4th IPY (NARL and the new Barrow Global Climate Change Research Facility). She is working with the owners of the Signal Corps station and ARL to develop and implement preservation plans.

Dr. Julia Lajus

Field stations in the western part of the Russian Arctic and sub-Arctic, end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The main focus of the project is on the history of the marine biological and fishery science stations on the White and Barents seas in a broader context of the development of field science in the Russian North. For the emergence and development of the stations the interconnections between scientific and teaching objectives on the one hand and the research with the practical outcome, which became especially pronounced in the Soviet times, on the other hand, were crucial. I am interested in both: the history and everyday life of the individual stations and the understanding of their development as a network of the institutions which collaborated but also very much competed with each other.

Dr. Christopher Ries

During the first two centuries of the 20th century, the Danish exploration of Greenland was the business of manly sled-driving individualists in empathic cooperation with indigenous assistants - a style perhaps most readily acknowledged in the North Greenland travels of the legendary Knud Rasmussen. This trend was seriously challenged by the development in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Geographically the focus changed from the North to the East of Greenland. Professional archaeology and ethnology gave way to geology in terms of defining the purpose and value of arctic conquest. New technologies such as field stations, aeroplanes and telephones replaced the traditional tents, dogsleds and cairns. The Danish explorer-adventurer gave way to international teams of scientific specialists, and the culture and knowledge of the indigenous populations was rendered obsolete in Arctic exploration. Of crucial importance in this development was the establishment of an elaborate network of field stations and travelling huts between 71°14' and 74°05' N on the Danish Three Year Expedition 1931-34. Many of these huts and stations still exist and are indeed still used by scientific fieldworkers in the region. Based on in situ field observations and investigation of expedition reports, diaries, correspondence and picture material, this project aims at a minute reconstruction of the day-to-day working conditions and environment of crucial scientists and Inuit members of the Three Year Expedition, as they worked to apply new methods and technologies to fieldwork in the Arctic, ultimately redefining the landscape and very nature of Arctic exploration.

Prof. Sverker Sörlin

In this paper I shall study the microgeographies of early climate change research through the Ahlmann sites, chiefly Tarfala, where I have collected material on a site visit in August 2006. A central theme of the study is Tarfala as a "school site", used as a vehicle for building the credibility and reputation of the Ahlmann theory and tradition, including field techniques, social and professional networks, theoretical concepts, and normative positions, for example on the issue of whether there was a "warming" climate and if so where and why. Tarfala was constructed as, and became established as, a site of authority. This quest for authority was repeated and ritualized in a number of ways. The most obvious was perhaps the scientization of the ice itself, where instruments were placed and where careful monitoring and observation was taking place. We could think of the glacier and its installations as an actant in Bruno Latour's sense. Measurements spanned field seasons, years, and subsequently decades, making marked and measured time another significant agent enrolled by the research school. As the ice melted, or grew (certain years), the microgeography of the ice shifted to create a landscape with ever more nuanced features. These became part of the tacit knowledge of the glaciologists and formed part of their narratives, both scientific and popular. These narratives changed over the years, as theoretical understanding of the glaciers changed. The knowledge gained of the microgeography of the glacier had strong elements of subjective observation and tangible experience and was almost impossible to repeat by others. Against this fragility of the experience stood the precision of collected data and the solidity of the constructed narratives that purported to present scientific knowledge.

Kathryn Yusoff

This paper will consider fieldwork during the IPY in the Arctic and Antarctica at field stations where extensive weather activities have taken place, in order to consider the historic transformation of landscape phenomena into scientific information. In these remote environments, field stations are the transitional site between the landscape and the transformation of 'wild data' into scientific knowledge. The spatialities and practices of this knowledge production will be considered through multimedia documentation at the field station and archival work on the historical geographies of the site. Site-specific experiments in the field will test the theories of transformation that arise from this analysis of contemporary and historical modes of collecting environmental data. These experiments will also consider the excess of landscape in the field; the categories of information and energy that exceed the theoretical and physical 'fields' of knowledge production in the process of collecting data. The research project situates itself within these representations of data sets, which are caught in the circulation between environmental conditions, communicational strategies, geopolitical imperatives, visualisation, and the site of the field station. This research process will allow the analysis of the materialities of ice before they are abstracted into data, and seek to illuminate some of the often-difficult interactions between histories of matter and scientific cultures.

For further information, please see the Project website:

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