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The 2011 Scott Polar History Colloquium: Issues of Historical Practice in the Polar Regions

The 2011 Scott Polar History Colloquium: Issues of Historical Practice in the Polar Regions


A review of the colloquium is now available.


Tuesday 29 March 2011

Lecture Theatre, Scott Polar Research Institute
Time: 9.30am – 5.00pm

Scott Polar History Colloquium

What is the place of the historical researcher with respect to the early twenty-first-century Arctic? This colloquium aims to create an intra- and interdisciplinary space in which to begin a discussion around this question. With climate change pressing harder upon worldwide public consciousness and debate, physical and social scientists are cast in the roles of spokespeople and experts on these regions. Meanwhile, scholars in the humanities, facing an accelerating diminution of funding for our research, are increasingly called upon to clarify the "relevance" of our contributions to scholarship. This seems an ideal time to consider how historians could, and should, use the specialized and cutting-edge tools and methods of their profession to advance public and scholarly understanding of the historical and present-day Arctic and Antarctic, and thus create distinctive and valuable positions from which to contribute to current political, economic, socio-cultural, and environmental debates.

The event will open with a work-in-progress roundtable, during which time interested participants (please volunteer) will give concise presentations of 2-5 minutes detailing their current research project(s). Three panels, as described below, will round out the programme. Following short contributions by invited panellists in each session, there will be considerable time for general discussion. We are interested in generating broad and lateral thinking from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds and research experiences.

Panel 1: The 'Spell' of the Arctic

Chair: Dr. Shane McCorristine (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Dr. Janne Flora (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Dr. Vanessa Heggie (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge)

The polar scientist Matthew Sturm has highlighted the notion of an Arctic 'spell' as being crucial to future research on the region, especially from the next generation of researchers (Sturm, 2000). While we are familiar with the rhetoric of the fascination of the northward gaze and the 'glamour' of the Arctic among writers, explorers, artists, tourists, and dreamers, can our attraction as historians to a geographic and cultural space be similarly constructed? In a critical atmosphere in which Max Weber's thesis of the progressive 'disenchantment of the world' has been relentlessly challenged, what would it mean to re-enchant our work on the history and governance of the Arctic? Are critical viewpoints already too naive and romantic? Issues of self-reflective practice may help to inform historical research in a manner which discounts neither the importance of pragmatic motives (interest, funding, academic fashions and trends) nor the 'draw factors' of a region which has been characteristically framed as unique or exceptional in a variety of discourses (climate change; ethnography; geopolitics).

Panel 2: Arctic fieldwork and Arctic history

Chair: Dr. Tina Adcock (Department of History, University of British Columbia)

Dr. Marionne Cronin (Independent Scholar, Oxford University Press)

Dr. Peder Roberts (Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Science and Technology, University of Strasbourg)

Digital repositories, the growth of relevant archival material in Britain, and a significant corpus of secondary sources are all affecting our approaches to historical knowledge. Does the distance between the researcher and the material and everyday life of Arctic inhabitants and their environment, reinforce the dream of objective historical research? Should historical practice therefore seek closer forms of presence and engagement? The origins of the legendary enmity between Sir John Ross and Sir John Barrow lay in Ross's scoffing response to Barrow's claims that he had once, as a teenager, travelled with whalers to Greenland. As researchers on the Arctic, should we also be asked if we have been there? Should parapsychologists be required to commune with ghosts, or should divinity students be required to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land? Is a historian who has spent time in the Arctic likely to be more or less appreciative of landscape? More or less reliant on archival authority? Is there any value, as Adrian Howkins has argued, to be drawn from not going there?

The subtext of this question seems to be: as historians of the Arctic, we have a particular relationship to a (special) place that needs to be experienced before it is mediated through the usual historical methods and theses to become authoritative and legitimate. If, as many of us suggest, popular perceptions regarding indigenous societies, malevolent environments, heroic explorers, land and resource management, and lone polar bears on icebergs, need to be deconstructed to allow for evidence on the ground, what would it mean to counter this challenge with a new, expanded concept of the field as the site of reliable evidence? As funding for the humanities dries up, what new approaches would mitigate the charge that historians 'never put on their boots'? Perhaps exploring how alienation has been a constituent factor in traditions of polar research, is a starting point?

Panel 3: Writing the Humanities in Arctic History

Chair: Dr. Michael Bravo

Dr. Alun Anderson (New Scientist, author of After the Ice)

Dr. Jessica Shadian (High North Center for Business and Governance, University of Nordland)

What purpose do the humanities and social sciences in the Arctic serve? The past decade has seen radical reappraisal of the definitions of the circumpolar Arctic. The constitution of Arctic space as an object of study has been subject to economic, social and political transformations. New readings of Arctic space have invoked different ways of reading the past across a range of disciplines, some instrumental and others the product of a deeper historical understanding. If this is an important moment in time for historians to reassert the centrality of the Arctic as a region with human integrity, then it is also appropriate to reflect on what makes it so. The renewed rendering of the Arctic Ocean as a neoliberal space has been challenged by a recognition on the part of international scientific institutions (e.g. Arctic Council, International Polar Year, ESF BOREAS Eurocores programme) that the Arctic is rich in human ecological relations and nothing less than a fully inhabited region. But what does it mean to assert the primacy of human occupation? To what extent are historical approaches that recognise the fundamental importance of Arctic peoples and landscapes (e.g. world history, environmental history, postcolonial history, history of political theory) making an impact on present day debates?


There is no registration fee. Coffee/tea will be provided, and all participants are invited to dinner at a local restaurant afterwards. Please RSVP with expressions of interest in sharing work in progress. For planning purposes, please give an indication as to whether you are likely to join us for dinner afterwards.

Questions/comments should be sent to any one of the organizers:

Circumpolar History and Public Policy Research Group
Scott Polar Research Institute,
Department of Geography
University of Cambridge