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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

2011 Scott Polar History Colloquium: Issues of Historical Practice in the Polar Regions. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge: Michael Bravo/Christina Adcock/Shane McCorristine, 29.03.11.

Reviewed by- Shane McCorristine, Christina Adcock, and Michael Bravo

What challenges are confronting historical researchers writing today about the Arctic? This colloquium, hosted by the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) of the University of Cambridge, aimed to create an intra- and interdisciplinary space in which to contribute to a wider international 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. 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 a critical time to consider how historians can, and should, use the specialized tools and methods of the profession to advance public and scholarly understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic, and thus create distinctive and valuable positions from which to inform current political, economic, socio-cultural, and environmental debates.

The colloquium attracted over thirty researchers: postgraduate, postdoctoral, and senior researchers from disciplines including history, geography, anthropology, and international relations. The colloquium began with a work-in-progress roundtable comprising twelve presentations detailing current research projects. These included: a project to establish a database of whaling voyages from Britain to the Arctic, 1733-1910 (Bernard Stonehouse); the impact of aerial technology on Arctic place (Marionne Cronin); the cosmo-politics of the human as a new species in Antarctica (Guilherme de Assis); the performances of tourism in Alaska (Sam Kirsop); the transition from colonial to Cold War geopolitics in Antarctica (Peder Roberts); the geopolitics of Arctic gas fields (Teresa Shirkova); the poetic space of Scott in the Antarctic (Philip Sidney); the representation of exploration in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Claire Warrior); fur trapping in the Canadian North of the early twentieth century (Christina Adcock); concepts of space and place in contemporary Nunavut (Jackie Price); and indigenous knowledge in Arctic governance regimes (Alison Weisburger).

This was followed by three panel sessions in which each of the organisers discussed a pressing topic with invited guests before opening up the issue to all participants for criticism and debate. The aim of generating broad and lateral thinking from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds and research experiences was fulfilled, and the responses received were thought-provoking and engaging.

In the first panel Shane McCorristine (SPRI) discussed the notion of enchantment with Vanessa Heggie (Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge) and Janne Flora (SPRI). 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 many are familiar with the rhetorical fascination of the northward gaze and the “glamour” of the Arctic among writers, explorers, artists, tourists, and dreamers, McCorristine asked whether our attraction as historians to a geographic and cultural space can 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 regions which have been characteristically framed as unique or exceptional in a variety of discourses, including those of climate change, ethnography, and geopolitics.

Drawing on her research on concepts of emotional inter-relatedness in Greenland, Flora outlined how Greenland became re-enchanted in the twentieth century, while warning about projecting our own local concepts of what is “traditional” on to descriptions of practices in the Arctic. Heggie’s background in the history and culture of sports science and bodies in extreme environments led to a lively discussion on attachments to one’s research, and whether or not this is a form of enchantment or merely professional investment. Certainly, as various participants argued, the rhetoric of enchantment is a very strong currency in a variety of polar disciplines, but some criticisms also raised were: do we sell enchantment at the risk of seeming kitsch? Is the discourse of re-enchantment merely another element of the necessary sequence of enchantments that colonialism offers the metropolitan citizen? Can we oppose such a discourse by reaffirming senses of place with a linked awareness of the embodied nature of cultural activity?

In the second panel, Christina Adcock (University of British Columbia) posited that the matter of circumpolar fieldwork would become more important for the next generation of researchers in the polar humanities. In an age of digital repositories, accompanied by the growth of relevant archival material and a significant corpus of secondary sources, what does “historical experience” of the Arctic mean? Does the distance between the historian and the material and everyday life of Arctic inhabitants and their environment reinscribe a utopian ideal of objective historical research? Should historical practice seek closer forms of presence and engagement? The crux of the matter is whether or not we, as historians, should necessarily follow our subjects into the Arctic or Antarctic. We might take our cue from social and gender historians, who regularly venture beyond archives to obtain a greater range of historical human experience through the tools of oral history, or from environmental historians, who often undertake “archival fieldwork” within landscapes of historical interest. These examples suggest that going there can enable the recovery of different perspectives and voices that enrich our interpretation of the past. Yet it is also possible, as the environmental historian Adrian Howkins (2010) has recently done, to make a valid case for not going there. Adcock suggested that historians should approach northern fieldwork in a critical and self-reflective spirit. If we go into the field, we must foreground the distance and difference between ourselves and our subjects in order to ward off the easy and uncritical elision of experience with authority. We must also pay due attention to our manner of going North, whether it be with the help of military, scientific, aboriginal, or other groups or institutions. We must choose our modes of experience with care and not neglect to appropriately contextualize our own Arctic or Antarctic activities.

Responding on this panel were Marionne Cronin (Oxford University Press) and Peder Roberts (Université de Strasbourg). Cronin outlined both the benefits and the dangers of engaging in Arctic fieldwork as historians: the issue may be complicated by the differences between histories from the north and histories about the north. Roberts argued that the choices we make influence the history we write: one should go where one’s research questions can be answered most fully. “Going there” can be helpful; talking to people who have “been there” can be equally beneficial. The danger, all panellists agreed on, was that of imagining a “real” Arctic out there – a totalising ontological reality that the historian can fully access, either in the field or in the archive. These points generated a lively response from participants, with some making the point that “going there” is something you can only do once, while others bemoaned the over-confidence and guru-like aura accredited to people as soon as they have visited the Arctic once. The contrast in Enlightenment culture between the natural philosopher in the field and the writer collating information in the private library at home was raised.

In the third panel Michael Bravo (SPRI) posed the question: what purpose do the humanities and social sciences in the Arctic serve? The past decade has seen a 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, particularly in relation to navigation, resource exploitation, global interests, and governance. New readings of Arctic space have invoked different ways of understanding 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 in which human endeavour is integral to its character, then it is also appropriate to reflect more closely 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 importance of the agency of Arctic peoples and landscapes making an impact on present-day debates? If the Arctic is distinct from the emergence of Atlantic history, do environmental history or world history offer alternative paradigms?

Responding to this, Alun Anderson (author of After the Ice) offered specific predictions concerning future tensions between stakeholders in the Arctic. Local autonomous people increasingly want oil, gas, and mineral exploitation in their territories in order to benefit their communities, Anderson opined. The clash between indigenous peoples and environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace is well known and dislocates easy assumptions that might seek to conflate their interests. Bravo suggested that indigenous peoples, notably the Inuit, have a good political understanding of the legal frameworks in which scientific expertise operates – in effect, an indigenous sociology of science. When large economic interests are involved, legal frameworks enable disparate knowledge traditions to come together – but on what terms and to what cost? Some agendas designed for the Arctic are not conducive to hearing voices from the Arctic. In conventional geopolitical discourses, one might well ask, following Lassi Heininen in Arctic Geopolitics and Autonomy, where are the people of the Arctic? The impending arrival of Far Eastern shipping interests in the Arctic are foreshadowed by the investment of such states, including South Korea and China, in scientific research in Spitsbergen. Bravo argued that greater attention to political economy can provide a crucial framework for bringing the Arctic into world history. Focusing on the conditions in which negotiations over access to resources and regulation of extraction and transportation, provides a means of revealing the political and economic frameworks transforming the Arctic.

Overall, this was an extremely stimulating and provocative meeting that laid out some of the challenges researchers face as they seek to explore the forces shaping and informing histories of the polar regions. Whereas for anthropologists fieldwork is generally a necessity, not a choice, historians have flexibility and choices informed by the opportunity to learn from past experiences and practices that may cross boundaries in the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, with the type of funding required to allow historians to travel and research for sustained periods in the Arctic and the Antarctic growing more scarce, collaborative approaches to research in conjunction with self-reflexive qualities of recognising strengths and limitations become increasingly necessary as well as desirable. If this entails a re-enchantment of historical practice, one which uses the “spell” of the Arctic in a constructive and complex way, then the idea of the field and fieldwork may become transformed. Just as an Alaskan tour guide can purchase a Starbucks coffee and then urge that tourists respect the spirits of the mountain, so too the historian who engages with concepts of enchantment must remember that we are all embodied actors and our dreams come with social, material, and environmental histories and consequences attached.


  • Howkins, Adrian. “‘Have You Been There?’: Some Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica”. Environmental History, 15, 3, (2010), pp.514-9.
  • Sturm, Matthew. “The Spirit of the Arctic and the Next Generation of Arctic Researchers”. Arctic, 53, 3, (2000), pp.iii-iv.