Arctic: Culture and Climate at the British Museum

As England moves into another lockdown tomorrow, yesterday I took the opportunity to go out while I could to visit the British Museum’s latest exhibition.

Arctic: Culture and Climate examines the creative resilience of the indigenous peoples of the region, using local resources to survive and adapt to their environment over the past 30,000 years. There are more than 40 different ethnic groups, but they share many cultural traits and were trading and communicating with each other long before the “southerners” arrived.

“We’re from the High Arctic”, says Inuit seamstress Regilee Ootoova. “We rely on what’s available to us.” And what’s available to them is largely animals – seals and walrus, reindeer and caribou, fish and whales. They view hunting as the giving and receiving of gifts – that animals will only give themselves up to those who treat them with respect, and that the souls of these animals will be reborn, keeping them infinitely renewable.

Marie Rexford
Marie Rexford prepares muktuk, frozen whaleskin and blubber (photo by Brian Adams from the photographic series I am Inuit)

But animals are not just hunted for food – almost every scrap of them seems to be used in some way. Here I focus mainly on textile and basketry items, but there are some fine carvings and paintings in the exhibition too.

This bag is made of salmon skin, seal oesophagus and caribou fur. There’s a very good post on the British Museum blog on how fish skin is processed.

salmon skin bag

Seal gut, being waterproof and breathable, was used to make parkas. The seams of this one incorporate beach grass – if any moisture enters the seam, the grass absorbs it and swells, thus tightening the seam and keeping the wearer dry.

seal gut parka
Gut parka by Flora Nanuk

Another bag, this time made of duck feet.

duck feet bag
Duck feet bag by Zipporah Innuksuk

This lovely basket is made of baleen, with a walrus ivory handle.

baleen basket
Baleen basket by Marvin Peter

Baleen, sourced from whales, is flexible and does not freeze, so it was also used for making sieves to scoop away slush from ice fishing holes. The frame of this one is made of reindeer antler.

ice sieve

Certain animal characteristics were often thought to endow the wearer with similar powers. So this visor decorated with sealion whiskers bestowed the animal’s hunting prowess on its wearer – each whisker represented a successful hunt.

visor with sealion whiskers

Sometimes hunters would mimic animals so they could get closer to them. This ice scratcher, made from seal claws bound to driftwood with sinew, made a noise like a seal sunning itself on ice, lulling the prey back to sleep so a hunter could approach it unawares.

ice scratcher

Plant materials

As well as animal products, beach grass was woven into mats, bags and socks.

socks woven from beach grass

bag woven from beach grass

Wooden fish traps like this were placed into holes cut into frozen rivers.

wooden fish trap

In north-east Russia the Sakha people hold a summer festival, or yhyakh, asking the gods for good weather and plentiful pastures. As part of the celebrations, large birch bark containers stitched together with horsehair are filled with meat, wheat porridge and berries with whipped cream for serving to everyone.

birch bark container

Integrating traded materials

As Arctic peoples came into contact with “southerners”, they started incorporating their materials into their tools and garments. The first Europeans arriving in the Bering Strait traded beads for furs. This national costume of the Kalaallit, Greenland’s largest Inuit group, incorporates sealskin sewing with the embroidery and beadwork on northern Europe.

Kalaallit national costume

In the 19th century, Moravian missionaries encouraged Yupiit basketmakers to make coiled baskets that appealed to collectors and tourists, like this one with a puffin design.

coiled basket with puffin design

More recently, on Nunavak Island, Alaska, basketmakers have recycled nylon fishing rope washed up on the beach to crochet into colourful bags.

crocheted nylon bag

Sadly, as in so many other instances, this contact led to colonisation, forced conversion, imposed migration and forced settlement. And now there’s climate change.

The exhibition ends on a hopeful note, with displays curated by two indigenous organisations explaining how they are transforming their heritage by adapting, innovating, collaborating and resisting to determine their own future.

Arctic: Culture and Climate is due to run at the British Museum until 21 February 2021, although it’s temporarily closed until at least 2 December due to lockdown. Please check the website for updates.


Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia at the British Museum

I didn’t know much about the Scythians – Siberian nomads who roamed from Mongolia to the Ukraine from around 800 to 200BC – before this exhibition.

Not that it’s any excuse, but they pretty much disappeared from history until their artefacts started being rediscovered in the 18th century by expeditions sent to Siberia by Peter the Great.

This exhibition certainly dispels the myth that nomadic people lack art or culture. A stunning selection of gold belt buckles, mostly depicting nature red in tooth and claw (a vulture mauling a yak and tiger, a leopard attacking an elk) were, unsurprisingly, snapped up by Peter the Great for his personal collection (most of the exhibits in this show are on loan from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg). Gold plaques also decorated weapons and even clothing.

Scythian belt buckle
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

A beautiful piece of body armour consists of overlapping metal scales sewn onto a leather vest – only the upper edges are sewn so as not to restrict movement. By contrast, their shields were essentially made of basketry – wooden sticks threaded with leather!

But what is particularly interesting about this exhibition is the number of textiles on display. There are very few 2,300-year-old textiles that have survived, but in the Scythian burial mound site at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia, snow and rain entered the tomb chambers and froze permanently, preserving the contents.

And guess what – there’s a lot of felt! A large felt hanging that once lined the coffin chamber has an appliqué border of roaring lions’ heads, while a pair of felt stockings is also decorated with appliqué felt strips and wool embroidery.

scythian felt stockings

More prosaically, there are felt rings used to steady the base of round-bottomed drinking vessels, made from twisted strips of felt and sewn with sinew threads.

My favourite felt object was a swan, with a strikingly curved neck and drooping wings; it was probably a decoration for a headpiece or even a horse mask.

scythian felt swan
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Because horses were so important to the Scythians (being the main form of transport as well as providing meat, milk and hide), the animals were buried alongside their masters so that they could carry them to the next world. Decorations on show include a felt mane cover with leather appliqué cockerels, a felt and leather horse mask topped by a ram’s head with a cockerel between its horns, and elaborate bridles covered in gold foil.

scythian felt horse mask
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Some intricate stitched pieces have also survived, including a decorated shoe with pyrite crystals perforated with holes less than 1mm across, and a stunning embroidery of a rearing winged bull.

scythian shoe
Image: State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

On decorated belts, some of the stitches have been wrapped in tin leaf to resemble silver.

Analysis of some of the remains has also shown what was used for dyeing – a woollen skirt fragment was dyed with madder and red dye from the crushed bodies of kermes insects (rather like cochineal), indigo, sorrel and tannin.

But it wasn’t just the clothes and belongings that were preserved by the permafrost. In the Altai Mountains the ground was too hard to dig graves except in the summer, so bodies were preserved by mummification. The organs were removed and replaced with horsehair, pine needles and larch cones, then sewn up with sinews. The exhibition displays the head of a tribal chief, teeth intact, along with some of his heavily tattooed skin. Nice!

Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia runs at the British Museum until 14 January 2018.


Barkcloth at the British Museum

If you live on the Pacific islands of Polynesia or Melanesia, there are few land animals to provide wool or fur, so you’re pretty much restricted to plant materials to produce textiles. Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing at the British Museum is a small but fascinating exhibition on this specialist area.

Barkcloth is made by soaking, scraping and beating bark fibres until the desired quality of fabric is attained. The display of beaters included ones made from wood, stone, shell and even whalebone (rare).

The cloth is then decorated by painting, rubbing, stencilling or stamping, and the tools for various techniques are on show. A kupeti is a textured board on which the cloth is laid and then rubbed with pigment to produce a pattern – one on display is made of banana leaf and coconut husk fibre, which didn’t strike me as terribly robust. There is also a wooden roller used to apply black pigment, which produces a pattern of parallel lines, while intricately patterned stamps made from bamboo, wood or turtle shell are carved using sharks’ teeth.

In Hawaii, ribbed cloth is made by laying dampened fabric on top of a grooved board and pressing it into the grooves using a special tool. It is then painted with natural dyes made from berries, leaves and roots and sealed with varnish. There are some lovely examples in the exhibition.

barkcloth hawaii

I also liked the elaborate stencilled designs from Fiji, where barkcloth has great value, representing textile wealth.

barkcloth fiji

And this fringed waist garment was decorated with geometric patterns using a pen made from coconut fronds.

barkcloth coconut

In the New Georgia group of the Solomon Islands they use indigo to print designs onto white cloth.

barkcloth indigo

In Tonga barkcloth is used to commemorate important lifestage events. There was a piece with a pattern of aeroplanes (no picture I’m afraid – it was too high to photograph properly) made during the Second World War when Queen Salote of Tonga personally sponsored the purchase of Spitfires for the Allied war effort!

In the late 1700s Western missionaries encouraged the wearing of barkcloth tunics to cover the body. This beautiful example from the Society Islands was decorated with seaweed impressions.

barkcloth society islands

This rare piece from the Cook Islands depicts creatures resembling centipedes.

barkcloth cook islands

In recent years there has been revived interest in using barkcloth, shown by this striking skirt made by Dalani Tanahy in 2014. Hula groups in Hawaii are starting to wear barkcloth costumes again.

barkcloth modern skirt

Shifting patterns: Pacific barkcloth clothing runs at the British Museum until 16 August 2015.




African hats at the British Museum

In the same room as the wonderful Benin plaques at the British Museum is a small display of African hats. No wonder they are easily overlooked.

They include some funky crocheted cotton hats from the Cameroon grasslands:

Also a Tunisian chechia, knitted in 2-ply merino, washed in hot soapy water until it shrinks to half the size (the photo below shows the original knitted hat above and the felted one below):

After felting, the surface of the hat is raised by carding with a tool made from a teasel:

Finally, there’s a fascinating hat made from spiders’ webs, cane, twine and ostrich feathers made by the San people of southern Africa in the early 20th century:

Talking of webs, a new V&A display has just opened that will showcase the world’s largest pieces of cloth made from spider silk. Just as long as they don’t have any of the producers lurking in the corners…

Baskets at the British Museum

My basket-making efforts can’t hope to compete with an exhibition on at the British Museum at the moment. Part of its Australian season, the Baskets and Belonging exhibition brings together a lovely collection of Aboriginal baskets made using different techniques and from different materials.

These include a contemporary woven basket made from strapping tape and a coiled basket made from ‘ghost net’ – bits of fishing net that have been cut loose and left to drift. There’s also a small basket made from kelp, used to carry water.

Bicornial baskets could be used for fishing as well as carrying goods

But I was particularly struck by the early 19th-century bicornial, or crescent-shaped, baskets woven from cane. Some had short handles for carrying by hand; others had much longer handles that you wound round your forehead, leaving the basket dangling down your back and your hands free.

Like me, they used whatever materials they had to hand. But processing the cane or kelp undoubtedly took a bit longer than cutting up plastic bags!

The exhibition is in room 91 of the British Museum until 11 September 2011 and is free.

PS I also visited the Afghanistan exhibition while I was at the museum – well worth a look for the stunning Bactrian gold, including an amazing braided belt and a folding crown, and gorgeous carved ivories.