Drawn North: Magnetic Men and the Circulation of Arctic Knowledge, c. 1818-75

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Wed, 02/05/2020 - 13:40

Faculty Fellow Mark A. Cheetham’s second presentation at our Fellows' Lunch on the ‘Strange Weather’ theme–Drawn North: Magnetic Men and the Circulation of Arctic Knowledge, c. 1818-75–took the form of an exploratory preview of an exhibition project he is undertaking with colleague Jordan Bear from the Art History department.  Faint Images will examine the image cultures of communication technologies in 19th-century Arctic voyaging from Britain and the USA. The exhibition’s middle section will draw out work Mark has been doing on magnetism and meteorology in the 19th-century Arctic during his Fellowship at the JHI. Most of the text in this post was provided by Mark.

Arctic voyages and the peculiarities of the exotic polar north were an obsession in 19th-century Britain and the USA. Lavish illustrated publications, sublime landscape paintings and heroic portraits, copious botanical, zoological, ethnographic, and meteorological prints, state of the art panoramic spectacles, the reprehensible display of Indigenous peoples and animals, Indigenous narrative and visual representations, remarkable scientific instruments for navigation and meteorological prognostication– all were integral to a ramifying infrastructure of communications in and about the Arctic.

Mark discussed examples of visual works in the planned exhibition’s three sections: Receiving the Arctic displays the visual culture that was brought back to Britain and how it circulated there and internationally. While the exhibition explicitly does not focus on Inuit art and culture, Inuit responses to the voyagers are examined, including a remarkable image of first contact between Captain John Ross, his crew, and a previously isolated group of Inuit in northern Greenland, rendered in 1818 by the Inuk whaler, translator, and artist John Sacheuse (1797-1819).

The second theme centres on weather phenomena and the nascent science of meteorology. Under the heading Western Scientific Knowledge and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ, or Inuit traditional knowledge), Mark discussed examples of both Western and Inuit map-making, signposting and flag planting on what is now the territory of Nunavut. He underlined what he calls the ‘imperial empiricism’ of Western scientific observation of weather and the earth’s magnetic field. Mark emphasized that even in the 19th century, searches for the northwest passage and both the magnetic and geographic north pole were highly militarized.

"A Remarkable Iceberg", from John Ross,  A Voyage of Discovery, 1819
"A Remarkable Iceberg" from Ross, John. A Voyage of Discovery, Made under the Orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's Ships Isabella and Alexander for the Purpose of Exploring Baffins Bay, and Inquiring into the Probability of a North-West Passage. London: John Murray, 1819.

 

 

Meteorological Logs from the Ships the Isabella and Alexander, 1818
"A Copy of the original Meteorological Logs of His Majesty's Ships the Isabella and Alexander, between Noon, 29 August and Noon, September 1, 1818" from Ross, John. A Voyage of Discovery, Made under the Orders of the Admiralty, in His Majesty's Ships Isabella and Alexander for the Purpose of Exploring Baffins Bay, and Inquiring into the Probability of a North-West Passage. London: John Murray, 1819.

 

The third section–Faint Signals–explores the distances perceived, generated, and bridged by 19th-century Arctic voyaging from the Anglosphere. Communications–such as the many lavish travel narratives of Arctic exploration published in the 19th century, with their detailed scientific charts–functioned fully only when the circle of media and mediation was complete, when the voyagers returned and recounted their exploits, when images of the Arctic and its peoples were disseminated, and when scientific data were codified visually. Yet partial, broken, or unrealized communications were–and remain–the norm in the Arctic.

Mark asked us to consider what is lost or gained along the often extensive 'journey' of people and visual materials from Britain to the Arctic and (usually) back. Such questions–whether around sovereignty (Indigenous and international), resource extraction, and climate change–defined the ‘hydroimperialism’ of the Arctic in the long 19th century, and arguably continue to do so today.

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