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One of a series of 15 magic lantern illustrations, showing the Vega expedition (1878-80), the first arctic expedition that sailed all the way through the Northeast Passage. The probably German illustrator, whose name is unknown, mapped and illustrated Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld’s expedition in all its adventurous and dramatic stages (courtesy the Royal Library in Stockholm)

In art and literature, the Arctic has long been a source of wonder and terror. See, for instance, the grisly paintings that responded to the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, such as Edwin Landseer’s “Man Proposes, God Disposes” (1864), in which two polar bears rapturously gnaw on human bones and the wreck of a ship. Now images of its icy terrain resonate with anxiety, as climate change and rising waters put its future at risk. The foreboding landscapes that people died trying to conquer in the 19th and early 20th centuries are today environmentally fragile, and considering how culture has represented the arctic in the past can influence how threats are communicated in the present.

The Arctic Imagination site (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Arctic Imagination project is an international collaboration between six libraries: the New York Public Library (NYPL), the Royal Danish Library, National Library of Norway, National Library of Sweden, Central Library of Greenland, and the Stockholm Public Library. On September 21, it launched in New York with a talk between artist Olafur Eliasson and professor of geology Minik Rosing (accessible online in an archived Livestream). The next NYPL Arctic Imagination discussion is December 5, with author Naomi Klein and journalist Martin Breum, with previous events at the various libraries available to watch online.

A virtual component is Polar Treasures, with digitized items from the partnered libraries around four themes: “Traveling Towards Tragedy,” “Mapping Myths,” “Tales of Heroes,” and “Through the Looking Glass.” They include a 1926 film from the National Library of Norway of the airship Norge, in which Roald Amundsen carried out the first overflight of the North Pole, a 1595 map by Gerardus Mercator at the Royal Danish Library that depicted the North Pole as a giant whirlpool, and a selection from NYPL’s incredible menu collection: a 1907 fundraising dinner for explorer Robert Peary (featuring a “crème glacée” dessert named for him).

Menu for an April 16, 1907 dinner in honor of Robert Peary (courtesy New York Public Library)

“The Arctic Imagination project has given us the opportunity to present hidden and previously unknown gems from the archives of the participating libraries; photographs, books and manuscripts, which have been digitized and made accessible to the public,” Pernille Drost, deputy director general of the Royal Danish Library, stated in a release. “These materials give a unique insight to the arctic explorations throughout hundreds of years, its folklore and myths and great beauty.”

Whether a library initiative — no matter how many major institutions it involves — can bring new voices into the conversation, will be a challenge. Still, it’s encouraging to see more cultural hubs getting involved in climate change through programming and their historic collections. The materials, like the 1869 Hayes and Bradford Arctic Expedition iceberg photographs at NYPL, portray the Arctic as a place of power. A century and a half later, its melting ice masses are an alarm bell for the Earth’s future. As Eliasson stated at the NYPL talk, “The library is not about where we come from … it’s very much about where we’re going to go.”

Photograph by J. Lindhard from the Danish expedition to Northeast Greenland (1906-1908 (courtesy the Royal Danish Library)

Illustration of the great polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who stands on top of the world (on the North Pole) on a sardine box from 1896 (courtesy the National Library in Oslo)

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...