The Polar Muse

The Polar Muse aims to harness the power of poetry to do what conventional museum interpretation can’t do: to engage with objects imaginatively, going beyond the handful of facts you can fit on a caption. Eight of Cambridge’s most exciting and innovative poets have been commissioned to select an object from the collection as inspiration for a new poem, and given access to the full breadth of the Scott Polar Research Institute’s library and archive resources to conduct research. Their poems will be presented on the glass of the display cases, in front of the object about which they are written, as both an added layer of curation and interpretation, and a new creation in their own right.




The Polar Muse
- Poetry as curation at The Polar Museum

24th September - 28th February 2015

Opening Times:
Tuesday - Saturday, 10am - 4pm
open Bank Holiday Mondays

Admission is free

pdfDownload exhibition flyer

Blog post by Drew Milne

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Arctic hazes and reindeer lichen: visibility poor — by Drew Milne (7th October 2014)

Over the summer of 2014 SWERUS-C3 scientists revealed that they have observed vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor of the Laptev continental slope, with bubbles reaching the surface. This marks early notice of what could become a new catastrophic turn in the development of global warming. Thawing of the subsea permafrost in the Arctic ocean could release so much methane that it becomes simply impossible to stop global warming spiralling out of control.

The impact of human industrial activity on the Arctic is not a new phenomenon. Even as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, there were sightings of what has become known as 'arctic haze'. Arctic haze is visible as reddish-brown springtime haze high in the Arctic sky and reflects, in a literal sense, the build up of anthropogenic air pollutants. Early explorers and whalers could not see where the foggy layer was coming from, and, according to Wikipedia, 'poo-jok' was the term the Inuit used for the phenomenon. Joe Minden and I have tried tracing the evidence for this Inuit term, not least because it connotes rather effectively in English, but without being able to draw any firm conclusions. It seems indicative of a non-Inuit transcription haze, part of a culture of half-recognitions and misnomers as humans struggle to understand their differences and their seemingly disastrous impact on the planet.

It was not until the 1980s that scientists began to accumulate evidence and understanding of arctic haze, a process in which the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) has played a significant role. In 1985 SPRI hosted an important global conference, the papers from which appeared in Arctic Air Pollution, ed. Bernard Stonehouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). This book, while almost a generation out of date now, still contains important and collectively articulated discussions of pollution. I bought the book at a very reasonable price from The Polar Museum shop, and discovered, reading through the book, a series of overlaps with my ongoing research into the politics and poetics of lichens.

When the Polar Muse project was first suggested to me, I knew that I wanted to write about Arctic lichen and the glimpses of lichen in The Polar Museum's collection. Reindeer lichen play a significant part in the ecosystem of plants, animals and humans in the Arctic. Reindeer lichen is an essential food for reindeer, especially when there is precious little else for the reindeer to eat. Lichen have also long been known to environmentalists as sensitive monitors of air pollution, in ways that run much deeper into our world than most humans have any inkling of. To cite one minor example, litmus paper is made from lichens. To cite a more extended example, I knew from my own investigations into nuclear pollution – some of which informs the book Reactor Red Shoes (London: Veer, 2013) which I co-wrote with John Kinsella – that Arctic lichens have absorbed radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing from the 1950s and 1960s. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 also saw widespread contamination of northern and Arctic lichens, with direct impact on the reindeer who eat such lichens, and on the peoples who live with, eat and depend on the reindeer, such as the Sámi people. Arctic people have for generations been living with high levels of nuclear contamination absorbed by lichens.

Appropriately, then, given my interests, I was delighted to find a small clump of reindeer lichen on display in The Polar Museum. There is no signage in the museum to explain what this clump is, nor is there any clear provenance for this modest clump, whether it is even from the Arctic, how it came to be in the museum, and so on. And I hope this little clump will remain without signage or caption to name its necessary presence in the museum. My poem 'reindeer lichen' nevertheless offers a series of perspectives on what it might be to see and understand reindeer lichen. Part of the history is that reindeer lichen are widely called 'reindeer moss', but lichens are not related to any moss or plant. There's a much longer story to be told of how lichens in general have been misnamed or misrecognised. Being a symbiosis of algae and fungi, lichens are a collective, mutually-interdependent life form. But recognition of the fascinating biology of lichens is relatively recent. It is not only folkish naming that misnames reindeer lichen a moss, even the scientists have struggled. Linnean classification made something of a mess of categorising lichens, and for a while they appear under the category of 'cryptogams'.

One aspect of my research involved trying to work out when Arctic explorers might first have been able to recognise reindeer lichen as lichen, using the available botanical guidebooks. There are doubtless other possible resources, but one relatively early book to name and represent reindeer lichen that Arctic explorers might plausibly have taken with them, is the New Cyclopaedia of Botany and complete Book of Herbs; forming a history and description of all plants, British or Foreign, published in London and Huddersfield in two volumes in the 1850s. This relatively inexpensive book could easily have been among the scientific resources taken on a voyage to the Arctic from the mid nineteenth century onwards. Having tracked down and bought the relevant page and illustration from a dealer in antique prints, I have offered it as a gift to The Polar Museum, and I'm delighted to see it installed in the exhibition, not least because of the early colouring techniques applied to the plates.

lichen plate
Illustrative plate from 'New Cyclopaedia of Botany and complete Book of Herbs; forming a history and description of all plants, British or Foreign' by Richard Brook, undated, but published, according to British Library date, by W. M. Clarke in Huddersfield (1854). Image courtesy of Drew Milne

My poem 'reindeer lichen' makes no reference to the New Cyclopaedia of Botany, but registers some of the layers of misrecognition involved in looking at reindeer lichen in a museum glass case. It has been suggested that early Arctic explorers might have had much better diets if they had recognised the value of reindeer lichen as a nutritious food, not least for reindeer, and seen its role in the lives of indigenous people. Although there were always scientific interests involved in non-indigenous expeditions, it seems clear that eyes were ultimately focused on less tangible ideals, such as trade routes, profits, the pole itself, even the unknown as such. Through the various types of arctic haze, lichen have scarcely been noticed, and the modest visibility of a clump of lichen amid the trophies and relics of the museum seems all too appropriate.

New adventurers, using advanced technologies, have recently discovered one of the lost ships of Sir John Franklin. Contemporary scientists are also at the centre of the environmental research necessary to address global warming. There have been some hints of progress. A recent UN report finds evidence that the ozone layer might be recovering. Now that methane has started bubbling up through the Arctic ocean, it will require collective adventures of human spirit to reverse processes which appear beyond the tipping point of environmental human self-destruction. Lichens will probably survive even the most disastrous climate change, but humans will not. The modest proposal emerges: let us see humans through lichen eyes.