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On the Ice: Kerouac, Franklin, and the Northwest Passage

After a wonderful evening at the Of Water symposium at Westminster University, I had a few hours in London this morning before heading back north so I took the opportunity to check out the exhibit on Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage at the British Library, which was curated by a team with a number of connections to colleagues at Royal Holloway.

The first thing that I noticed about the exhibit was just how small it is. Given the excellent affiliated lecture programme (click here, here, and here), I had assumed that the Northwest Passage display was going to be in the big exhibit space and not the corridor reserved for secondary exhibits. The exhibit’s size and placement has a silver lining in that there’s no charge to enter. However, notwithstanding an audio-loop in one corner playing the sounds of shifting ice floes, the exhibit environment means that it lacks a certain immersive quality.

Over all, the central theme of ‘Lines in the Ice’ is a presentation on how the Arctic (and, in particular, the search for the Northwest Passage) has long been an object of the European romantic imagination.

As the introductory placard notes:

The Arctic has been a source of fascination for centuries. The quest for new trade routes such as the fabled Northwest Passage, the lure of precious resources, international politics and sublime grandeur of the Arctic have drawn Europeans north since at least Tudor times.

This narrative, in turn, is continually contrasted with a reminder that the real Arctic is not (and has never been) the exotic frontier romanticised by European explorers. Thus the introduction continues:

But the Arctic is not an empty land. It is populated by cultures with an intimate relationship to the landscape – a relationship that would change as explorers and the indigenous peoples came together.

So far, so good. But for a very small exhibit of just 30 or 40 artifacts, it tries to cover a lot of ground. This includes the history of Europe’s romanticisation of the North, the complex power relations of the European-indigenous Arctic encounter, the rationalist casting of the Arctic as a space that one simply travels through, and the continuation of all three of these tropes in contemporary attempts at naming and claiming Arctic space. In addition, all of these themes are wrapped in an extended meditation on the meaning of lines in the North: Lines of transit, lines of division, lines on maps, lines of connection, and even the banality of a clothes-line swaying in the Arctic wind. These are all among the ‘Lines in the Ice’ captured in the exhibit’s title.

The last exhibit that I saw in this space was in 2012 when the British Library displayed the original scroll of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Not unlike the search for the Northwest Passage, On the Road is similarly a tale about an unhealthy obsession for a magical pathway: Sal Paradise’s Road, like Sir John Franklin’s Passage, is idealised as a passage to a better life, but in fact both routes go nowhere. The stories of Franklin and Paradise are both about following (and constructing) lines that are simultaneously rational vectors of conveyance (the Road, the Passage) and destinations in their own right. And in both cases we learn that amidst this mixture of objectives illusion can overtake reality, with disastrous consequences.

In the Kerouac exhibit, although the scroll was the centrepiece, there was a continual thread that merged the journey portrayed in the book with the journey of Kerouac’s life and the Beat community around which so much of his life revolved. Elements of the Northwest Passage exhibit similarly suggest continuities between the mythic European quest for the key to the northern frontier and the various journeys taken in northern Canada (by Franklin, by Franklin’s would-be rescuers, by others searching for the Passage, and, ultimately, by the contemporary Canadian government). However, the sparseness of the exhibit leaves many of these parallels lurking in the background. More problematic is a lack of engagement with Inuit lines of travel across the same space, like those portrayed by Claudio Aporta and Michael Bravo  in their Pan-Inuit Trails project. An engagement with Inuit mobilities (or counter-mobilities) might have allowed the curators to maintain a view from multiple perspectives while further positioning the exhibit as a critique of line-drawing in a fundamentally non-linear environment. Instead, the dominant image is of a static Inuit background disrupted by European explorations (and line-drawings). An attempt at the very end of the exhibit to show the Inuit engaged in line-drawing (and naming) in the Arctic is marred by the inexplicable use of a map of Nunavik to illustrate the formation of Nunavut.

In short, as many others have noted, the Arctic is a complex place, where lines are continually being drawn and erased, and where they are assigned multiple meanings. This is aptly demonstrated by the various journeys in pursuit of the Northwest Passage: in journeys that have sought to navigate its length for grandeur and empire, but also in journeys that have cut across its width as part of everyday travel patterns. This complexity is hinted at in ‘Lines in the Ice’, but the brief exhibit ultimately reveals only the tip of the iceberg.



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