The British Library Searches For A Northwest Passage

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By M@ Last edited 44 months ago
The British Library Searches For A Northwest Passage ★★★★☆ 4
Seeking the Northwest Passage
Seeking the Northwest Passage
‘A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, Moses Pitt, from The English Atlas (1680) - the personal atlas of King Charles II. Photograph courtsey of the British Library.
‘A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, Moses Pitt, from The English Atlas (1680) - the personal atlas of King Charles II. Photograph courtsey of the British Library.
Inuit people. A ritual.
Kaladlit Oklluktualliait [Greenland Legends], Godthaab (1859-63), woodcuts of traditional Greenlandic Inuit stories, produced in the 19th century by an indigenous artist. Photography courtesy of the British Library.
Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat, Peter Halkett (1848). This boat, developed in London and tested on the River Thames, was an early inflatable dinghy that doubled as a cloak (with a sail that doubled as an umbrella).
Boat-Cloak or Cloak-Boat, Peter Halkett (1848). This boat, developed in London and tested on the River Thames, was an early inflatable dinghy that doubled as a cloak (with a sail that doubled as an umbrella).
An early illustration of Santa Claus, transposed from Lapland to the North Pole after a wave of popular interest in the pole. Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings. London (New York), 1890. Photograph courtesy of the British Library
An early illustration of Santa Claus, transposed from Lapland to the North Pole after a wave of popular interest in the pole. Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings. London (New York), 1890. Photograph courtesy of the British Library
John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery … enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. London, 1819. Photography courtesy of the British Library.
John Ross, A Voyage of Discovery … enquiring into the possibility of a North-West Passage. London, 1819. Photography courtesy of the British Library.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

This exhibition of high Arctic adventure fits the architecture well. The British Library is something of an iceberg itself, sinking as far underground as it rises above Euston Road. You only have to head up to the first floor, however, to find this small temporary show about the search for the Northwest Passage.

For centuries, European explorers and surveyors were drawn to the unforgiving lands to the north of Canada, seeking a trade route through to the Pacific. Their attempts were long thwarted by punishing conditions and perilous sea ice.

As this exhibition shows, they were also hindered by human error and ignorance. One particularly absorbing section displays maps of the Arctic, riddled with make-believe islands and straits of open water that had no basis in reality. One Tolkeinesque chart provides a detailed map of the non-existent island of Thule, complete with cities and geological features.

Meanwhile, the native populations were creating maps of their own, the like of which we've never seen before. Rather than use paper and ink, which weren't in any case available, the Inuit would carve the pattern of bays and peninsulas into a piece of wood. The result, shown at the exhibition in reproduction, is a sinuous sculpture that is both a work of art and a tangible guide to the coastline. Remarkable.

The rest of the exhibition concerns itself with western exploration by the likes of Franklin and Amundson, including the latter's attempts to reach the Pole by blimp and aeroplane. The story is told through books, maps and illustrations, plus a couple of audio terminals where you can hear the sound of frisky walrus or a creaking iceberg.

The only irk is the over-attentive security guard, ready to pounce on anyone taking photos, which seems unnecessary. Otherwise, this is an excellent way to spend half an hour. The collated material is all of interest and prompts the visitor to go away with a piqued curiosity for the remote region, its peoples and exploration.

The Search for a Northwest Passage is on at the British Library until 29 March 2015. Entrance is free.

Last Updated 14 November 2014