“Are There Even People There?” Re-reading Adrian Howkins and Grappling with “Going There”

A rocky island in the Svalbard archipelago

June 2019

Longyearbyen Airport is, at first glance, not dissimilar from most small regional airports in the United States. It receives several flights a day from a handful of commercial airlines, has a passenger waiting area with a coffee stand and souvenir shop, one baggage carousel, and not enough outlets for all of the passengers trying to charge their smartphones before their flights. Unlike most small airports in the U.S., it has a taxidermied adult polar bear in the luggage collection area, next to a sign asking travelers not to step on the carousel’s conveyor belt.

While waiting for my duffle bag to arrive, I pulled out my own smartphone and took a photograph of the bear to send to friends and colleagues back home. Guess where my dissertation took me this time! I know it looks like I’m in any old random airport, but I’m in the Arctic! You can tell by the bear!

A taxidermied polar bear situated on top of an airport baggage carousel
The Longyearbyen airport welcoming committee, (June 7, 2019). Photo by author.
[Image description: A taxidermied polar bear situated on top of an airport baggage carousel]

In that moment, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a short article I’d read and re-read by Adrian Howkins, “Have You Been There? Some Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica.” Howkins, who is a historian of Antarctica, writes of the sense of legitimacy that seems to settle on historians after they visit the places they study, especially if the places they study are little-visited by outsiders in general. “As a result of the relatively few people who have ever been to Antarctica,” Howkins writes from his own experience, “the act of visiting adds to the historian’s sense of legitimacy: they must know about the continent because they’ve been there, and their audience often has not.”[1] This sense of legitimacy is amplified by the difficulty seen to be inherent in traveling to, and living in, an extreme environment like Antarctica or the Arctic.

Yet my travel had not been challenging at all, unless you count jet lag and the cramped seats on Norwegian Air’s planes. After retrieving my bag, I would board a heated coach bus to take me from the airport to a hostel with free WiFi and a daily breakfast buffet. Further, unlike my previous dissertation-related jaunts, I was not planning to spend the next few weeks in libraries or conventional archives. So what was I even doing in the Longyearbyen Airport?

Longyearbyen is the administrative center and largest settlement (at roughly two thousand people) in Svalbard, a sparsely-populated archipelago that for the past century or so has been a part of the Kingdom of Norway. Located roughly six hundred and fifty miles south of the geographical North Pole, the archipelago has no Indigenous inhabitants. Beginning in the sixteenth century, European whaling crews visited and temporarily inhabited parts of Svalbard. In the late nineteenth century, coal and other mineral deposits were found on the various islands, and international mining companies and individual prospectors rushed in, transforming the island group into a kind of boomtown on the permafrost.

Longyearbyen itself is named after the American John Munro Longyear, whose Arctic Coal Company surveyed and mined sites in the archipelago in the early twentieth century. Norwegian sovereignty over the islands wasn’t formally established until 1920. Over the course of the twentieth century, Svalbard’s primary economic activities shifted away from coal mining and towards scientific research and adventure tourism.[2] As I had found out, the Norwegian authorities had invested in making it as logistically easy as possible for outsiders to visit Svalbard, despite its Arctic location.

I had traveled there to meet up with my fellow travelers in the Arctic Circle, a residency program for artists, writers, and scholars. As part of the residency, I would spend the next two weeks on a tallship called the Antigua with twenty-nine other participants, four guides, and a small crew. We’d be sailing around to visit various bays, glaciers, beaches, and abandoned mines and settlements in the mostly-uninhabited island group. All with the promise of spectacular vistas of Arctic beauty to inspire our creative work and stimulate cross-disciplinary conversations. As a doctoral student with a strong interest in Arctic histories, I planned to use the two weeks to write, to reflect on my work and positionality, and make connections with people with different but equally strong investments in incorporating Arctic spaces into their work.

A wooden sailing ship anchored in harbor in Arctic Ocean
The Antigua anchored in Lilliehöökfjorden, Svalbard (June 15, 2019). Photo by author.
[Image description: A wooden sailing ship anchored in harbor in Arctic Ocean]

In the months leading up to the trip, I found that when I described Svalbard and the residency to friends, family, and academic colleagues, there were some questions about the place itself (“Are there even people there?,” “Isn’t that the place from the Philip Pullman books?”).[3] Yet many simply expressed admiration that I would be going to a place I’d read and written about. “Then you’ll be able to tell people that you don’t just study the Arctic, you’ve actually been there!” was a common refrain.

This response always brought Howkins’s essay to mind. As he writes, “the question [of having been there] reveals the importance that historians themselves—especially environmental historians—attach to visiting the places they write about.”[4] Besides clout and a personal sense of investment, Howkins notes a few other benefits to “going there.” For example, having some kind of interaction with the local environment in the place they study can potentially give a historian insight into their historical actors’ behaviors and affects. And importantly, the process of being in a place can reveal non-traditional sources for the historian. I found this to be true during my time in Svalbard. I considered, for instance, how I might write about my close visual readings of historic structures my group visited, or incorporate the labels in the archipelago’s handful of tiny museums into my dissertation.

At the same time, Howkins warns, “Among the potential hazards of visiting the places we study is the assumption that our personal experiences of going there might be assumed to be universal.”[5] Our own enthusiasm about being in a place must be tempered with the understanding that that same place existed differently in the understandings of our historical actors, whether that place is a large, old city like Paris or Tokyo, or a region like the Arctic or Antarctica that is often falsely understood as unchanging over time, and ahistorical. We must also consider the immense privilege we often exercise in being able to go to the places we study. Longyearbyen’s commercial airport has made it an easier place to get to than it was a century earlier, but it is still very expensive to travel there. I was able to have the experience of “going there” because I was the privileged recipient of a grant that funded my participation in the Arctic Circle residency. This, in turn, came from my privilege as a graduate student at a wealthy private university.

For historians researching the polar regions, this point about privilege takes on an extra level of fraught-ness. Antarctica and the Arctic are extremely sensitive to the effects of global warming, and traveling to Svalbard from almost anywhere on the globe creates a significant carbon footprint. So do the cargo planes and ships that come in to Longyearbyen several times a week, bringing all of the goods necessary to satisfy tourists’ desire for comfort and familiarity. Tourism brings in much-needed revenue for locals in places like Longyearbyen and other northern communities in Alaska, Nunavut, and Greenland, where Indigenous families often need to supplement traditional subsistence practices with wage labor in order to survive. But tourism—particularly the large cruise ships that now chug through Arctic waters every summer—can also easily overwhelm the resources of these small towns and villages, disgorging hundreds or even thousands of visitors at once on communities and severely taxing their infrastructure—not to mention the patience of their local inhabitants.

A small orange cabin located on a rocky Arctic beach
The small, brightly-painted cabin was likely erected c. 1912 by the German shipping company Norddeutscher Lloyd, and painted bright orange at some point afterwards. Since at least the 1920s, it has been a popular stopping point for passengers on Arctic cruises, who have come ashore and left dozens of personal mementos inside the hut. Lloyds Hotel in Möllerfjorden, Svalbard, (June 16, 2019). Photo by author.
[Image description: A small orange cabin located in the middle of a rocky Arctic beach, with snowy mountains in the background]

Those of us on the Antigua were keenly aware of these issues and talked about them every day. Was our presence in Svalbard more harmful than helpful? Companies that organize and promote polar tourism often claim that once travelers have had a soul-stirring experience in the Arctic or Antarctica, they will become “advocates” for these regions. But there’s scant research to suggest that tourism to particular places translates into direct political action for land and sea conservation or against fossil fuels at any meaningful scale. The organizers of the Arctic Circle’s twice-yearly residency hope that participants will use their time in Svalbard to create art and writing that spur those who view or read that work to an empathetic awareness of how climate change has impacted the Arctic. But would this be enough? Would my boatmates and I just end up preaching to the choir?

Here again, I turned to Howkins, as I shared his article with my fellow travelers on the boat. “Visiting confers upon us a sense of legitimacy, which the mere act of going there does not necessarily deserve. It is what we do with our visits that matters,” Howkins concludes his article.[6] My own time in Svalbard pointed me to new directions and questions with my research, led to friendships and collaborations with my boatmates, and reinforced my own sense of urgency around anti-fossil fuel activism. Could I have accomplished some of these things without going to Svalbard? Probably. Did I relish the experience of being there for two weeks and recommend to colleagues that they apply? Absolutely.

Do I feel like I am now an “Arctic expert” because of this experience? No. If anything, it made me that much more aware of how much I don’t know. I don’t believe I will ever resolve the ambiguities around these issues that I felt on the trip. But I would also very much like to go back.

[1] Adrian Howkins, “Have You Been There? Some Thoughts on (Not) Visiting Antarctica,” Environmental History 15, no. 3 (July 2010), 515.

[2] For an overview of Svalbard’s history and current geopolitical status, see Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s “The Dream of Open Borders Is Real—in the High Arctic,” The Nation (July 29, 2019). Abrahamian was one of my fellow travelers on the Antigua in June of 2019.

[3] Yes, it is. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of novels incorporates a fantastical Svalbard as a setting; the archipelago is home to armored polar bears that form alliances with the human protagonists. According to a personal conversation relayed to author Dan Richards, Pullman himself has never been to Svalbard. Dan Richards, Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2019), 257.

[4] Howkins, “Have You Been There?,” 514.

[5] Ibid, 517.

[6] Ibid, 518.

*Cover image credit: The tallship Antigua casts a shadow over the pack ice west of Danskøya, Svalbard (June 19, 2019). Photo by author.

[Cover image description: a rocky island in the Svalbard archipelago, in the Arctic Ocean, surrounded by frozen sea]

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