Part III – Teaching Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North

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Editor’s Note: This is the introductory post to Part III of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

In the first two parts of this series, we focused our attention on the breadth and scope of research that engages with the visual and material cultures of the Circumpolar North. Contributions were expansive in their temporal, geographical, and material focus, with artists and scholars responding to contemporary and historic, Indigenous and settler pictures, installations, objects, and environments.

For the third installment of this collaborative JHI-NiCHE series, we take a different approach and turn our attention to teaching with, or on, the visual histories of the Circumpolar North. To introduce Part III and the seven posts that follow, we share our own experiences and thoughts on teaching in the field of circumpolar visual and material culture. This teaching is to a large extent framed by an ecocritical methodology, complementing art-historical approaches by thinking with landscape and environment. In Part III, we can see how students new to the Polar Humanities have responded to these approaches, what they see as important, and how colleagues at other institutions and in other disciplines are teaching with visual materials.

Teaching Ecocritical Art History

MC: Several years ago, the University of Toronto art history department decided to change the way it offered the introductory (mostly Western) art history course. No more survey and great works; we would instead have specific themes under the heading ‘Art and Ideas.’ On the upside, this was in 2017, years before the much touted and controversial adoption of a similar scheme at Yale. Then Chair of History of Art at Yale, Tim Barringer, was widely attacked in the media for overseeing this change and even compared to Joseph Stalin! “Stalin murdered nine million people,” Barringer responded, “while our Department is offering four, rather than two, 100-level courses. The parallel is imprecise, to say the least.”1 Less impressive was that our reasons, frankly, seemed more about maintaining or recovering enrollment than about any principle of what should be taught and how. Ever the idealist, I volunteered to teach a new ‘thematic’ introduction to western art. In 2018 my course website announced

This introduction to the history of art will examine a wide range of art and related practices, selected and discussed in connection with a special theme chosen by the instructor, ‘Art & Nature in the Anthropocene.’ With an emphasis on the visual arts in the Western tradition from c. 1500 to the present, we will discuss central movements, pivotal artists and works, and issues through the rubric of art’s many relationships with the terrestrial.

While both formal and informal evaluations from my 110 first-year students, mostly 17-18-year-olds, were broadly positive, I sensed throughout the course that many found the emphases on the planet strange, even frustrating, and wondered why they heard so little about, say, Rembrandt, or style, or iconography. No doubt I was projecting, but I felt they were asking ‘Why read about the Anthropocene instead of Cubism’? Of course, these weren’t either/or, on/off switches but instead matters of emphasis in what I focused on and what I wanted them to learn from the classes and readings. For example, we would discuss ‘Exploration, Colonization, and Cultivation’ across different global traditions instead of, say, moving according to the traditional art-historical, causal, and chronological canon through the genre of landscape. Most of the contemporary art we examined was ecoart. Conventional art-historical approaches and priorities – iconographic, stylistic, biographical, national – were used, but they were subsumed by my ecocritical agenda. Unlike Yale’s curriculum change, my approach was not primarily aimed at increasing the ‘diversity’ of the canon and did so only to the extent that I discussed image making around climate migration and featured Indigenous artists.

Gustaf Fjaestad, Spruce-top, 1906. Värmlands Museum. Public domain.

A few worries about this course and the places where we can do ecocritical art history have stayed with me. If one is fortunate enough to teach in a university, individual courses are not islands but part of a larger, better, or less well-planned curriculum. I often teach these themes to higher-year undergraduates and to graduate students, specifically with a focus on the Arctic. But first-year courses are unique in terms of approach and the instructor’s responsibilities. How well did I prepare these students for a subsequent course in, say, photography in the 19th century? Should one be a ‘gradualist’ with ecocritical approaches, seeking to blend (or blend in) with traditional canons and teaching? Or perhaps the disruptiveness of this course was and can be effective, by which I mean introduce modest change in the priorities of the discipline.

Teaching Arctic Environments

IG: The teaching of Arctic environments has been largely defined by disciplinary boundaries and is predominantly taught within the sciences and social sciences, although there is an increasing number of Polar Humanities courses. When tasked with redesigning an art history undergraduate course, previously taught by Mark, on the image cultures of Arctic voyaging, I saw this as an opportunity to not only expand the geographical scope of the syllabus but to also introduce multidisciplinary perspectives of and approaches to the circumpolar environment. 

Over the past few years my own research has gravitated more towards the overlapping interests of art history and environmental history. This is also reflected in my teaching. Leading with the object or picture offers exciting ways of thinking through environmental, material, and visual histories. For example, when I showed an image of Silas Sandgreen’s driftwood and sealskin map in a seminar, but provided no context or image details; there were some interesting results.2 Not only did my class have to look closely at the object and note any distinguishing features, but it also encouraged them to think about what they were looking at. A map was not the first thing that came to mind, but they were immediately drawn towards the materiality of the object. Bart Pushaw’s contribution to Part I of the series is a perfect example of the questions raised by an object’s materiality. In our class, however, sealskin resulted in a conversation around circumpolar mobility. Not only were we tracing the paths of explorers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but we also tracked the materials that became constituent parts of image and object making in the Arctic.

Silas Sandgreen, Map of the Crown Prince Islands, Disko Bay, Greenland, Sealskin, driftwood, sinew,
pigment, nails, plywood board. 1925-1926, 89 x 61 x 4 cm. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C.

Arranged thematically and accounting for different media, including painting, print, photography, and film, this course allowed guest speakers to share their interpretation of visual media and also share their research into and knowledge of the Arctic. Research areas within the fields of geography, glaciology, architecture, and the history of science were all shared through the themes of ice, extraction, forced relocations, and the material cultures of exploration. Here, students were tasked with reading several contributions to the series, such as Sarah Pickman’s “The World’s Morgue,” Matthew Farish’s Potential Resources, and Caroline Abbott’s “We Turned our Eyes Away.” All offered glimpses into the interdisciplinarity of thinking visually about the circumpolar north. Perhaps the best in-class example of this interdisciplinarity, was an engaging guest lecture by and conversation with Dr Lauren Rawlins, a glaciologist at the University of York, who shared not only her reading of several exploratory pictures but also her own research practice into the Greenland Ice Sheet using drone devices. By the end, my class was admittedly perhaps more enthralled by glaciology than art history!

Twenty years ago, the glaciologist Peter G. Knight wrote that “The future of glacier science must be a future of collaboration.”2 While this is now largely true across many fields, not just glaciology, I am increasingly interested in what this looks like in a pedagogical, and visually-orientated, setting. As I start a new position, tasked in-part with devising several new courses over the next five years, I continue to wonder what a multidisciplinary and collaborative environmental art history pedagogy should, and perhaps needs to, look like.


The authors of Part III are undergraduate and graduate students from our courses Arctic Anthropocene? Image Cultures of Arctic Voyaging and GeoAesthetics: Image Cultures of Arctic Voyaging in the long 19th Century at the University of Toronto in 2022-23. For these students, Arctic art history and visual culture was new. Their contributions, however, indicate a growing student appetite for thinking interdisciplinarily about Arctic histories, environments, and visual cultures. Towards the end of the series, we will also feature the experiences of two colleagues, at different North American institutions, and how they have approached teaching Arctic environments and visual histories to students in the fields of Art History and Geography. Taken together, the reflections in Part III should inflect and perhaps change how one reads the posts in Parts I and II. We encourage you to have a look back to these as you read these posts on pedagogy.


[1] Dushko Petrovich Cordova, “Where Should Art History Go in the Future? As Survey Courses Change, the Past Evolves,” ARTNews, July 28, 2020, accessed August 31, 2023.

[2] For more on Silas Sandgreen’s map see: Isabelle Gapp & Bart Pushaw, “Mobility, materiality, and memory: Silas Sandgreen and the construction of Kalaallit cartography in the 1920s,” Konsthistorisk tidskrift/Journal of Art History 92, no.2 (2023): 152-170, DOI: 10.1080/00233609.2023.2197432

[3] Peter G. Knight, “Glaciers: art and history, science and uncertainty”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 29, no.4 (2004): 392.

Feature image: John Savio, Konfirmanter, n.d. Image: Saviomusea/Savio museum.
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Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham

Isabelle Gapp and Mark Cheetham are the co-editors of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series. Alongside Matt Farish and Ivana Dizdar (and formerly Mark), Isabelle is the co-lead of the Jackman Humanities Institute Working Group Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North at the University of Toronto. Mark is a Professor of Art History at UofT and Isabelle is an Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen.

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