Gender and histories of Arctic field science, 1900-1950

Narratives of Arctic travel and exploration typically focus on heroic exploits, tales of derring-do and, in a large number of cases, terrible tragedy. The nineteenth century search for the Northwest Passage, and later for the lost crews of Sir John Franklin, saw over 200 European expeditions travel into the Arctic for a range of reasons. In these stories indigenous people are often side lined, as are stories of women travellers in the far north.

This project provides the opportunity to explore the stories of a range of women in the Arctic, and explore attitudes to women scientists, travellers and collectors in the early 20th century. The project will focus on Phyllis Wager and her sister in law, Kit, but with the opportunity to develop a comparative focus on other key actors, such as Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Phyllis Wager spent significant time over-wintering in Greenland on the British East Greenland Expedition 1935-6. The expedition was led by her husband, Professor L.R. Wager, known as Bill. Among the expedition party was Dr H.G. Wager – the brother of L.R. – and his wife, as well as several Greenlandic people. Phyllis was described as being ‘responsible for all the domestic matters and sometimes assisting with the geological work’, while her sister in law was credited as an ‘assistant botanist’. The Wager archive is based at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). A preliminary investigation has revealed that the OUMNH has 8 boxes of material on the British East Greenland Expedition 1935-6. The catalogue lists letters to suppliers in her hand as well as a draft article that she wrote. We imagine there is a reasonable amount of material by and about her as the report covers organisation and arrangements; diaries and notes; reports, publications and lectures; and later correspondence and research. The OUMNH also some material instruments, including the dog sleds used by the Wagers. The key for this collaboration is that the SPRI also hold important collections. Of the 80 objects in the SPRI collection linked with L.R. Wager’s expeditions, some 20 are specifically associated with Phyllis, including a typewriter, a range of clothing thought to have been worn by her and some indigenous material cultural artefacts. There is also relevant material at the Royal Geographical Society and other archives. We envisage that after the research on Wager has been undertaken, a second case can be formed around Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Hutchison travelled independently in the Arctic in the 1920s and 30s. She published widely and was a well-known public figure, appearing on the BBC as it boomed in popularity in its first decade. A biography of Hutchison was published in 2001 by Gwyneth Hoyle. Rather than trying to replicate Hoyle’s work, this project will seek to place Hutchison in a wider, comparative context of female Arctic scientists. It will also provide the opportunity to focus on the material culture left behind by Hutchison in the collections of SPRI and National Museums Scotland, Hutchison’s role as a collector is not explored in detail in Hoyle’s book, or in other publications about Hutchison’s travels. These two contrasting examples offer an excellent starting point for this exploration of women scientists in the twentieth-century Arctic. Their histories complicate simplistic origin and identity stories for Arctic field science. They provide an opportunity to explore the different ways in which European travellers interacted with indigenous Arctic people, and the ways in which Arctic travels were shared with audiences – whether on lecture tours or early BBC broadcasts, or through scientific publications and collection of materials for museums which continue to influence what museums display about the Arctic today.

Grant reference
Arts and Humanities Research Council
Total awarded
£0 GBP
Start date
30 Sep 2020
3 years 3 months 1 day
End date
31 Dec 2023