The Friendly Arctic exhibition features a selection of Vilhjálmur Stefansson’s photographs, manuscripts and publications, excerpts from his diaries, introductory texts, and Arctic items and objects. An explorer, anthropologist and a prolific writer, Stefansson (1879-1962) was often referred to as the Prophet of the North and his legacy remains intimately connected to current issues of human-environmental relations, sustainable use of natural resources, and social and cultural viability in the Arctic region. His legacy is especially important for what he did to change the image of the Arctic, moving it from the periphery of being perceived as a bleak frozen wasteland towards a centre of international significance and attention. The core of his message was that by keeping an open attitude and learning from the people whose ancestors lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, adapting to the environment and accumulating a body of knowledge handed down between generations, we discover that the Arctic can be a friendly and hospitable place.
Stefansson’s message was controversial among his contemporaries, many of who did not sympathize with his role as an advocate for the Inuit way of life. Many Arctic explorers were in fact quite uninterested in the people of the far north and showed little appreciation for their culture. Stefansson's progressive attitude stood out with his plea for the end of ethnocentrism and critique of the European cultural intrusion. In his lectures he would present Inuit society as a mirror for his Western audience to reflect on their own society. Why were they not happy, in spite of the material wealth? He claimed to know people who owned almost nothing in terms of material belongings and yet were the happiest humans he knew. He engaged in such ethnographic cultural critique long before this became fashionable.
Stefansson's photographs affirm his positive image and constructive attitude towards the Far North and its inhabitants. They bear witness to resourceful and energetic people, worthy of our respect, whose culture and technology successfully adapted to the natural environment, thereby turning it to their favour. Vilhjálmur adhered to the basic anthropological principle that by only placing oneself in the situation of other people is it possible to understand them. Such is also the spirit of The Friendly Arctic exhibition. As visitors journey through the exhibition, following in Stefansson’s footsteps, they travel over the vast Arctic regions of North America, gaining insight into the great explorer’s thoughts and experiences.
The Friendly Arctic Exhibition is produced by the Stefansson Arctic Institute, Akureyri and Visionis ehf, Reykjavik, Iceland, in collaboration with Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. Most of the photographs come from the Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth College Library. The Exhibition was first opened in Akureyri Art Museum in November 2000; subsequent openings include Reykjavík Art Museum, Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont (2002), Scandinavia House in New York City (2004), and North Atlantic House in Copenhagen (2007). Small-scale versions of the Exhibit have been on display in Gimli, Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Iqaluit in Nunavut. Exhibition showings have received support from Evelyn Stefansson Nef, the Reykjavik City of Culture 2000, the town of Akureyri, Alcan Inc, and the Icelandic Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Venues of proposed further openings are: Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories (2007) and other Canadian locations yet to be confirmed; Scott Polar Research Institute at University of Cambridge, UK, and the Arktikum Museum in Rovaniemi, Finland.