Polar Historian

Histories of Antarctica, the Arctic, and Beyond

Thomas Cauvin, Public History: A Textbook of Practice (Routledge, 2016)

Introduction: Historians’ Public Roles and Practices

Part 1: Collecting, Managing, and Preserving the Past

  1. Collection Management: Archives, Manuscripts, and Museums
  2. Historic Preservation
  3. Collecting and Preserving People’s Stories: Oral History, Family History, and Everyday Life.

Part II: Making Public History: Media and Practice

  1. Public History Writing
  2. Editing Historical Texts
  3. Interpreting and Exhibiting the Past
  4. Radio and Audio-Visual Production
  5. Digital Public History
  6. Immersive Environments or Making the Past Alive

Part III: Collaboration and Uses of the Past

  1. Teaching Public History: Creating and Sustaining University Programs
  2. Shared Authority: Purposes, Challenges, and Limits
  3. Civic Engagement and Social Justice: Historians as Activists
  4. Historians as Consultants and Advisors: Clients, Courtroom, and Public Policy.


This is an excellent book and one that I plan to use in my future teaching.  More than just being a “how to” guide for public history, this book offers fascinating discussion of the practice of history more generally and the role of historians in public life, broadly defined.  It begins with a discussion of the development of the history profession, and looks at how “public history” has developed as something of a separate field.  There are a number of “origin stories” to public history, ranging from Benjamin Schambaugh’s early twentieth century idea of an “applied history,” to Raphael Samuels’ History Workshop movement at Ruskin College Oxford, to oral histories conducted by the WPA and Allan Nevins at Columbia, to the work of the historians in the National Park Service and other federal agencies.  The field in its current form emerged at the University of California Santa Barbara during the academic hiring crisis of the 1970s under the direction of Robert Kelley.  This idea of public history as an “alternative” or “plan B” perhaps helps to explain some of the stigma still attached to the field.  It also helps to explain why public history as currently practiced is rooted in US academia.  Cauvin’s approach is as thoroughly international as possible, but his discussion remains focused on the United States.

The introduction contains a short discussion of the question of what public history means by “public,” but generally the book doesn’t get bogged down in theory and uses a definition of public history based on what public historians do.  The idea of practice is central to the book, and this is very much a practical guide.  Some of the chapters will be of more interest to individual readers than others.  For example, the text editing chapter was less interest to me than the digital history chapter.  But there is fascinating and useful information throughout.  The chapter on “shared authority” is central to all that public historians do, and it would perhaps have made a better concluding chapter than the discussion of consultants and advisors, which seems to bring the book to a somewhat abrupt end.  This is a book that very nicely captures the state of the field of public history (at least from the perspective of an outsider) and it will reward frequent re-reading.

Daniel Haines, Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan (Oxford: OUP, 2016)


  1. The Problem of Territory
  2. Territorial Hyrdo-Logics
  3. Sovereignty Entabglements in Kashmir
  4. Punjab’s Riverine Borderlands
  5. Spaces of Cooperation
  6. Negotiating International Politics
  7. The Phantom of Cooperation



This book examines the history of the Indus River basin during the period of independence and partition up to and beyond the 1960 treaty that brought a partial closure to the conflict between India and Pakistan.  It argues that territoriality and sovereignty were central to the water politics of the basin and that broader historical circumstances of decolonization and the Cold War, shaped the history of the river basin.  The introduction suggests that environmental history is often excluded from histories of decolonization, and this book goes a long way to suggesting how productive environmental histories of decolonization might be.  The first two chapters set out the essential problem: the territories assigned to India and Pakistan after independence did not align neatly with the geography of the Indus basin, meaning that many of the rivers that constitute this watershed originate in India, but then flow through Pakistan.  There are different ways of dealing with water at an international boundary, but the disputed nature of the formation of this two states meant that they were essentially making up the rules as they were going along.  This was complicated even further by disputes over Kashmir, which occupies an important location within the Indus River watershed.   There was a tremendous emphasis on developmentalism in both countries (especially after Gandhi’s death), meaning that irrigation and water took on an even more important political component.  Even though the two countries were able to agree on the 1960 Treaty, the conflict hasn’t entirely gone away as new factors such as increasing population and climate change are altering some of the basic assumptions of the agreement.  Perhaps the book could say a little more about the physical realities of water and irrigation, and perhaps add more detail about how the river basin was understood by scientists and engineers on both sides of the conflict.  But it is a very nicely written discussion of the importance of the environment in the political history of decolonization.

Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall, The Scramble for the Poles (Polity, 2016)


  1. Scrambling for the Extraordinary
  2. Making and Remaking the Polar Regions
  3. Under Ice and Snow
  4. Governing the Arctic and Antarctic
  5. New Resource Frontiers
  6. Opening up the Poles
  7. Polar Demands and Demanding Polar Regions


Dodds and Nuttall’s The Scramble for the Poles offers a fascinating insight into the past, present, and future of the Arctic and Antarctica.  As would be expected from a geographer and an anthropologist, the book’s perspective is very much informed by these two disciplines, especially geography.  The book likes to play with words and ideas.  The authors acknowledge, for example, that the “scramble” of the book’s title is not unproblematic, but they like its implications as both a hurried effort to do something and a mixing and confusing.  But alongside the geography and the anthropology there is a significant historical dimension to this work.  In agreement with Andrew Stuhl’s argument, for example, Dodds and Nuttall suggest that there is little new about the supposedly “New Arctic,” with activities such as resource exploitation and “frontier mentalities” having existed for centuries.  There is lots in common with my The Polar Regions book in the thematic approach, and the book engages with similar topics such as exploration, resource exploitation, environmental change, and governance.  The penultimate chapter contains a very interesting discussion of “emerging powers,” especially Chinese, interest in the Polar Regions, and introduces the useful idea of a “Polar Orientalism.”  Overall, the book is certainly weighted toward the Arctic, and scholars of Antarctica might be left wanting a little more.  But this is a rich interpretation of the two Polar Regions and the connections between them, and contains lots of interesting ideas that help us to understand these two regions.

Polar Star

Just back from a short field season in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (more on that soon).  While at McMurdo Station on the way home, I got a chance to visit the Polar Star, the only working icebreaker in the US fleet:


It was a very interesting experience, and we had a wonderful tour from one of the coastguard personnel.  But the visit brought home to me just how dilapidated and fragile US polar logistics have become.  The Polar Star is something of a floating museum and it sounds like it spends almost all of the time it is not in Antarctica being repaired for the following season.  Apparently there is a new icebreaker on its way, but this won’t be available for another few years.  More than my previous two visits to McMurdo, the place seemed a little old and tired.  The LC 130 that few us down doesn’t seem to be in a much better condition than the Polar Star.  It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to the US Antarctic Program over the next few years…

Kathleen Winter, Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage (London: Jonathan Cape, 2015)

Very nicely written account of a tourist voyage through the Northwest Passage on board the Clipper Adventurer in summer 2010. Part travelogue, part memoir the novelist Kathleen Winter was clearly profoundly affected by her experience of the Arctic. Winter moved from England to Canada at the age of eight, and the book reflects on questions of identity and belonging. It frequently returns to the question of colonialism, and what it means to claim and possess territory in the Arctic (it refers to the English as Marmalados as a consequence of their tendency to take bright, exotic things – such as Seville Oranges – back to England). Towards the end of the book there is a very interesting discussion of the problems inherent to the term “Northwest Passage,” which implies that the definition comes from outside and that the place itself is only of utility for passing through. Following this discussion, it would have been good if Winter had explained why she continues to use this term in the book’s title. Lots of similarities with Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica.


I spent several days this past week at the Long Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) All Scientists Meeting (ASM) in Estes Park, Colorado. The LTER is a network of 25 sites around the United States and further afield – I’m involved as the environmental history co-PI on the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER. This was my third ASM meeting, and I’m starting to feel at home, despite being a historian rather than an ecologist. Along with Anita Guerinni from Oregon State University I helped to run a session on history and the LTER network. We’re hoping to put together a workshop on this theme with the aim of producing an edited collection about history and the LTER network. If anyone is interested in this topic, please get in touch.

In Alaska

I’m currently in Alaska conducting research for an environmental history of the Polar Regions.  So far I’ve visited Anchorage, Cordova, and Valdez, and my research has mostly focused on the history of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.  The archives at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks were very useful, although memorial day weekend reduced my research time a little.  I’ve also been very impressed with the history museums in all three towns I’ve visited.  The Anchorage Museum was particularly impressive, although its displays on the trans-Alaska pipeline and Exxon Valdez oil spill are noticeably less critical than the displays in Cordova and Valdez.  

Scotts Bluff Project Website

I’ve been developing a wordpress website at scottsbluffhistory.wordpress.com for our Public Lands History Center project on the history of Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska.  The aim of this site is to facilitate communication and collaboration for the history project we are working on.  We hope to use the site to inform the wider community about our work, and also to use it to collect historical materials for the project.  If anyone has any experience of using websites for this sort of thing, please have a look at the site and get in touch if you have any comments or suggestions.


Getting Started With GIS

I have just enrolled in Mooc titled Maps and the Geospatial Revolution run by Anthony C. Robinson at Penn State University.  My recent experiences of working with scientists on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research site have convinced me that digital cartography and GIS are great tools for bridging disciplinary boundaries and integrating history into contemporary ecological research.  But the learning curve with this technology seems quite steep and my previous efforts to learn more about geospatial technology have come in fits and starts.  If all goes to plan I should have some time over the next few months to dedicate to learning more about digital mapping and GIS.  I’m hoping the Mooc will be a good place to start, but if anyone has any other suggestions please let me know.


I am planning to use this blog to publish ideas, book reviews, and short essays relating to the history of the Polar Regions and other historical themes that interest me (environmental history, history of science, public history, the history of the U.S. West, etc.).  In keeping with the developing theory and practice of digital history, everything on this blog should be seen as a work in progress and a contribution to an ongoing conversation.