Searching for the future in a museum? Things from everyday life often store lost knowledge and clever ideas.
On Greenland’s treeless islands, wooden snow goggles have been made for centuries.
They are uniquely tailored items with an optimised field of vision and other functions that are critical for survival.
During hunting, they prevent snow blindness and increase the depth of field, similar to a camera lens.
Date of production: 19th century, Kalaallit;
Acquisition by the museum: Purchase in 1912
Wood, animal skin
L 21 cm, W 16.1 cm, D 3.6 cm
Animal skins for the eyeglass straps often come from caribou reindeer.
Design through lived experience
Upernivik is the fourth largest island of Greenland with a lake at its centre. The hilly landscape is full of glaciers. The highest summit is the Paalup Qaqqaa, reaching over 2,000 metres.
This is where these snow goggles were made over a hundred years ago, carved from driftwood and with a strap made from animal skin. Similar models have been worn by Inuit in Arctic areas for at least 800 years, including by the Greenland Kalaallit.
A hunter often owned several goggles for different purposes. The slits were sometimes simply set in the middle or layered on top of each other like blinds with varying angles and widths of fields of vision. The area of the eyes was closely fitted to the wearer's head so that no light could get in from the sides. In addition, soot was spread on the inside and around the slits to keep the incoming light at an absolute minimum.
The design of the Inuit goggles, however, stems from a painful experience the inhabitants of the Arctic frequently had to endure. The strong UV radiation of the sunlight reflected by the ice causes snow blindness, a form of eye injury. Snow blindness feels like scratching sand trapped beneath the eyelid and can destroy the retina. In most cases, it takes two to three days to heal, when the upper layers of the cornea have regenerated.
During his visit of the Utqiaġvik region in Alaska in 1883, Patrick H. Ray, a captain in the U.S. army, wrote:
“The blinding glare of the sun upon the snow affects the strongest eyes, and we found no preventive. We had several varieties of sunglasses and snow goggles but the wooden goggles made and worn by the locals protected us at least as well as our own sophisticated goggles, and they were much more comfortable to wear because moisture from the skin didn't freeze on them as easily."
During the seal hunt, for instance, Inuit and other inhabitants of the Arctic had to find a solution to protect themselves – while always keeping one step ahead of the animals’ senses of smell and orientation. The narrow slits of the goggles focus the light, similar to a camera lens, enabling its wearer to have greater visual acuity.
Whether made of wood, bone or animal skin, snow goggles made by the Inuit come in a huge variety. They are often decorated with symbols and ornaments, such as suns, mountains or eyes. Some even come with a suitable case.
Back then, whatever was needed for life on the vast plains of water and ice, the people made themselves, creating their own designs. They carved, perforated or scored the materials by hand. There was no such thing as industrial manufacturing. The knowledge of how everyday objects could be optimised was gathered by the people who used them. Their knowledge also arose from direct contact with nature, which nourished and challenged them.
Greenland, like most of the other arctic regions, was colonised as a strategic outpost in the quest for mineral resources. The photo in the background shows Upernivik in the 19th century. At that time, the first industrial products arrived in the country, often displacing handmade items. Suddenly, time and money mattered. Nature was regarded as a repository for resources and therefore exploited and pushed back according to the needs of this exploitation.
Today, climate change is threatening and destroying entire Arctic regions due to rising water levels. Hunting season is gettingt shorter, animal species are disappearing and trails are no longer accessible. People are losing their land and their livelihoods.
At the same time, these communities are in possession of tremendous amounts of knowledge about their environment, which they have gathered over centuries. What strategies and designs have they developed that may ensure human survival in the future? Which techniques have they derived from observing nature, as a result of harsh living conditions and crises? What has been passed down to them by their ancestors who, like them, lived with the ice and water instead of fighting against it?
The snow goggles are considered by the museum to be "collectibles from colonial contexts" because they were stolen, bought or traded locally by foreign military, traders or travelers. This also applies to many other everyday Inuit objects in the depot: tools, hunting equipment, clothing or musical instruments.
Historical objects preserve knowledge that sometimes may possibly be regained through these objects. But they are also an indication of a higher level of knowledge that was self-evident to Arctic inhabitants when they carved these glasses: a sustainable life without waste.