Persistent Memories of Pyramiden: book and field review

PictureRight at the beginning of this blog I mentioned reviewing the book Persistent Memories: Pyramiden – a Soviet mining town in the High Arctic, by Hein Bjerk, Bjornar Olsen and Elin Andreassen, (2010).

Now I have visited Pyramiden myself, I feel in a stronger position to say something about its subject matter as well as having a greater appreciation for the book itself. So here goes.

Despite the old adage, ‘never judge a book by its cover’…

Persistent Memories strikes a powerful positive score here. I was already excited about getting my hands on the book as, for the first time in my academic life, I needed to request a loan from the British Library. When I went in to fetch it from Aberystwyth’s Hugh Owen Library, the librarians were excited too (not sure I have seen that before either!) – this was a special book, it looks and feels amazing, just from the outside: heavy and cloth bound in silver. Inside, the cover lives up to the content, beautiful matt, thick pages with amazing, intriguing, atmospheric photographs throughout. On reading the accompanying text for the first time, I began to worry. This is really good stuff.

To give a little bit of context first, Pyramiden is an abandoned coal mining town in Svalbard, about 75km from the main town of Longyearbyen. Russians have held the claim to the coal there since 1927 and the buildings and equipment there belong to the state owned Trust Arktikugol. Coal was mined there from the end of the 1940s until1998, in it’s hay day there were around 1000 inhabitants of the town which offered far more than just a mine and barracks: a heated swimming pool, cultural centre, canteen, school, hotel, hospital, powerstation and greenhouses. When the mining operations ceased the main population was shipped out. Since then Pyramiden has been left more-or-less abandoned, with some equipment and materials collected for use in the Russian’s remaining coal-mining town in Svalbard, Barentsburg.

The authors (Norwegian Archaeologists and Photographer) discuss the history of the town, and relate their experiences there through a number of different themes which they link to academic debates effortlessly and in a non-alienating way:

  • Architecture and the built environment of the town is related to the wider Soviet practices and ideologies at work as well as the surrounding topography.
  • Pyramiden is situated within the literature and thinking around industrial ruins and heritage[1]. In relation to this the role and agency of things, stuff and materiality, which comes to the fore in a town with no inhabitants, was both theorised and engaged with emotionally and ethnographically in their accounts.
  • Impressions of how Pyramiden was made into a home by the miners and families living there and how this fit with the Soviet ideals as well as fascinating insights into the more secret and elite elements of this society, are told through the material remains left as evidence.
  • The relationship between ‘nature’ and the town as both functioning and as abandoned is considered, revealing interesting symbioses past and present.
  • A telling account from one of the author’s gives valuable insights into what Norwegian –Russian relations were like and how the town was decommissioned.

In addition they openly discuss their methodology and how that was affected by Pyramiden itself [2] and presented their findings and photography in a novel and engaging format.  The photographs are left to create an impression on the reader, without captions or explanations alongside the text. They are all indexed at the end of the book with thumbnails accompanied by the captions which you can look at later.
Having now started to use some of my own images from fieldwork in my writing, I further appreciate that this is a bold move which hands over more control and interpretation from the author to the reader.  As you might have noticed, I have tried it out here in this post. Is this more interesting/engaging? Is it frustrating not to know what these pictures are, or what I think about them, or do you like making your own meaning? I’d love to know!

As you might imagine then,  I was worried because it left me questioning whether there was anything else worth writing about this place they hadn’t already done a great job at detailing! Later I read about how further field trips by the authors to Pyramiden revealed ongoing change and some hope returned. Of course the Pyramiden they had documented, in the book and on their subsequent blog, would be different to the Pyramiden I would experience, and in any case, I am likely to bring different experiences, theories and agencies with me that would influence my ‘take’ on the place.

So what are my own impressions and theories about the town so far (I plan to return there during this year’s field trip to Svalbard)?

I certainly concur with most, if not all, of Andreasson et al’s analysis and find the book to be an extremely useful reference and source of inspiration. Perhaps the key changes which follow on from their last visit are the continued development of tourism in Pyramiden. The Hotel Tulip has fully re-opened for visitors and once again offers clean sheets, warmth and hospitality. Not only have some places been tidied and cleaned, with much of the material evident in their photographs now missing, but many areas have been left or arranged specifically for the tourist to take in and photograph, to live up to the image of Ghost Town that the tourism perpetuates . Visitors are shown just four of the buildings in the Town: the hotel, the canteen, the culture house and the swimming pool as well as the harbour and perhaps the monument. Many of the other buildings are locked and the owner of the town, Trust Arktikugol have a small summer work force based there as tourist guides, hotel workers and to recover and prepare scrap metal for shipping back to the mainland.

Recently I have been collecting my ideas about Pyramiden and linking them to different frameworks and theories of value as they relate to Svalbard and beyond:

  • Pyramiden as a valuable territorial claim in Svalbard and the Arctic more generally.
  • Economic value as it shifts from the use value of coal to the exchange value of the industrial remains used to extract it (either on the scrap market or through tourism).
  • The cultural heritage value of Pyramiden, how this is assessed and how this assessment relates to both political and economic frameworks of value above.
  • The aesthetic, educational and philosophical value of the unique combination of a soviet ruin within a ‘pristine’ arctic ‘wilderness’.
  • What Pyramiden’s history and present day development say about environmental value and values of nature.
  • Value shifting over time: the emotional and historical value of Pyramiden for previous residents of the town and future visions for it.
  • The value of Pyramiden to other species as habitat and home.

So, whilst I am still grappling with the concept of value itself within the PhD : how best to conceptualise it and how to integrate it with a research methodology; it is proving a very useful thinking tool to explore Svalbard through.

[1] For example Tim Edensor and Caitlin De Silveys work on ruins and decay

[2] This is a good example of what Anderson, Adey and Bevan (2010) discuss in their paper on the role of place in our methodologies : Anderson, J., Adey, P., Bevan, P. (2010) ‘Positioning place: polylogic approaches to research methodology’, Qualitative Research, 10(5), 589–604.

4 thoughts on “Persistent Memories of Pyramiden: book and field review

  1. Interesting place – will read further. The high Arctic presents its own problems, perhaps moreso when minerals are involved. Look forward to reading more, TVM.

  2. Well, on the photos, leaving a reader guessing is good up to apoint, in my view, but I personally would then like to know what they are, without having to flick back and forth or up and down. But then I’m quite traditional in my reading! On the abandoned town, it sound a very unusual place to visit. The re-wilder in me would like to remove most (all?) the human made structures and let nature reign, but is that not possible given native vegetation and climate? Finally, the librarian in me would also get excited about a silver bound book, and hurray for inter-library loans!

    1. Hi Alyson, thanks for reading. Yeah, I couldn’t resist not knowing what the pics were for long, but it got the imagination going. Yes, it’s a very unique, eery place indeed. It would be a pretty massive operation to remove the town, many many shipments and then what would you do with it? It’s such an interesting insight into Soviet and environmental history, and there are kilometers of ‘wilderness’ all around, I personally think it is better left in place, though how/ if it should be managed is a key question.

  3. Thanks Harry. Yes, certainly an interesting place I look forward to getting to know better with some unique challenges.

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