Polar Tombola

Alongside the Heritage Futures exhibition that is due to open on 14 December, we will be holding a series of events and programmes that will encourage visitors to think what should or can we keep for future generations and what we should let go, both personally and in terms of the Museum’s work. Last week, a small group of staff and volunteers had the chance to try out one of these programmes, the Polar Tombola, during a workshop led by the Artist / Writer Nancy Campbell.


Part ‘public art intervention’ and part ‘live literature project’, the Polar Tombola was conceived of and produced by Nancy as a way of engaging people with the effects of cultural and climate change. As we discovered, the concept of Polar Tombola can be traced back to her experience of spending time at Upernavik Museum, Greenland in 2010. Unlike our own tendency to record and document important information in writing, for centuries the rich oral tradition of Greenland relied instead on word of mouth to preserve and pass on Greenlandic culture. Nonetheless, the development of a written form of the language in Roman alphabet is due to the arrival of the printing press in the 18th century with Danish missionaries and colonial rule.


There are three indigenous languages in Greenland but Kalaallisut, West Greenlandic, is the most common with around 50,000 speakers. In 2009 Kalaallisut was designated as the official national language of Greenland, although in 2010, it was classified by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) as ‘vulnerable‘. The other two indigenous languages – ‘East Greenlandic‘ and ‘North Greenlandic‘ – are both listed by UNESCO as ‘definitely endangered’. Language loss is a real concern: as well as losing a wealth of historical, cultural and environmental insight, the extinction of a language is also about the loss of personal identity and therefore becomes a social problem.

greenland map
Map of Greenland showing the three endangered Greenlandic languages, from the UNESCO atlas of of the World’s Languages in Danger

The Polar Tombola is a fantastically simple and rather addictive concept which is based on the classic tombola – originally an Italian Christmas game (tombola originates from the Italian tombolare meaning “turn a somersault”) – where participants pick a raffle ticket from a revolving container. Substitute the container for a papier mache snowball, and replace the tickets with Greenlandic words and there you have the Polar Tombola!

open tombola

The rules are simple: pick a card at random and read out the word on your card. Next for the tricky bit: using the “Dictionary of the West Greenland Eskimo Language”, try to find your word (not as straightforward as it seems due to occasional discrepencies between alphabetical orders).


Having found your word, you will quickly discover the beautiful and descriptive nature of the language, not only through a brief definition of its meaning but also in the example of its usage in everyday language. These examples are fascinating; the references to landscape, weather, fauna, flora and the daily lives of Greenlandic people mean that individual words become rich source of insight into Greenland’s natural and cultural features and how they have changed over time.

Participants are asked to write the meaning of their word on the back of the card, and in so doing, become the custodian of that word, which they are asked to use as much as possible to secure its future. Cat, our ‘Secondary and Post-16 Humanities Co-ordinator at the Museum, picked out the word ‘arajugpoq‘ which means “to be heartily tired“: I look forward to hearing her use that word in the future!


Having had the pleasure of trying out the Polar Tombola in this workshop, I am really excited to see how it works with our visitors alongside the Heritage Futures exhibition, so watch this space for more information about when and where you will be able to take part.


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