It took Dornith Doherty two days to reach Svalbard. There, inside a seismically stable mountain protected by hundreds of feet of permafrost, she was led down a curved, blast-proof hallway to one of the world’s last great hopes in the event of total ecological fallout.
In 2008, a group of conservationists led by Cary Fowler succeeded in launching the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a highly secure facility in the Arctic Circle intended to protect seeds critical to the survival of humanity on Earth. Doherty, a professor of studio art at the University of North Texas, visited soon after, when the U.S. brought its shipment to the lonely archipelago. During a rare three-day window in which the facility was open, Doherty was struck by the measures taken to safeguard the seeds. She also noted how amply stocked the vault was from wealthier countries, while other seed vault contributions–like Uganda’s–consisted of one repurposed box.
“Think about the mission of the bank; it’s seen as part of the overall security of a country, because they have to secure the national food supply,” Doherty says. The following thought–the one about why the tunnel to the seed vault needed to be bomb-proof–disturbs her. “The fact that somebody might want to harm something as wonderful and hopeful as a seed bank, it’s a really chilling detail,” she says.
Since 2008, Doherty has visited between 15 and 20 seed banks–some of the world’s largest and most diverse–across four continents. Her photographs of Svalbard are part of a collection of seed vault and specimen shots she calls “Archiving Eden.” This week Doherty will be displaying them in the State of the Art exhibition at Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges Museum.
Doherty says that before she read a New Yorker article from John Seabrook about seed banking she had no idea what the practice meant. It was enough to start the photographer down her own six-year line of inquiry. “I was fascinated by the fact that they were building basically an ark on the North Pole,” Doherty says. “I thought that was the most terrifying–that somehow scientists had agreed it had gotten to this point, but that they were also hopeful enough to save these species.”