J. Louis Giddings established Arctic Studies at Brown University in 1956. The Circumpolar Studies focus was formally created in 1973 as part of the graduate and undergraduate program in anthropology. Douglas Anderson has led the program until his retirement in 2014. To date, there have been more than 400 Masters and Ph.D. students. Arctic Studies graduates have gone on to faculty, administrative, and research positions throughout the north.
Brown faculty, staff and students have developed joint research projects with various Federal agencies, such as the U.S. National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and also with Native Corporations, especially in Alaska. They have also been involved in international research in all northern countries, including Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, Iceland and Denmark. Much of this research has been funded by the National Science Foundation's Arctic Research Program.
The Circumpolar Laboratory is housed at the Haffenreffer Museum's Collections Research Center in Bristol, Rhode Island. It contains laboratory facilities, Arctic collections, and a library. It is the federal repository for important ethnographic and archaeological collections primarily from northwestern Alaska. The most important collections are from the northwestern Alaskan archaeological sites of Cape Krusenstern and Onion Portage. These collections are regarded as among the most complete series of archaeological materials from the coastal and the interior Arctic zones of North America respectively. Researchers from other institutions are welcome to utilize the facilities and collections for their own research.