Friday, January 20, 2012

CultureLab - Reliving Scott's quest for the South Pole

Mick O'Hare, editorial production editor
(Image: Canterbury Museum, New Zealand)

Not surprisingly, it's going to be a big year for those interested in the golden era of polar exploration. Captain Robert Falcon Scott finally reached the South Pole 100 years ago this week, on 17 January 1912. The irony is, of course, that by dying on his trip home, Scott's story - certainly in the English speaking world of the former British Empire - has often eclipsed that of Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who beat him to the pole by more than a month.
And so it is that a whole raft of events has been planned for 1912, rather than 1911, to rediscover and replay the story that captivated the world a century ago. Already underway in Cambridge, UK is the Scott Polar Research Institute's exhibition of the protagonists' diaries. That is now being joined by Scott's Last Expedition at the Natural History Museum in London.
More extensive than its Cambridge counterpart, where space was the essential limitation, the NHM show will doubtless prove both more popular and populist. It would, however, have benefited from the dairies available to the Cambridge curators. Just one is on display in London, written when Scott arrived at the pole. Still, the the NHM display illustrates the story well.
An emperor penguin egg collected by Scott's team (Image: Natural History Museum, London)

It is the latest stop for an exhibition that has already visited the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, where it suffered a little for being tucked away in a basement corner. The NHM's version offers it more prominence and the museum is expecting tens of thousands of people to visit before it closes in September and moves on to New Zealand.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is an abstract, life-size version of the hut where Scott and his team were ensconced for a year before setting out for the pole. Their temporary home at Cape Evans on Antarctica is recreated with delineating walls marking the positions of the men's quarters, rectangles indicating where each person slept and a central ward-room table with an ever-changing slide display of documents and filmed exhibits.
But it is the peripheral exhibits that bring the hut to life. As a reading of Scott's diary entries plays in the background, you see on display his skiing boots, naval dress uniform and crockery bearing the expedition insignia. There is also a multitude of scientific artefacts, including the fragile penguin eggs that recovered in the harsh polar winter by a three-man team led by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
A shopping list on display conveys the very British character of the mission. One can't imagine Amundsen's team taking along 320 kilograms of marmalade, 225 kilograms of tea, 72 bottles of port or 540 kilograms of suet.
For scholars of polar history the Cambridge exhibition is the more significant of the two, but for those who are new to the story or want to understand just what the party was doing in Antarctica and how they endured the conditions, the Natural History Museum provides entertaining enlightenment.
The exhibition opens 100 years after Scott attained the pole only to realise he had been beaten. His star has risen, fallen and risen again in the intervening century. Perhaps it's time to consign the arguments over whether he and his mission was a success or a failure to history and merely marvel at the fact that so long ago and with such primitive equipment, people could even get the South Pole at all.
Scott's Last Expedition opens at the Natural History Museum in London on 20 January and runs until 2 September.

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