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SPRI Review 2011: The Polar Museum

The Polar Museum

Following the major refurbishment and re-opening of the Polar Museum, 2011 was a year of consolidation and achievement. After the museum was included in the long-list of ten nominations for the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year in late 2010, we were pleased to be on the shortlist of four museums that went through to the final, although we were disappointed to miss out on the award, which went to the British Museum.

Visitor numbers have continued to grow and we welcomed almost 50,000 visitors to the new displays and exhibitions during 2011. Visitor satisfaction, monitored using questionnaires, is very high and feedback indicates that visitors enjoy their experience. The major project over the summer months was the refurbishment of the last of the museum’s stores. This has been upgraded to the same level as the main basement storage areas and houses the museum’s collection of larger objects including an important collection of polar sledges.

The museum mounted four temporary exhibitions during the year. The first, Return to Antarctica: the British Graham Land Expedition, 1934–37 was curated by Bryan Lintott and ran from 20 January to 30 April. To accompany the exhibition, we published another in our series of Polar Profiles, written by Bryan. The opening, in January, included a group of descendants of the expedition members, especially Peter Rymill and his family from Australia and the Bertram family, who had done so much to make the gathering a success. A celebratory dinner was held in St John’s College.

The exhibition, Sewing our traditions: Dolls of Canada’s North (18 May to 20 August) featured dolls made by the native peoples of northern Canada and was loaned by the Yukon Arts Centre. The exhibition was generously sponsored by the Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon governments. The Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association also brought a group of the dollmakers to the museum in May to demonstrate craft skills and doll making in the museum. In the autumn (7 September to 19 November), the museum

mounted what is thought to be the first exhibition in the UK to commemorate the life and achievements of Roald Amundsen. Through the generosity of the Director and Trustees of the Fram Museum, many objects owned by or related to Amundsen were exhibited. In December, staff of the Polar Museum participated in the Norwegian centenary celebrations of Amundsen’s achievement of the South Pole in 1911. The final exhibition of the year, These Rough Notes: Capt. Scott’s Last Expedition (6 December to 5 May 2012) commemorated the Terra Nova expedition and was an opportunity to display the wealth of archive material relating to the expedition held in the Institute; many of the manuscripts have never been exhibited before. To coincide with the exhibition, the museum published another of its Polar Profiles series on the expedition, written by Beau Riffenburgh.

The Institute’s Education and Outreach Officer, Katherine (Suzy) Antoniw left early in the year for a new post at the Science Museum, but we welcomed Sophie Weeks as her replacement in May. Our Conservator, Fiona Cahill also departed for a new post in New Zealand, having done much to establish the conservation policy and procedures which have enabled us to achieve accredited museum status, as well as conserving almost every item in the permanent displays. We are grateful to the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust for their continuing support, which has enabled us to recruit her replacement. The Keeper and Documentation Assistant, Willow Silvani, took part in a regional discussion on rationalisation of the collections, in line with a new national policy. With a grant from the Effective Museums programme, a pilot project began in 2011 and, with extensive help from volunteer Daisy Courtauld, will continue into 2012 to identify and locate the provenance information for objects lacking catalogue descriptions.

Acquisitions during the year included a number of gifts and purchases. Jennifer Heal donated a wooden box containing a set of furs (boots, trousers and anorak); a beaded anorak; a number of wooden artefacts and three volumes of the Greenland Survey.

Jennifer’s mother, Elizabeth Mary Wager, overwintered in 1935–36 with the British East Greenland Expedition based in Kangerdlugssuaq. She was married to Harold Wager, botanist on the expedition led by his brother Lawrence. She and Lawrence’s wife, Phyl, were the only two women on the expedition. Christopher Courtauld kindly donated a harpoon with throwing board which had been collected in the field in East Greenland 1926–35 by his father, Augustine Courtauld, and six medals, four from WWI and the Coronation Medal (High Sheriff of Essex) 1953 and Polar Medal with Arctic 1930–31 bar.

Purchases included a wooden box containing a knife and spoon with a hand carved depiction of Terra Nova on the lid and with the ship’s cap band pinned inside, taken by Edward McKenzie on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910–13. McKenzie’s aluminium compass, which he took with him to the Antarctic, and a medallion stamped with the device of Scott’s Expedition with loop on silver chain, was also purchased. Two watercolours were also bought, of the Terra Nova at McMurdo Sound, painted by McKenzie during the voyage on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910–13; one showing various animals while the other bears the title, ‘Antarctica, Terra Nova & Fram meet at the Great Ice Barrier’. Also bought at auction were a sugar bowl and saucer with the printed crest of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910–13 and Terra Nova RYS which belonged to Frederick Parsons, Petty Officer on Terra Nova.

The Museum lent material for display to a number of institutions, including the National Maritime Museum Cornwall for the exhibition On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration, jointly organised by the Polar Museum and our hosts in Falmouth. Material was again lent to the American Museum of Natural History for their touring exhibition, Race to the End of the Earth, held at the Palazzo Fondazione per la Cultura Ducale in Genoa. A pullover belonging to George Murray Levick was loaned to the Fairlynch Museum in Devon. The touring exhibition, The Antarctic Photographs of Herbert Ponting, was loaned to Braintree District Museum.

Staff spent some time in transcribing and editing Henry Bowers’ polar journals and letters for publication in a deluxe edition early in 2012. In addition, many members of the Institute were involved in recording segments on a range of topics for inclusion in the new audio guide to the museum which was launched in October.

The museum benefits greatly from the help and enthusiasm of its volunteers. Thanks go especially to the group of museum volunteers, more than 50 in number, who staff the museum during opening hours, meeting and greeting visitors and looking after the shop. This team is ably organised by Kate Gilbert and looked after by our volunteer manager, Grant Rabey.

Heather Lane

A young artist holds up his model of Antarctica during Cool Club activities at the Institute

A young artist holds up his model of Antarctica during Cool Club activities at the Institute