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SPRI Review 2012: Director’s Introduction

Director’s Introduction

One hundred years ago, Captain Scott and his four companions, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans, reached the South Pole and died on their return journey across the Ross Ice Shelf towards their hut at Cape Evans. Their legacy is not only in the achievement of the Pole and the subsequent tragedy of their deaths, but in the science that was pursued with such commitment and success during both Scott’s Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions. The Scott Polar Research Institute is part of their legacy, too, being founded with the residue of the Scott Memorial Fund as a multi-disciplinary polar research centre and as a national memorial to the endeavours of the Polar Party and their memory.

In this context, it is no surprise that the Institute has taken a leading role in the Scott centenary year, which has been marked by a series of events to celebrate and project the achievements, in terms of both science and exploration, of the Terra Nova expedition and those who took part in it. Among the most memorable of these events was a service of national remembrance for Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans, held in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 29 March 2012, exactly one hundred years to the day from Scott’s last diary entry. The service was organised jointly by the Institute and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust (under the auspices of their Chair, Philippa Foster Back), and was attended by over 2000 people, including HRH The Princess Royal, and was probably the largest ever gathering of the polar community in Britain. Sir David Attenborough read Scott’s powerful message to the nation and the Bishop of London, the Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres, gave a sermon that was widely acclaimed by those present. After the service, the City of London and its Lord Mayor hosted a reception in the Guildhall, where The Princess Royal was able to view a number of Herbert Ponting’s wonderful images of the Terra Nova expedition from our collection. The day was rounded off by the Band of the Royal Marines beating retreat before the statue of Captain Scott in Waterloo Place. I should like to acknowledge the support of many who worked so hard to make this event such a success, including staff of both the Scott Polar Research Institute and the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, the Royal Navy, and, in particular Dr David Wilson, great nephew of Edward Wilson, who was at the heart of the planning and implementation of both the St. Paul’s service and many of the other centenary events commemorating Scott’s last expedition.

Earlier in the year, on 17 January, the Scott Polar Research Institute organised a further event to celebrate the centenary of the Polar Party reaching the South Pole. A day of talks in the Institute about both the history of Antarctic exploration and the modern significance of the continent in terms of environmental change and governance was complimented by the opportunity to view our exhibition about the Terra Nova expedition, These Rough Notes, in the Institute’s Polar Museum. This was followed by a gala dinner for 140 in Corpus Christi College. The dinner was attended by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and HSH The Prince of Monaco and, among many others, a large number of descendants of members of the Terra Nova expedition. After dinner, the Director spoke about the achievements of the Polar Party and the modern scientific research of the Institute, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge was able to announce the establishment of the ‘Scott Polar Scholarship Fund’, which will support research studentships at SPRI, with a generous initial donation from Brian Buckley. I should also like to acknowledge the gift to the Institute of a most generous legacy from the late Barbara Debenham, who sadly died this year. Her gift will support future generations of ‘Debenham Scholars’ to undertake research work in the polar regions. Barbara was daughter of Frank Debenham, geologist on the Terra Nova expedition and Founder and first Director of the Institute.

Throughout the year the Polar Museum at the Institute has projected the history and contemporary significance of the polar regions, with a record number of 52,000 people visiting during 2012. As well as the continuing display of many of the very moving last letters written by Scott and his companions, Scott’s diary, kindly loaned by the British Library, was open at the very last entry: ‘For God’s sake look after our people’. The five-month long exhibition, These Rough Notes, placed on public display diaries, artefacts, drawings and photographs of Captain Scott’s last expedition that are not usually on view. It gave a unique insight into the expedition and demonstrated the breadth and depth of the Institute’s collection. The Polar Museum also provided the focus for visits from school parties, with over 3,500 children talking part in our formal learning programme and a further 700 adults and children visiting in just one evening event to view the museum by torchlight.

Our Polar Library, documentary Archive and Picture Library have also been inundated with requests for access and information during the Scott centenary year, and much filming and recording has taken place in the Institute linked to television and radio programmes about the Terra Nova expedition. A particularly important addition to our photographic collection during 2012 was the acquisition of the so-called ‘Lost Photographs’ of Captain Scott. These were the photographs of the southward journey towards the South Pole taken by Scott himself, after his training by Herbert Ponting. The images, displayed publicly for the first time in the Polar Museum during 2012, show the polar party leading their ponies across the Ross Ice Shelf and during their ascent of the Beardmore Glacier. The acquisition was made possible by a grant of £704,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, augmented by donations from The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, the Staples Trust and Dr John C Taylor OBE.

The research and teaching activities of the Institute have continued to flourish during 2012. This is demonstrated through a particularly large number of publications in the international academic literature and the successful submission of what I think must be close to a record number of dissertations by our doctoral and masters students in both the sciences and the social sciences and humanities. Much of this work has been based on field research in the Arctic and Antarctic. Several staff, including the Director, were in north-westernmost Greenland during the spring, undertaking airborne radar operations to measure the thickness and basal properties of this little-known part of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Parties of staff and students from SPRI were also involved in field work in Svalbard and Russian Siberia and, during the austral summer, in Antarctica. These activities continue to be supported by competitively won research grants from a wide variety of sources including the UK Research Councils.

It remains for me to thank the staff of the Institute for their efforts to make the centenary year of Scott’s last expedition such a great success, and for taking on this extra work in addition to their normal commitments to research, teaching and the provision of polar information. Finally, I should also like to record my particular thanks to Shirley Sawtell on her retirement from the Institute after more than 20 years of assisting visitors to our library.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell

The Director at the memorial cross at Cape Evans, with Mt. Erebus behind

The Director at the memorial cross at Cape Evans, with Mt. Erebus behind