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Our past

Our past

"The building would contain these at least; a practical museum of Polar equipment (not the things one sees as relics… but the things explorers want to see and handle and know the use and cost of, such as camp gear, instruments, clothing etc.); a comprehensive library of Polar literature and maps, not only narratives… but all the scientific reports; thirdly a set of rooms for the use of people undertaking research, these people might be returned scientists, budding explorers or people working up papers on Polar subjects who require the facilities." – Frank Debenham, 1919

Debenham plaque

The Scott Polar Research Institute was founded in 1920, in Cambridge, as a memorial to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN, and his four companions, who died returning from the South Pole in 1912. When Scott's last words, "For God's sake look after our people" were made known to the British nation, the response was tremendous. Scott himself had emphasised the importance of science and from this plea, the Institute was born.

Polar Museum

Frank Debenham, Geologist on the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova), was the driving force behind the founding of the Scott Polar Research Institute. He wanted to establish a place that brought together polar researchers and resources for the improvement of polar expeditions and scientific investigation. Debenham asked that the new institute perform two roles: it should be a centre of study, preferably as part of a university, and it must also stand alone as a national memorial to Captain R. F. Scott and the men who died with him in the Antarctic. As Debenham and other veterans of the British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova) had found themselves in Cambridge writing up their findings, and, as Debenham argued, because Cambridge had 'furnished more polar scientists than all the other English universities put together', a home within the University of Cambridge was the obvious choice.

Top floor

In March 1920, the trustees of the Scott Memorial Fund pledged a grant of £6,000 towards the new Institute, making Debenham's plans a reality. In November of the same year, a Grace was granted by the University of Cambridge Senate, formally establishing the new Scott Polar Research Institute.

In its early years, the Institute occupied rooms above the Sedgwick Museum, where Frank Debenham was based as Emeritus Professor of Geography for the University of Cambridge Department of Geography. In 1934, the Institute moved to its purpose built home on Lensfield Road, in a building designed by Sir Herbert Baker, with funding from the Mansion House Fund and the Pilgrim Trust, to meet Debenham's original aims: 'with two floors and an attic, and the accommodation includes a museum and a Director's room on the ground floor; a library and research rooms on the first floor. The attic will be used for exhibition of pictures, and for museum storage.'

Car park

During the 1930s it became a base for a number of valuable scientific expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. During World War II it served the Government as a centre for research into cold weather warfare, clothing and equipment. Since the War it developed further to become an international centre for research.

In 1960, the Ford Foundation enabled the Institute to meet the challenge of an explosion in polar information and research. An extension containing offices, laboratories, cold rooms and a lecture theatre were added, as well as much needed space for the library and its staff.


Further additions to the building including a major expansion of the Library, Archives and Picture Library were carried out in the 1990s. The Shackleton Memorial Library, named for Sir Ernest Shackleton and his son Sir Edward Shackleton, was opened in 1998. In 1999 it won one of four awards for the Eastern Region by the Royal Institute of British Architecture.

To commemorate the centenary of the Terra Nova expedition the Institute's Polar Museum was refurbished and reopened to the public, following a major 18 month refurbishment, on 8th June 2010 by TRH The Earl and Countess of Wessex. It now welcomes nearly 50,000 visitors a year to view its world class collections and inspire the next generation.


In 2020, the Institute celebrates its centenary and looks forward to the future as a world leader in polar research, education and heritage.

Top image: The Institute on opening day, 1934.