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AHRC 'Technologies of Polar Travel' Workshop

AHRC 'Technologies of Polar Travel' Workshop

September 5-6, 2007
at the Museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute,
University of Cambridge

SPRI kayak model N: 206

Background to the workshop

With the fourth International Polar Year 2007-09 as a catalyst, the Museum of the Scott Polar Research Institute, together with the History and Public Policy Research Group, is hosting a workshop on 'Technologies of Polar Travel' as part of a linked series of workshops funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, under the Museums and Galleries Research Programme.

All those with interest or expertise in these areas are particularly encouraged to participate. Attendance at the workshop is free. However, you are kindly required to register by sending an email to

The need for the workshop emerged from a recognition that 'technologies of travel' are important for museums, but problematic for curators, collectors and academics alike. For museum curators, objects like snow tractors, skis, provisions, and writing implements, traditionally fall into a vague 'Miscellaneous' category, seeming anomalous and individual, rather than fitting into existing, recognizable classification systems. The attraction of these kinds of objects for collectors is more typically their singularity, rarity, or even 'cult status' (e.g. personal navigation instruments of Peary or Scott), rather than their status as technologies.

In the polar world, the category of 'logistics' entered the vocabulary of explorers in the mid-twentieth century. One interpretation of this neologism is that while the technology of exploration (ie. the 'gear') was not an end in itself, it was so important to the ultimate success of explorers, that it ought to be subjected to systematic, scientific organization and management. These technologies of travel, formerly viewed as the private – even secret – craft knowledge (like a guild) of an individual or a nation, appear to have been transformed into a branch of science, at once more open, standardized, and professional. While this hypothesis has yet to be fully explored, it points to the peculiar status of these technologies at the interface of private and public knowledge, of artisanal and material science, and of expert science and popular culture.

For museums like ours, whose primary object is the transmission of knowledge, what principles and strategies can we employ to catalogue, classify and display our collections? How can we move beyond the naïve idea that these objects are simply part of a story of technological progress? What is the range of alternative narratives we might hope to construct in making exhibitions? What tools for classification and description do we have at our disposal?

To explore these questions, we are planning to bring together diverse groups of people working with the material culture of technologies of travel. These include: curators, archivists, historians, collectors, and producers of objects. We hope that together we will be able to consider the meaning and inter-relationship of artefacts and documents in our museums, and to explore how their meanings resonate for audiences in different places and eras. The workshop will enable university researchers and museum-based scholars to advance understanding of the role of such collections, and to discuss the interaction of scholarly and curatorial approaches.




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