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Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen

2 September - 19 November 2011

Portrait of Roald Amundsen in furs

The Polar Museum's Roald Amundsen exhibition interprets his life through the seven major expeditions that he undertook and ten of his personal relationships. We hope that visitors will leave the exhibition with respect for Amundsen's polar achievements and an understanding of him as a person. The Fram Museum, Oslo, has kindly assisted with artefacts, images and information. This will be the first British exhibition to focus solely on Amundsen's life.

Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen (1872-1928)

Born into a Norwegian shipping family, Amundsen's mother dreamed that he would become a doctor. Instead, he chose polar exploration, inspired by the example of Sir John Franklin. He toughened his body, undertook major ski trips and gained experience of the Arctic aboard a sealing ship.

The expeditions

Belgica (1897-1900) His first Antarctic expedition nearly ended in disaster due to serious failings by de Gerlache, leader of the expedition. Amundsen assisted Dr Frederick Cook, his friend and mentor, ensuring that the crew ate properly and cutting a channel through the ice, allowing the ship to escape.

Gjøa (1903 -1906) Despite inadequate funding, Amundsen secretly departed from Norway and sailed his small boat Gjøa through the Northwest Passage, achieving a goal that had evaded other sailors for centuries. The expedition gave him the opportunity to learn from the Inuit techniques of living and travelling in a polar environment.

Fram, South Pole (1910-1912)

When it was announced in 1909 that both Peary and Cook claimed to have reached the North Pole, and concerned that his planned Arctic voyage, combining science and an attempt to conquer the North Pole, would not have adequate funds, Amundsen decided to conquer the South Pole. He claimed that he decided this before Captain Scott announced the Terra Nova expedition, but kept his decision secret until he had left Norway the following year. He reached the South Pole on 14 December 1911. Captain Scott and his party arrived on 17 January 1912.

Maud (1918-1925) To fulfil his commitment to undertake an Arctic expedition, Amundsen had his own vessel, Maud, built and attempted, unsuccessfully, to drift across the Arctic Ocean. However, he did sail across the Northeast Passage - making him the first person to circumnavigate the Arctic. The expedition encountered financial problems and an attempt to fly across the Arctic resulted in two broken aircraft. Confronted by mounting debts, Amundsen declared himself bankrupt.

N24 and N25 (1925) En route to Alaska, where he planned to retire, he was contacted by Lincoln Ellsworth, a wealthy young American who wished to be a polar explorer. Two large Dornier-Wal planes were purchased and an attempt was made to fly from Svalbard to Alaska. Both planes became marooned in the sea ice. To survive, a 500-metre runway was levelled atop an ice floe by the men, whose daily rations were half a pound of food. They flew back to a hero's welcome.

Norge (1926) Amundsen and Ellsworth then flew across the Arctic in Norge, an Italian built airship piloted by Umberto Nobile. Whilst R.E. Byrd claimed to have reached the North Pole before Norge, there is no doubt that the airship did reach the Pole, before flying on to Alaska.

Latham 47 (1928) Later in life, Amundsen became increasingly bitter and his autobiography, Roald Amundsen: My Life as an Explorer contains a litany of past wrongs – real and imagined. Yet, when Umberto Nobile (whom he despised) and his crew aboard Italia were lost in the Arctic, Amundsen flew north to attempt a rescue. He and his crew disappeared.

Personal life

Amundsen remained single all his life, but had a number of relationships with married women. During the Maud expedition, he adopted two Chukchi girls, but returned them home when his financial situation collapsed. He strove to make his expeditions 'happy' but was capable of strong action if required.

Polar Achievements associated with Amundsen

  • First Antarctic over-wintering, Belgica
  • First transit of the Northwest Passage, Gjøa
  • Conquered the South Pole, Fram
  • Completed circumnavigation of the Arctic, Maud
  • Farthest north by plane, 1925, 87°44'N,10°30'W, N24 and N25
  • First confirmed attainment of the North Pole and first flight across the Arctic Ocean, Norge.

Press release