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Department of Geography, University of Cambridge


The autobiography of John Rae (1813-1893)

The autobiography of John Rae (1813-1893)

SPRI helps celebrate the 125th anniversary of the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund

23rd August - 30th September 2006

See: Opening times for the exhibition and the Museum

Dr John Rae


Over the past 125 years, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund has enabled regional organisations from Cornwall to Cumbria to acquire objects as varied as Bronze Age rings, a Victorian kitchen range, a manuscript by Ted Hughes, Gainsborough drawings and a Grayson Perry pot. Rae was a firm believer in the importance of native techniques to self-sufficient living and safe travel in Arctic regions. The manuscript ends in mid sentence during an account of his expedition in 1853-54, just before his meeting with the Inuit who revealed to him the fate of the missing Franklin expedition. The papers also include drafts of his published work Narrative of an expedition to the shores of the Arctic Sea, 1846 and 1847, which differs from the final published version.

This summer museums, archives and specialist libraries in England and Wales are marking the Purchase Grant Fund's anniversary in a number of ways and objects supported by the Fund will be highlighted in displays and featured in exhibitions.

The Scott Polar Research Institute is marking this anniversary with a temporary exhibition focusing on its first purchase with the aid of the Fund - the autobiography of Dr John Rae (1813-1893), unsung hero of Arctic exploration, unacknowledged discoverer of the Northwest Passage and of the fate of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated exploring party.

One of the purchases funded by the V&A was a signed manuscript copy of John Rae's autobiography. Some 900 pages in length the autobiography charts his early life in Orkney, his subsequent voyage to Canada as an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company and personal views on equipment and polar exploration.