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The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

Welcome to the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum news section.

The Women who made SPRI

September 10th, 2020

During lockdown, I have been working on a new temporary exhibition which will celebrate SPRI’s centenary year. Though it has been strange to think about a new exhibition, not knowing exactly when it will open or when you will be able to see it, it has been lovely to learn more about SPRI’s history. In particular, it’s been fascinating to uncover the stories of the women whose lives have been linked to SPRI since its inception and beyond. I’d like to introduce you to some of my favourites in the exhibition, and if you’d like to see them again, or learn more about any other women of SPRI (or men, for that matter!) then do come along to our centenary exhibition once the museum reopens.

SPRI

The Founding Mothers

Founded in 1920, SPRI was the brain-child of Terra Nova geologist Frank Debenham, but it took more than one woman to bring his ideas to fruition. Perhaps the most well-known of these early female pioneers was Kathleen Scott, the indomitable widow of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Kathleen was a well-renowned sculptor in her own right who had studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris long before meeting her future husband. As well as donating several statues to the museum, Kathleen was instrumental in introducing Debenham to the right people to help get SPRI off the ground, and in securing funding for the Institute. Once SPRI had become a reality, British naturalist Oriana Wilson helped to furnish it with some of the most famous polar objects it holds today – her husband Edward Wilson’s Antarctic watercolours. Oriana persuaded Debenham to include a purpose built gallery in the 1934 building, so that the paintings could be put on display and admired.

Kathleen Scott

Kathleen Scott, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and George Frederick Wyatt on the bridge of the ‘Terra Nova’

Oriana Wilson

Oriana Wilson

The Shapers

In the late 1920s the British anthropologist Dr Ethel John Lindgren began a career studying different cultural groups across Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Lindgren gathered knowledge and collected cultural objects from the people she studied, later donating many of these objects to SPRI’s museum collection. Her collection was used to teach aspiring western polar explorers the best ways to deal with the harsh environments they would be facing. Lindgren also lectured the MPhil students at SPRI about the people she had met and their ways of life. Lindgren’s collections, and the many other objects donated to the Institute, had to be accurately recorded and catalogued so that they could be put to good use. In the early days of SPRI, this work fell to women who volunteered their time. Miss W M Drake, arranged and catalogued a good proportion of the collection, including equipment, maps and books. Her meticulous record keeping in all areas ensured the smooth operating of the Institute and its collections and she later went on to paid employment as the official Assistant to the Director. Her work forms the foundations of our records today.

‘Overnight camp on the banks of the Oura’ by Ivan Dmitriyevich Bulychov. Presented to SPRI by Dr E Lindgren.

Miss W M Drake

Miss W M Drake

The Knowledge Holders

Women connected to SPRI were instrumental in the formation of our knowledge about the polar regions. Hilda Richardson was a glaciologist and the only employee of the International Glaciological Society following its creation in 1936. The society, which had its headquarters at SPRI for almost 70 years, became a well-renowned international organisation under her leadership, publishing prestigious academic journals and organising international symposia.

In our understanding of the polar regions, it can be all too easy to only consider western perspectives, but indigenous knowledge is invaluable to understanding and surviving in the Arctic environment. As Dr Lindgren showed SPRI’s early MPhil students, the foremost knowledge holders in the Arctic are the people who live and work there, their ancestors having inhabited the far north for thousands of years. Gusdiana was a Tunumiit from North Eastern Greenland who was instrumental in the expeditions of British explorer Gino Watkins’ in the 1930s. Photographs in SPRI’s archives show Gusdiana sewing kayaks for the western explorers, who would use these traditional boats to hunt seal. Kayaks are made by stretching animal skins over a frame and sewing them together to make a watertight vessel, and this process of stretching and sewing is traditionally done by Inuit women. Without Gusdiana, Watkins and the men of his expedition would not have been able to hunt using these specially designed craft.

Gusdiana

Portrait of Gusdiana

Gusdiana sewing skin on kayak

Gusdiana sewing skin on to a kayak as Gino Watkins watches her work.

Women have been instrumental to SPRI over its 100 year history. Whether by supporting its early years, to ensuring the standard and care of its collections, to making the discoveries and teaching the knowledge which informs its work. SPRI is now home to many female scientists, social scientists, museum, library and archive professionals, financial and administrative staff, and without them, and the women who came before them, the very character of the Institute would not be what it is today.

 

A Brief History of SPRI

September 10th, 2020

A lot has changed in the hundred years since the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) was officially founded. In the 1920s, western explorers were still visiting the polar regions in wooden boats, but not fifty years later technology had advanced so much that man had landed on the moon. Another fifty years went by and now scientists and researchers can overwinter at the South Pole – once so inaccessible as to be deadly – in a station fully fitted with comfortable beds, hot meals and internet connection. So, with all the change and upheaval of the last century, what has happened to SPRI?

1920 – The Scott Polar Research Institute started life in the attic of the Sedgwick Museum – crammed full of polar artifacts, equipment and scientific data. In spite of these modest beginnings, the camaraderie and friendly atmosphere which are still characteristic of SPRI today were created by the men and women who visited the attic, united by their interest in the polar regions.

1934 – A group of famous designers collaborated on a purpose-built home for SPRI on Lensfield Road. The renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker designed the building, while MacDonald Gill painted the spectacular domed maps which can still be seen in the Memorial Hall. Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen – a distinguished sculptor – donated her own works which still keep watch over the Institute above the door and in the garden on Lensfield Road.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

MacDonald Gill and Priscilla Johnston paint the Memorial Hall domes

Bust of Captain Scott by Lady Kathleen Scott

1940s – During World War II SPRI helped the British government research clothing and equipment for Arctic missions. The museum collection at SPRI was initially a teaching collection, designed to equip polar explorers with the hard-won knowledge of their predecessors. During WWII, this specialist knowledge of equipment and polar clothing was especially useful when the War Office was considering a possible northern invasion route into Europe.

1959 – SPRI was heavily involved in setting up the Antarctic Treaty which protects the Antarctic as a continent for scientific research. An incredibly important agreement for the governance of the Antarctic even today, the Antarctic Treaty ensures that nobody owns the Antarctic. It also dedicates the continent as a place for peace and science. SPRI scientists helped to produce this remarkable treaty.

1968 – A lecture theatre, laboratories and ‘cold rooms’ for research were added to the building, more than doubling its size. SPRI is a specialist institute with specialist facilities – as scientific research within the university became ever more advanced, so more unusual features were added to SPRI. Today a large freezer in the basement is used for everything from testing kit to freezing our historic museum collections to protect them from insects and other pests!

The SPRI Lecture Theatre

1970s – SPRI scientists perfected the invention of radio echo sounding. This revolutionary new glaciological technique meant that scientists could fly over the ice sheets and measure how thick they were by emitting radio waves and measuring how long it took them to bounce back to the plane. This technique led to the discovery of a hidden world of lakes and volcanoes beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Radio Echo Sounding

1980 – SPRI welcomed the first students to its brand new Polar Studies program which still runs to this day. SPRI has always been a place of learning – first, it was for collaboration and the analysis of data by early explorers, then it became somewhere for budding polar scientists to benefit from the experience of the past. Today, students at the Institute study everything from the social sciences to climate change.

1998 – The Shackleton Memorial Library opened, securing SPRI’s position as the largest polar library in the world. The library at SPRI is home to an enormous collection of over 54,000 monographs, DVDs, Masters and Doctoral theses, as well as pamphlets, press-cuttings, periodicals and around 18,000 maps. As a resource on the polar regions it is of international importance.

The Polar Library

The Shackleton Memorial Library

2000s – SPRI was a well established hub of polar research and information as public interest in the polar regions continued to rise. As the general public became increasingly aware of the effects of climate change on the polar regions, SPRI’s role as a resource and centre for research on these fragile ecosystems became even more important.

2010 – The Polar Museum underwent a total refurbishment, in time for the centenary of the death of Captain Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912. The museum now has permanent displays on the indigenous communities of the Arctic, the western explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic and contemporary scientific research in the polar regions. There is also a dedicated temporary exhibition space.

The Polar Museum

2020 – The Scott Polar Research Institute celebrates 100 years of polar research. So much has changed since the attic days of the early 1920s, and who knows what the next 100 years have in store for SPRI, but if the last century is anything to go by then it’s sure to be busy!

SPRI today

 

A Century of Polar Research

May 14th, 2020

The year 2020 marks 100 years since the establishment of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI). While our founders could never have imagined what this year would be like, we are grateful to the foresight which lead them to create an Institute, a building and most importantly, a community, which has dedicated itself to researching and understanding the polar regions ever since.

The Scott Polar Research Institute today.

Let’s wind the clock right back to the very beginning – Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova). Frank Debenham and Raymond Priestley, geologists on the expedition, realised they needed a place to share their data, and the lessons they had learned on expeditions, with other polar explorers and researchers. The Terra Nova expedition ultimately ended in the tragic death of Captain Scott and the other four members of his polar party on their return from the South Pole. But Debenham and Priestley remembered their idea for a ‘polar headquarters’ and in 1920 it was made a reality thanks to funds donated after Scott’s death.

The Southern Party upon reaching the South Pole. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13

Frank Debenham examines geological samples. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13.

In 1920 the Scott Polar Research Institute was officially opened as part of the University of Cambridge and it flourished. Polar explorers and researchers shared their knowledge and experience with the next generation of scientists. Documents and objects formed comprehensive archival and varied museum collections. People wrote from far and wide to ask questions of the experts who worked there, and the veranda of the old building was found to be just the right size for oiling sealskin kayaks. In 1934, the Institute moved into its current home on Lensfield Road – adorned with Kathleen Scott’s sculpture of her late husband above the front door.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

Bust of Captain Scott by Kathleen Scott above the entrance to the Polar Museum.

In spite of its Antarctic beginnings, SPRI was always also interested in the people and environment of the Arctic. Terence Armstrong and John Elbo were employed to work in the Russian and north American Arctic in the 1940s and researchers from the Institute continue to work with Arctic communities to this day. Increasingly in recent years, SPRI has been privileged to learn from the knowledge and advice of visiting indigenous scholars, artists and community representatives.

Visiting artist Willy Topkok viewing our Alaskan collection

In the Antarctic, SPRI scientists pioneered a technique known as radio-echo sounding in the 60s and 70s, which allowed glaciologists to measure the depth of ice in the Antarctic ice-sheet. This was made possible by instruments designed and developed at the Institute in a project led by Stan Evans and Gordon Robin. For the first time, we were beginning to understand how much ice was actually in Antarctica!

Radio Echo Sounding

Today, SPRI contributes significantly to our global understanding of climate change and its impact on the polar regions. Building on the work of previous expeditions and scientists, as well as spearheading new research in glaciology, glacimarine environments and remote sensing.

Drone launch

Researchers from the RESPONDER project team launch a drone

SPRI continues to fulfil its promise to educate the next generation of polar researchers. An MPhil degree in polar studies was introduced in the 1970s, its present-day form taking shape in 1980. PhD students from across the world also undertake vital research across a wide range of academic areas. Their work is enriched by SPRI’s unparalleled archives, picture library and museum collections which educate and inspire researchers and public alike. What’s more, the SPRI library is the largest library of the polar regions in the world.

The Polar Library

The Polar Library

In its hundred year history, SPRI has continually adapted to new challenges and questions in polar research. It remains as relevant today as a site for learning as it was at its conception. This year, we will be sharing our history in more detail in a series of blog and social media posts, and we can’t wait to have you along for the ride.

‘Walking on Thin Ice’ – A virtual exhibition tour

January 6th, 2020

‘Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate’ is an exhibition put together in collaboration with twelve teenagers. In August 2019, the co-curation team met at the Scott Polar Institute (SPRI) for a week of activities. By the end of the week, they had a framework for their exhibition. They met and talked with researchers studying the Polar Regions, developing their own knowledge of the issues posed by climate change. They visited the British Antarctic Survey, for a similar series of talks with researchers there.

The co-curators worked to reach a consensus on the themes their exhibition would draw upon. This was made possible by engaging with the collection of the Polar Museum at SPRI, and thinking about the best objects and archival documents to include. In the time after their week of hard work, the Polar Museum team brought their ideas to life, and were pleased to welcome the co-curation team back to the museum at the end of November 2019, to launch the exhibition and celebrate their achievements. What follows is the text of the exhibition, with accompanying photographs of it in situ in the temporary gallery of the Polar Museum.

Lush Landscapes to Icy Continent

For the whole of human history there has been ice in the Antarctic. But when dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous Period 145-66 million years ago, things looked very different. Antarctica was still part of a large landmass reaching from South America to Australasia. High levels of volcanic activity were releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in greater concentrations than today. Global temperatures were warmer, thanks to the ‘greenhouse effect’ of carbon dioxide trapping heat from the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere. Some scientists estimate that the seas around the Antarctic were as warm as 30°C during this period.
The warmer Antarctic climate meant that many plants and animals flourished in sub-tropical forests similar to those in New Zealand and Tasmania today. Gingkos, Monkey Puzzle trees and ferns survived through the polar winter, when no light may have reached them for months at a time. The fossilised remains of Leaellynasaura – a small herbivorous dinosaur with large optic lobes (the part of the brain involved in vision) – have also been found, suggesting that dinosaurs may have adapted ‘night-vision’ to help them forage in the darkness of the polar night.
56-55 million years ago, Antarctica broke off from Australasia, becoming the separate continent that it is today. Around 33 million years ago, it became largely covered in ice and, although global temperatures fluctuated, they would never again be warm enough to sustain an ice-free Antarctic.

Breaking the Cycle

Understanding how Earth’s climate has changed over millennia, decades and single years can help scientists to build a big picture of our current climate and make predictions about the future.
There have always been variations in the Earth’s climate. Even in the last 650,000 years – a relatively short period in our planet’s history – there have been seven cycles of colder and warmer periods. The modern climate era is marked by the end of the last ice age about 10,000 years ago. During warmer periods, higher levels of carbon dioxide are recorded. This is because carbon dioxide traps heat from the Sun in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to warming global temperatures.
By analysing tiny bubbles of air trapped in ice cores collected from ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, scientists reveal the impact of fluctuating levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on global temperature. Today measurements show unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide well above the natural cycles of the last 650,000 years. The rate at which levels of this gas are increasing is also about 100 times faster than in any previous cycles. Research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates a 90% likelihood that recent changes in global temperature are directly linked to human activity releasing larger amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

 

Impacts

The impacts of climate change are already being felt at levels that range from human lives to the planet’s smallest micro-organisms.
Arctic animals are of fundamental importance to Inuit life. Firmly embedded within cultural practices, they are also a primary source of nutritious food. Many Arctic animals, like seals, walrus and polar bears, are themselves dependent on sea ice as a place to hunt, rest and give birth. But as sea ice decreases year on year, these animals’ lives, and the futures of their species, are being threatened. The loss of Arctic species would not only deal an enormous ecological blow, but also spell the loss of the traditional ecological knowledge and cultural foundation stones of northern peoples.
At the microscopic end of the food chain, recent studies have suggested that, as global temperatures rise, some areas of the ocean will see increased evaporation from their surface waters. The resulting increase in water density will trap microplastics (plastics measuring less than 5 mm introduced into the oceanic environment by the breaking up of plastic pollutants) at the surface. Microplastics in these upper levels are consumed by micro-organisms such as plankton, which form the basis of the oceanic food chain, inevitably infiltrating the food we eat.
By continuing to support interdisciplinary research and cooperation into climate change, we can be well placed to address its wide-ranging impacts.

Climate Research Behind the Scenes

The Polar regions are often described as the ‘front line’ of climate change because change is happening there faster than anywhere else on Earth. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets hold 99% of the world’s fresh water. If they were to melt, global sea levels would rise by over 60 metres. As a result, scientists have been looking to the poles to help predict the effects of a changing climate.
In January 2019, a team of researchers from the British Antarctic Survey visited the Rutford Ice Stream in Antarctica – a 300 km long, 25 km wide, relatively fast-moving stream of ice which flows into the Weddell Sea. They used a technique called ‘hot water drilling’ to drill 3 holes over 2 km deep into the ice. Scientific instruments were lowered into the bore holes including sensors to determine how ‘slippery’ the sediment was underneath the ice. By determining the slipperiness of the sediment, the team can predict how the flow of the ice stream will be affected by ongoing environmental change. Will it speed up? By how much? How much more ice will flow into the Weddell Sea? These predictions can then be used to create models to estimate the rate at which sea levels will rise in the future.

Arctic Exploitation

The rich natural resources of the Arctic and the scattered indigenous groups who live there have meant that for centuries the region has been seen by outsiders as a fruitful ‘wilderness’ to be claimed by the most intrepid.
In 1576 the English explorer Martin Frobisher went north to look for a fabled trade route known as the North West Passage. He did not find it, but he did discover rocks which he thought contained gold. Frobisher believed that he had a colonial right to claim whatever he found in the Arctic, with no regard for the indigenous groups who had lived there for thousands of years. As a result, in 1578, he took 400 men to quarry 1,100 tons of rock from several mines. Frobisher had actually mined iron pyrite (also known as ‘fool’s gold’) which was worth only a fraction of the gold of his dreams.
The Inuit communities lived sustainably in their environment, taking only what they needed from it. In contrast, Frobisher and successive waves of outsiders exploited this land and its natural resources. This assumed ‘ownership’ of the Arctic by outside powers is echoed today by the behaviour of energy companies prospecting new gas and oil fields. Now that the Arctic is again becoming a place of economic interest, as melting sea ice makes it more accessible, will history repeat itself?

Expedition Research

Polar exploration in the 19th and 20th centuries is often linked to personal glory – historic heroes carrying out daring feats of bravery and claiming new territories, often fuelled by patriotism. These stories certainly have their place in the narrative of the past, but that is only a part of these expeditions. Scientific research was undertaken on most historic expeditions. The data and samples which the explorers recorded and collected can provide a valuable baseline for modern research and our understanding of how the global environment is changing.
Many polar expeditions recorded meteorological data in the form of ships’ logs and undertook first-hand research into areas as broad as air and ocean temperatures, geomagnetic conditions and geology. Modern researchers have studied datasets from John Ross’s Arctic expedition aboard Victory (1829-1833) and fossils collected from Captain Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition aboard Terra Nova (1910-1913) were used to support the hypothesis of the ancient global supercontinent, Pangea.
The changes that have occurred since these expeditions, both to the global environment and to scientific equipment, would have been incomprehensible at the time. Nevertheless, as a result of their systematic approach to observation and methodical collection of data and specimens, the explorers of the past are providing invaluable scientific knowledge to the researchers of today.

United by Nature, Guided by Science

Across the world, many different groups are finding their voices and working in their own distinct ways to combat the causes, and study the effects, of climate change.
In Alaska, Gwich’in communities have been instrumental in pushing back against plans to extract oil and gas from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to the culturally important Porcupine caribou herd (one of the largest migratory caribou herds in North America). Although the federal government is still seeking to go ahead with these extractions, the UN has highlighted indigenous sovereignty as an important cornerstone in attempting to address climate change. The Gwich’in and other indigenous groups have spent thousands of years cultivating powerful relationships with their localities. The specialist knowledge of their environments built up over time could aid understanding of our changing climate.
Up until the 1960s, female scientists were largely excluded from undertaking research in the Antarctic. Today around 55% of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists members are female, and women hold leading and influential positions, such as Professor Dame Jane Francis, Director of the British Antarctic Survey. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), set up in 1958 to facilitate international collaboration in Antarctic science, is also committed to promoting diversity in this field. In 2016 SCAR supported a ‘wikibomb’, to write the online profiles of over 100 female researchers and there are now more female Antarctic researchers than males on Wikipedia.
Climate change is a global issue and boundary-crossing cooperation is our best tool to slow its effects.

Climate Voices

Greta Thunberg was only 15 when she began the series of strikes which led to her international recognition. Greta chose to strike outside her school to raise awareness of climate issues and demand that the Swedish Government commit to meeting the emissions targets laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The idea took off and soon she was part of a group which founded the ‘Fridays For Future’ initiative. The idea – to take strike action every Friday until change is made – struck a chord with young people worldwide.
A little over a year later, Greta has gone from striking on her own outside her school, to being the figurehead of an international movement. The Global Climate Strike from the 20th-27th September 2019 saw 7.6 million people worldwide strike to demand action on climate change. The movement has expanded to include millions of scientists, businesses, celebrities and adults from a wide variety of backgrounds joining young people on the streets.
Greta is not the only young person campaigning for change. Xiye Bastida is a Mexican activist bringing indigenous perspectives to her conversations about climate. Nadia Nazar is an Indian American activist who uses art to communicate on climate issues. Autumn Peltier, has for years been speaking up about water quality in Canadian indigenous communities. All these young people have found their voices in combating environmental crises and the changing climate.

Acknowledgments

This exhibition was developed as part of a co-curation project with twelve teenagers from around the UK who visited the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) and Selwyn College for a week in August 2019. Their hard work and dedication provided the framework for the exhibition, while their passion and drive were a source of inspiration for every member of SPRI who had the pleasure of working with them. Thank you: Alice, Charlotte, Erin, JoJo, Lera, Maddie, Molly, Morgan, Nancy, Naomi, Nicolas and Sophie.
The Institute especially wishes to thank Dr Matt Wise and Selwyn College for hosting the co-curation team and for their project development work. Thanks, too, to Downing College and Dr Michael Bravo, the University of Cambridge Admissions and Environment and Energy teams. We also thank the researchers who worked with the team: at SPRI – Henry Anderson-Elliott, Dr Ragnhild Freng Dale, Rebecca Dell, Dr Frazer Christie, Samuel Cook, Sasha Montelli, Morgan Seag and at the British Antarctic Survey, Hilary Blagbrough, Professor Melody Clark, Dr Peter Davis, Laura Gerrish, Dr Huw Griffiths, Louise Ireland, Dr Robert Mulvaney, Dr Stephen Roberts and Professor David Vaughan. Thanks also to Dr Chandrika Nath and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and Whippet Coaches. Finally, for their help in putting on the exhibition, our thanks go to: Paul Anker, C. Balhatchet, Beach-o-matic, Cat Cooper, Chloe Cupid, Vicky Gardener, S. Holmes, T. Kingsnorth, Laura Kissel, Dr Katrin Linse, J. Marsden, Weronika Murray and Robert Nicholls.

 

Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate

December 9th, 2019

On the 30th November we were delighted to welcome back our twelve teenage co-curators to celebrate the launch of their exhibition ‘Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate’.

After a week of incredibly hard work in August this year, the then year 12 students had provided our museum team with a detailed framework for their exhibition. Since then, a lot has happened – the student’s ideas have been made into a reality, and the students themselves have moved into year 13 and completed their university applications. Let’s have a catch up.

Welcoming back the student curators

The exhibition is all about climate change – current research, stories of empowerment and hope for the future. The co-curators were adamant that this should not be an exhibition to upset people, but to educate them in up-to-date scientific facts, and encourage them that co-operation is the way forward. The way they wanted this information to be presented is often striking, and there are a number of new features which have not been seen before in our temporary gallery space.

Exhibition display

A large floor sticker can be found in front of the Institute reception desk. A map of the Antarctic, it shows scientific bases located across the continent, as well as the animals which live on and around it. Small flocks of penguins bump up against McMurdo station, while the seas are filled with whales and fish. Bringing a youthful feel to this part of the exhibition, this map has already been a hit with some of our youngest visitors – allowing them to stand on the Antarctic and perhaps imagine themselves as the polar explorers of the future.

Antarctic floor sticker

The inclusion of a ‘voting wall’, with thought-provoking questions set to change over the course of the exhibition, was high on the co-curators’ priority list. With counters to make your views known, it has already sparked conversations within the Institute. Keep an eye on our social media channels for the results.

Voting wall

There is also information about the youth strikes, a topic which was very close to the hearts of our young co-curators. The ‘collage wall’ featuring posters and images from youth strikes in the UK and Inuvik in Northern Canada certainly brings home that this is a global issue, being addressed by a global community. The wall itself has already been incredibly well documented as the backdrop to hundreds of selfies using the hashtag #ThinIceExhibition.

Climate protest wall

Alongside these unusual exhibition features, there is a fantastic selection of objects from the museum’s collection, chosen by the co-curators, and a lot of information about our changing climate. From information about the historic explorers and the data they collected hundreds of years ago, to cutting-edge information about the unprecedented changes we are now recording in atmospheric carbon levels, there is something for everyone to see, read, do and enjoy.

While this has been a fantastic project to bring to life – taking the co-curation team’s ideas and making them a reality – the real highlight was seeing them all again at our launch event. This group of teenagers began the process feeling unsure as to whether Cambridge might be for them, and they all left saying that they felt as if they’d never been away. With university applications for this term now in full swing, we wish them all the best of luck with their further studies, and hope that they know they are welcome back any time!
If you’d like to come and see ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, to vote on the voting wall, stand on the floor sticker and maybe even take a selfie in front of the collage wall, it will be running until the end of March 2020.

A Special Visitor – Part Two. Willy’s Diary

December 9th, 2019

From the 13th – 20th October we were absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to invite Willy Topkok, an Iñupiaq man and experienced artist, to visit us here at the Scott Polar ResearchInstitute for a week. It was an exciting, interesting and hugely fun experience for everyone involved so we thought we’d share a post of everything Willy got up to during his stay.

Monday 14th October
Monday was Willy’s first full day in Cambridge. After a quick hello to everyone in the Museum and Education & Outreach teams, Willy viewed our current temporary exhibition “Tikigaq:Point Hope, Life on Alaska’s North Slope” sharing his own stories of his Alaskan heritage throughout, followed by a tour of our Polar Library with Librarian Peter Lund.
Next up was lunch with members of the Museum and Library team where, still adjusting to the temperature change from the desert-like temperatures of Arizona (where he currently lives) to a far cooler Cambridge, the first thing Willy ordered was a hot tea!
After re-fuelling, it was time for Willy to have a private tour of the Polar Museum and a behind-the-scenes look in our stores at more of the Alaskan objects we have in our collection.

Willy holding a boot from our Alaskan collection

Later in the day, Willy joined everyone at SPRI for a special afternoon tea break in the temporary gallery of the Polar Museum where he met staff and students alike – all of whom were very pleased to meet him.

Tuesday 15th October
Even after a busy first day, Willy was just as eager to find out what was next in store for him during his visit. To start off his second day, Willy was accompanied by Collections Assistant Mia Surridge for some sight seeing in Cambridge, with a visit to Kings College and a stop at the famous Corpus Clock too. He was thoroughly impressed with the architecture and hearing all about the traditional Carol’s from Kings Christmas Eve service – but mostly he said he just couldn’t wait to show all the pictures to everyone at home!

Willy standing by the Corpus Clock

After working up quite the appetite from touring the streets of Cambridge, Willy then stopped for some much-needed lunch at the University Centre with Mia and Rosie Amos, Education and Outreach Assistant, before heading back to SPRI to give a talk to PHaSS (The Polar Humanities and Social Sciences Workshop) where he displayed his bowdrill and beading work which they were so fascinated by that Willy ended upextending his talk further.
A speedy tea break was had and then it was time for Willy to begin his second talk of the day, this time to a group of volunteers from The Polar Museum front of house team. Much like with PHaSS, there were laughs and gasps from all in the audience (followed by lots of questions) as Willy, dressed in his traditional clothing, demonstrated his amazing storytelling skills.

Willy giving his talk to our volunteersTo round off his day, a certainly well-deserved dinner was had by Willy with the company of Education and Outreach Assistant, Naomi Boneham. After some great food and a good old chat, he was ready to head to get some rest before his next busy day.

Wednesday 16th October
On Wednesday, Willy was accompanied to London for the day by Collections Project Cataloguer Henrietta Hammant, catching the train (or as Willy called it a ‘trolley’) bright and early from Cambridge station. First stop was the British Museum where they had a look at the North American and Asia galleries as well as the Ancient Greek collection – ever-eager to capture every possible moment of his trip, Willy found much joy in not only seeing the displays first hand but making sure he got plenty of photos to show his friends and family back at home too!

Willy standing outside the British Museum

Up next was a quick trip on the tube to Green Park where Willy and Henrietta had a scenic walk to Buckingham Palace. Willy was not only amazed by the palace itself but delighted to find out the Queen was actually at home! Of course, not wanting to waste a second of their day Willy and Henrietta then set off for a walk through St James’ park to get to Westminster Abbey and then to the Houses of Parliament before crossing the river to see the London Eye. It was certainly a day packed full of London must-sees and landmarks and both Henrietta and Willy agreed it was a successful trip indeed!

Willy standing outside Buckingham Palace

Thursday 17th October
After a morning of free time followed by lunch with Henrietta, Willy set off to visit the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where, after a viewing of their Star Carr exhibition, he met Senior Curator of Anthropology, Dr Anita Herle and Liz Walsh, a PhD student who did her fieldwork on Alaska’s North Slope. Following tea it was then time to head up to the photographic collection to meet Manager of the Photographic Collections, Dr Jocelyne Dudding who shared some fantastic historic images from both Siberia and Alaska, he was even allowed to take some copies home as they featured people who were from his ancestral homelands.
Willy later enjoyed dinner with Liz Walsh where they both had a lovely time talking about Northern Alaska, with perhaps the highlight of all being that Willy was able to speak in a little Iñupiaq to her.

Friday 18th October
Willy started off his morning back in our Polar Library and much to his delight, whilst browsing through some of the books in our collection, he saw the familiar names of both friends and relatives as well as pictures of their artworks featured on the pages. Next, he took some time to have a look at The Polar Museum himself as, being so busy earlier in the week with activities, he hadn’t yet had chance to properly enjoy our collections in his own time!
Later in the day, Willy was due to give a talk in the temporary gallery as part of our Festival of Ideas events at The Polar Museum. Attending visitors received a private insight into the “Tikigaq: Point Hope, Life on Alaska’s North Slope” exhibition. Willy couldn’t have been happier to talk to the many intrigued visitors more personally after his talk.

Willy with a visitor at The Polar Museum

The day didn’t end there though, as Willy then attended both dinner at the University Centre and an Intelligence Seminar at Corpus Christi about ‘KGB “illegal” operations in England’ with SPRI Research Associate Bryan Lintott. Both Willy and Bryan had an enjoyable evening which rounded off Willy’s penultimate day in Cambridge.

Saturday 20th October
On his final day, Willy kindly came along to The Polar Museum’s Family Day where guests could see demonstrations of his skilled beadwork first hand and hear about his love of the Inupiat way of life whilst Willy himself was thrilled at the fact he got to meet people from all over the world – in fact we’re almost certain he spoke to every single one of the 944 visitors we had on the day!
Then before we knew it, and much to everyone’s sadness, it was time to say our goodbyes to Willy, though not without having a quick group photo beforehand of course…

Willy with Polar Museum staff

As a final treat, Henrietta took Willy for a slap-up last supper before he returned to his hotel ready for an early morning flight home to Arizona, after what was an incredibly special and memorable trip.

A Special Visitor – Part One

December 9th, 2019

One of the real joys of working in museums is being able to invite guests from our ‘source communities’ to see the museum and visit the objects in our care. Source communities are the real people and places which the objects in our collections come from. So building and maintaining relationships with these people and places is incredibly important.
The Institute was thrilled, therefore, to invite Willy Topkok, an Iñupiaq man and artist from northern Alaska, to visit the museum for a week. SPRI has many links to Alaska and to life in the northern reaches of the State, so we couldn’t wait to learn even more from him. Willy came to talk to us about his life and skills as a traditional artist, and even spoke about some of the objects in our collection. “The Polar Museum was excellent. I saw my late grandfather’s name Frank Elanna, with pictures of his beautiful ivory carvings, along with Uncle Mose Millgrock’s ivory carvings, uncle Lincoln Millergrock’s ivory carvings, my cousin Charlie Kokuluk’s ivory carvings. Paul Tiulana, Justin, Eugene Tiulana’s carvings. I was fascinated to see these beautiful names in Cambridge, UK.”

Willy outside the Polar Museum

One of Willy’s favourite topics of conversation is his Iñupiaq heritage and family history, and he charmed many people with his stories during his visit. Willy’s parents hailed from the small villages of Teller and Wales on the west coast of Alaska. This part of the US juts out into the Bering Straight – reaching towards Russia and the International Date Line just a few miles away. Willy’s life is intertwined with these two countries, so culturally different and yet so geographically close.
Willy writes, “My late mother had this tiny little picture in her Bible. She used to always show me the picture and tell me her mother was very good at sewing. This picture was taken in 1926. She [Willy’s mother] was three years old and holding on to her mother’s hand in the picture. She is the little girl on the bottom right. Louise Tungwenuk Topkok Todd, my grandmother, was born about the late 1800s or early 1900s and she did not understand English. The tall young man far left was my grandfather, my mother’s father, he was born in 1881 in Siberian Russia, on Russia’s Big Diomede Island. My grandfather’s half-brother, Spike Millergrock, was from Little Diomede Alaska.”
Willy’s family had a big impact on the direction his life would take, “When I was about eight or ten years old I was forced to learn my native arts like carving walrus ivory, skin sewing. I did not want to learn” but as Willy went on, he began to enjoy learning how to produce traditional artwork. “My grandmother loved to sit beside me while I did my native arts because she loved to see my little Eskimo dancers on walrus ivory scrimshaw. Then she would have hot tea sitting beside me telling me some beautiful stories of my people”.

Willy’s family

Willy became a very skilled artist, specialising in ivory carving, graphic arts, skin sewing, dancing, singing, and of course, story-telling. We were so fortunate to be able to watch Willy beading, demonstrating his sewing techniques and giving us gripping first-hand accounts of what life had been like for him growing up between the villages of Teller and Wales. “Even to this day now I love doing my native arts and I even love to teach my native arts, the past few years I have taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Native Arts.” Willy also spoke and taught at our Family Open Day, where he talked with our visitors, told stories and demonstrated his work. “Saturday Oct. 19, 2019 – fun fun fun greeting people from all over the world at the Scott Polar Research Institute”.

Speaking to visitors at our Arctic Family Day

Willy went to high school in Oregon, where he met (now Professor) Larry Rockhill, who went on to become an Emeritus Associate with SPRI. Larry’s own academic interests also lie somewhere between Alaska and Russia, and so it is little wonder that he and Willy kept in contact for so many years. It was this deep friendship which meant that Larry put Willy forward as a possible candidate to visit the museum here in Cambridge, and we’re very pleased that he did.
For a more detailed account of Willy’s time spent in the UK, please read our next post. This trip diary, outlines the busy days he spent with us here in the Institute and in other museums across Cambridge and London. It was an absolute pleasure to have Willy to stay and share his history, cultural heritage and traditions with us. To leave you with Willy’s words, “I can’t thank you more than enough for a dream visit to the United Kingdom.”

iDiscover in the library

October 8th, 2019

Researchers across the world are now able to access the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) library’s collection through the University of Cambridge’s online catalogue iDiscover. Nearly 170,000 individual catalogue records were transferred into the iDiscover database at the end of September. These records describe each and every book, article, pamphlet or disc in our extensive collection, and among them over 110,000 journal articles. Anyone interested in polar research can find these resources simply by clicking on iDiscover in the SPRI or University Library websites – anywhere where there’s an Internet connection.


Polar research is more important than ever before. Understanding our changing climate relies on understanding changes in the polar regions – and the impact they are having on the rest of the world. The peoples and cultures of the northern polar regions offer a unique perspective on the ways humans can interrelate with their environment. The iDiscover catalogue is a major resource for facilitating conversations with northern populations, and climate-change research more generally.


The SPRI library staff are delighted to be opening the collection up through iDiscover. A new user found a book in SPRI the very day the data was transferred. She had been looking for the book all summer, and suddenly it had popped up in iDiscover. She hadn’t ever heard of the SPRI library before.


The SPRI library boasts a unique collection of work on the polar regions, spanning history, biography, poetry, fiction, social anthropology and the hard sciences. Its special collection contains volumes of key importance to the history of our understanding of the world – such as a seventeenth-century description of the seas under the earth, the Mundus Subterraneus by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Readers can pursue their interests in subjects as diverse as reindeer husbandry, Arctic politics, sea ice and the meditations of Mrs. Chippy, the cat who accompanied Shackleton’s polar expedition from 1914 – 1915.


The library also houses one of the world’s key collections of Russian literature on the polar regions, dating from the early explorations of Siberia until the present day. Russian research has always formed a crucial contribution to the world’s knowledge of both the north and south poles, and the people who live there. The Russian collection contains rare and valuable work on the languages and histories of Russia’s indigenous communities. The iDiscover catalogue makes the Russian collection available to scholars across the world – including scholars from the world’s indigenous northern communities. We hope the iDiscover catalogue will help indigenous communities remain in contact with each other, and with the scientific community in the world more generally. Try it for yourself here

Resources to Engage Blind and Partially Sighted Visitors with the Shackleton Collections

September 25th, 2019

Over the past year we have been working on increasing access for blind and partially sighted visitors to our Shackleton collections. We wanted to create a number of meaningful resources that could be used by a variety of ages, and by visitors who have partial sight loss as well as those who may be fully blind. This is especially important as most of the Shackleton artefacts currently on display are very fragile and behind glass so cannot be handled.

This is part of a wider National Lottery Heritage Funded project called By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project. All of these resources are suitable for adults and children, but will require some assistance from the museum reception volunteers, so please do ask at the museum reception if you would like to use any of them.

The resources are as follows:

• A 10 minute audio introduction to the Polar Museum and its layout, and audio descriptions of 10 different artefacts from the Shackleton collection (both produced by Vocaleyes)
These are available to download from our website as well as available from the museum reception desk on our current audio devices.

• Vocaleyes also delivered two sessions of Visual Awareness training for our staff, volunteers and colleagues in the University of Cambridge Museums in July of this year. This enables us to now offer basic guiding for BPSP visitors around the museum. If you are interested in this assistance with your visit please do let us know in advance so we can make sure a fully trained volunteer and/or member of staff is available.

• We have purchased a swell printer to make tactile drawings, which are images with raised, tangible outlines. Using this we have produced drawings of wildlife photographs taken on the Shackleton expeditions, as well as some wonderful tactile artwork created by Sarah Airriess which shows the James Caird and how it was turned into a shelter on Elephant Island. We also have tactile maps of the museum floor plan which can be used by visitors as they move around the museum. It is hoped that in the future, further tactile drawings can be created for a variety of activities and events.

• We have commissioned Mattes and Miniatures Visual Effects Ltd to create two replica items which visitors can fully handle and explore. These are a replica pair of eye shades used in the Antarctic by Lieutenant Charles Royds on the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904), and a replica model of a Nansen sledge, including all the equipment which would have been packed on it.
Both have turned out incredibly beautiful and are near perfect replicas of the originals which we are very lucky to have.

• We also have a magnifying sheet and a torch available to borrow to help visitors see the objects in the display cases.

All of these resources will be available from the museum reception desk from the beginning of October so please do speak to our lovely museum volunteers if you would like to access any of them and they will be happy to assist you. We are very excited about these resources so please do visit us to try them out – we would love to hear your feedback on them!

Climate Co-Curation Project Blog Post – Part 3

September 5th, 2019

This is the final blog about our Climate Co-Curation Project, where we invited twelve 16-17 year olds to spend a week in the museum and put together a framework for a temporary exhibition on climate change. The first two blogs talk about what co-curation projects are, how we chose our team of teenagers and what they got up to while they were with us at SPRI. Keep reading to find out what happened next.
The group were incredibly diligent, settling down to all the tasks set for them with the same enthusiasm and interest that they had displayed on the first day. Together, they were able to produce the framework for the exhibition which we need to make their ideas a reality. This included details of the sections to be included and the key points to be made, as well as object lists, information about the style and visual look of the display, and even ideas on how to market the exhibition to teenagers. As if that wasn’t enough, we also set them the challenge of presenting their decisions and pitching their exhibition to a group of new and familiar faces at the end of the week, with representatives from the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, University Admissions offices and SPRI researchers all in attendance.

It’s not often that you get to sit in a room full of academics, researchers, and university staff left almost speechless by a presentation made by twelve 16-17 year olds. But that’s exactly what happened. Everyone who saw the presentation was blown away by their professionalism, nuanced understanding of complex ideas and well-thought through concepts. The atmosphere at SPRI was electric with pride and a lot of respect for all they had achieved.

To celebrate their successes, at the end of the week we were lucky enough to have a formal dinner at Downing college, as well as a tour of the grounds and the opportunity to speak with senior academics (a once daunting idea which by the end of the week our confident team was handling with ease). It was a kind gesture from the college and a fitting end to a week full of hard work, well done.

So what happens now? Our team have gone back to their homes all over the country but the hard work continues – for them, writing their personal statements full of new knowledge and skills learned over their week in Cambridge, and for us, the process of making their plans for a new temporary exhibition at SPRI a reality. The nitty-gritty of working out the floor plan, writing and printing the labels and making sure that all the objects are ready for display. This is work that couldn’t be done in a week, but which is only possible thanks to the dedication of the teenagers on the summer school. The opening of the exhibition is scheduled to be in late November and we can’t wait to have them all back to see it. Watch this space, and when it’s ready, please do come and have a look at what will be a testament to the hard work of a very talented group of young people.