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The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

Welcome to the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum news section.

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.

Climate Co-Curation Project Blog Post – Part 2

September 5th, 2019

If you’ve read our last blog about our recent Climate Co-Curation Project, you’ll know how we went about choosing our team, and why co-curation projects are so important. We invited twelve 16-17 year olds to join us for a week at SPRI to work out a framework for a temporary exhibition on climate change which will go on display in late November. Read on below to find out exactly what they got up to!


With only a week to get everyone up to speed on current climate research, as well as the ins and outs of producing a museum exhibition (not to mention the work of preparing our team for their university applications), each day was split into a number of sessions. Particular highlights were a whole morning of talks from current researchers at SPRI who outlined their work and suggested objects that might be put on display in the exhibition. The team loved finding out about the scientific research going on in the Polar Regions and also had their assumptions challenged about the use of polar bears as a ‘metaphor’ for climate change and the role of women in polar research. Further emphasising the importance of women in our understanding of the Polar Regions, they even had a video message from Dr. Chandrika Nath, the Executive Director of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

Later in the week, we spent a morning at the British Antarctic Survey in west Cambridge, having a similar series of talks from their researchers as well as a tour of different parts of the building. Something that no one will forget was being given 40,000 year old ice to hold and listening as it melted to the sound of 40,000 year old air bubbles escaping back into the atmosphere.

The museum team at SPRI also welcomed the co-curation team into their domain, running object handling sessions and leading tours of the museum and stores. Our group were challenged to link objects together to tell a story (even ones which didn’t seem to go together at all!) and to think about what makes an object good or bad for display. This was a whole new way of thinking for our team and they handled it very capably, listening and taking on board all that they heard, and putting it into practice in their decisions later in the week.

The nature of doing so much work in a week meant that there were a few late nights scheduled in. One of these was spent in Selwyn College, where we chose the key words which would go on to inform the themes and information displayed in the exhibition. The group had written a list of 9 possible key words together and we were all amazed when, during a task to narrow down their top three in small groups, they all came up with the same 4 words. Empowerment, research, cooperation and change were the names of the game, and what a nuanced selection they were.

As well as the work for the exhibition itself, we made sure to find time every day to reflect on the work we had done, what had been achieved and what new skills had been learned or honed along the way. This information was written down by the team into a ready-made skill-set, perfect for their personal statements. It was amazing to watch not only how the skills changed with each new day on the project, but also how the way the group thought about their learning changed along the way as well.
This is the second of three blogs about this project and we still have so much more to tell you! Make sure to read the final instalment where we’ll be talking presentations, celebrations and what happens next…

Climate Co-Curation Project Blog Post

September 5th, 2019

The plan was this: invite twelve young people into the museum, fill their brains with information about the Polar Regions and museum displays and then ask them to produce the framework for a temporary exhibition about climate change. In a week.
There is a lot of buzz around ‘co-curation’ projects at the moment. The idea is, by bringing in an outside group of people to work alongside curators and other museum professionals, both sides gain new expertise and the resulting exhibition represents voices which might not otherwise be heard in the museum. It’s an effective way for both the staff and the public to learn more about collections, and it welcomes people who might not usually feel at home in museums. In this case, that underrepresented group was teenagers.


By delivering our co-curation project as part of a week-long residential summer school for 16-17 year olds just about to apply for university, we hoped that we could also show our team what life is like as a student at the University of Cambridge. Living and working in Selwyn College, they were able to spend their evenings in the college social spaces, eating in the dining hall, sleeping in student rooms (and even playing sardines in the college gardens). Dr. Matt Wise, Schools Liaison Officer at Selwyn and former PhD student at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), took a leading role in the running of the course and ensured that student ambassadors were on hand all week to help settle the students into college life. All in all, we wanted to put our team in the best possible position to apply to study at Cambridge when applications open at the beginning of October – providing them with knowledge of the academic courses available and what they would entail, as well as an idea of the social lives of Cambridge students.


We had a staggering number of applicants for what was a very small summer school. Students submitted written applications and those who were shortlisted had skype interviews where we asked them difficult questions like, “Tell us about an object or image that you feel represents your personality” and “Can you talk to us about an exhibition or performance that has had an impact on you, whether positive or negative?” Eventually, we managed to narrow down applications from 130 at the start of the process, to just 12. This final group had representatives from all over the UK, from Birmingham to small Devonshire towns and London to the North East. We had 11 students from state schools and one from an independent school and they represented a whole host of different interests and perspectives on the climate crisis. There were geographers, an aspiring journalist and an economist, to name just a few. What they all had in common, though, was a thirst for knowledge and a dedication to reporting climate science and research to the public.


With the plan for the project all worked out and the team chosen, it wasn’t long before they began to arrive for the start of what was always destined to be a very busy week. From the very first moments of bringing them together, we knew something special was happening – strangers talked like old friends and the excitement to get started was palpable. Fortunately, we had lots to be getting on with…


Be sure to read the next in our series of blogs about our Climate Co-Curation Project to find out what our group did over their week in SPRI.

Museum Speed Dating – Shackleton in the Spotlight

June 18th, 2019

Ernest Shackleton was an eminent polar explorer who voyaged to the Antarctic four times, leading three of his own expeditions. On two of those expeditions he made ‘furthest South’ records on his attempts on the South Pole. He was also responsible for (amongst many other achievements) one heroic open-boat sea crossing to rescue his men from certain death. Shackleton is undoubtedly an iconic figure of the twentieth century, and one that we are proud to represent through our collection of fascinating, poignant and unique objects in the Polar Museum, archives and picture library.

Now we want you to vote for your favourite Shackleton object.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

What does Shackleton have to do with our new hashtag – #MuseumSpeedDating? No, the Polar Museum hasn’t decided to branch out into matchmaking (though I’m sure our penguin could thaw even the iciest of hearts!). Instead, this is a new way to show you some more of our Shackleton collection, and find out what you’d like to see more of too. Using this hashtag, we’ve posted 10 short films across all of our social media channels about some of the amazing objects in our collection.

We’re inviting you to vote for your favourite object by liking or sharing its short film on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. The objects with the most votes will be made into longer, more in-depth films by a professional filmmaker. They’ll help us to draw out not only what’s fascinating about the objects themselves, but what they can tell us about who Shackleton was and how he lived. These longer films will also include material from our archive and picture library which will throw even more light on Shackleton as a man and a leader.

This project all started with a grant we received from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to help us grow, improve and interpret our collection of objects relating to Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, for which he is perhaps best known, ran from 1914-1917 and having had the centenary of that momentous journey recently, we knew that this would be the perfect time to tell you more about all of Shackleton’s expeditions to that remote continent. We wanted to talk about the feats of scientific knowledge-building, as well as geographical exploration, which he achieved.

Shackleton is a man who lived a full life, typified by his expeditions to the Antarctic, of course, but full of people, relationships, and objects – some of which we’re lucky enough to look after. So we have spent some time researching what we have in our collection, and what they say about the man and the life he led. Uncovering some of the more surreal stories gave us greater insight into Shackleton’s truly pioneering personality and determination: like the plaque for a small boat named the ‘Raymond’ which he might have been planning to drag with him across the entire Antarctic continent before his plans were foiled. Other objects, like the barometer purportedly used to measure the height of the Antarctic volcano Mount Erebus by Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David on the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod), show the gumption, grit and scientific merit of the men he took on his expeditions.

Raymond Plaque. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Barometer.
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

There’s the chronometer which helped to navigate the 800 mile open-boat journey Shackleton was forced to make from Elephant Island to South Georgia to rescue his stranded crew. The sledging flag, made by a female family member, and attached to Shackleton’s sledge on his attempts on the South Pole during the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 (Discovery) and British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod). There’s even an unopened tin of Lipton’s tea which made it all the way to the Antarctic and all the way back to the UK without ever being drunk.

Chronometer.
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Sledging Flag.
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Lipton Tea.
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

In fact, all of the objects in our collection have different and exciting stories to tell. So it was not without some heartache that we finally narrowed down our choices to just 10 objects that we thought would represent all the multi-faceted aspects of Shackleton visible in our collections.

We’re really excited to ask you to help us decide which objects to focus on. So why not take our ten objects on a one minute speed date, work out which ones you would like to know better, and let us know – so that we can tell you more about them. Remember, voting for your favourite is as easy as liking or sharing the film!

All I can say is, having got to know all of the objects pretty well over the last few weeks, I don’t envy you having to pick just three!

 

 

The Inukshuk is Back!

May 29th, 2019

Some of you will have noticed the gap between the harpoon and the blubber pot on the grass outside the Institute in recent months. The person-shaped stone cairn, or inukshuk as it is more commonly known in the Arctic, has been in conservation for nearly a year. Now it’s back on display and looking better than ever.

Inukshuk unveiled after restoration

The inukshuk has guarded the West entrance to the Institute since the 1970s, when it was lifted into place with a crane and reassembled piece by piece using a grainy black-and-white photo taken in Canada where it was originally purchased. It was moved again to its current position in 2010 and put together in the same way, using lots of cement to fix each of the heavy pieces of pink granite in place. You might see in the before-picture here it had built up a rather unsightly waistband that we had cruelly taken to calling its ‘muffin top’.

Inukshuk at SPRI before damage

Sadly, in 2017 its powerful waistline did little to protect it from the attention of one excited visitor and the inukshuk broke in two! Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the sculpture itself was immediately boarded up to prevent any further damage—the pieces are too heavy to lift by hand. A talented team of conservators was then engaged to take on the job of rebuilding and stabilising it.

Conservators at Patina Art Collection Care worked closely with us to get an impression of the original vision of the Inuit sculptor, Aqjangajuk Shaa. Every effort was made to contact Shaa, but to no avail. Luckily, a thorough search of the archives unearthed more pictures of the inukshuk in its original site at Kinngait (Cape Dorset) in the 1960s, which did give some idea of how it once stood.

Inukshuk in Canada 1960s

We were surprised to learn that its right arm has been upside-down ever since it was first displayed here. It remained upside-down even when it was moved in 2010, and again in 2013 when the arm was damaged and reattached. We took advantage of the new repairs to correct this and also to ever so slightly reposition the legs to give the impression of movement, which was also more apparent in the early pictures.

It was great watching Dee and Ricky from Mtec using their crane to lift it back into place and to see it all come together over several days. The granite pieces were expertly drilled through where it wouldn’t be visible, so that metal dowels could be used to hold the sculpture together and fix it securely to the concrete base. Lyndsey and Andrew from Patina also thought very hard how to place the toes, which were previously swamped in cement. The joins are now altogether cleaner, more fluid and sturdier than they were before, and even the old break from 2013 was retouched so it can hardly be seen.

MTec begin the installation process

Sadly, we recently heard that Aqjangajuk Shaa (1937-2019) died in March this year, just as we were making arrangements for his inukshuk’s return. We hope you’ll agree that the inukshuk in its newly re-invigorated state is a fitting tribute to Shaa’s legacy as a celebrated artist, and will give plenty of joy for generations to come.

The MTec and Patina Art team

Tikiġaq/Point Hope. Building an exhibition.

April 29th, 2019

On Wednesday 1 May a new special exhibition called Tikiġaq / Point Hope: Life on Alaska’s North Slope will open, free, at the Polar Museum. The exhibition has been a long time in the making; but, when a recent acquisition arrived that dramatically altered its direction, we got a valuable reminder about the power of engaging with different communities.

In late 2017 the Polar Museum was approached by somebody with an old leather suitcase full to bursting with intriguing bone, fur, ivory and stone items that, according to their hundred-year-old labels, came from ‘Tigara, Alaska’. Known by many today as Point Hope, the small Alaskan village of Tikiġaq on the Western-most extremity of Alaska’s North Slope has a rich and varied history stretching back over millennia. The items in the suitcase, which represent several periods of Tikiġaq’s past from stone arrowheads to more recent fur items made for sale by the indigenous Iñupiaq, were collected by a missionary called Reginald Hoare who sent them back to his family in Britain. However, the information contained in some of the old labels gave us pause to think especially carefully about how to approach them. Some of the implements in the collection were labelled by Hoare as having been found in graves or ‘among bones’.

An assortment of objects

An assortment of objects unpacked from the suitcase.
(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

The presence of grave goods in museums is highly contentious. Criticisms have been levelled at museums that have continued to acquire or display culturally sensitive materials with seemingly little regard for the wishes of the indigenous people who created them. Yet, the International Council of Museums code of ethics states that when it comes to such items, where possible museums should respect the wishes of originator communities. So, after some research and seeking advice from contacts in Alaska, we reached out to community representatives in Tikiġaq to alert them to the existence of the Hoare collection.

We eventually got a reply from Tikiġaq-born artist Othniel Art Oomittuk Junior who was very keen to hear about our plans for the Alaska exhibition. From this point things moved quickly and we welcomed Art’s kind offer to visit Cambridge and give his perspective on the new collection. Now, it was in the course of these discussions that we got our next big surprise.

Art examining a pipe

Othniel Art Oomittuk Junior examining a pipe
(c) Scott Polar Research Institute. Picture credit: Charlotte Connelly

Art put us in touch with London-based historian Tom Lowenstein, who has written extensively about Point Hope. Tom described how, whilst visiting a friend some years ago, he was introduced to someone who had made a curious find in their attic. By an amazing coincidence this attic happened to be in the house that once belonged to a relative of our Tikiġaq missionary, Hoare. To his astonishment, Tom was shown a wooden chest containing more items of ivory and fur labelled in the same hand as those in the suitcase and also accompanied with a huge box of letters from Alaska!

Ivory needle case

Ivory needle case
(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

With Tom’s help, we were able to reunite these various dispersed parts of the Hoare collection at the Polar Museum in time for Art’s visit. Art expressed his happiness that the items had found a good home, even saying that the grave goods had an important story that should be told through the display. In turn, we learned so much more from Art about the items and life in Tikiġaq than we ever would have had we not reached out first.

The Mother of the Sea Creatures

March 28th, 2019

In the collection of Inuit art at The Polar Museum, amongst the delicate miniature carvings of polar bears and the beautiful representations of birds and walruses, there are a few pieces of art which look a little different. These sculptures all show the same woman, with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish. In one she also has the beak of a bird; in another she rests her chin in her hands, gazing up at some invisible figure in front of her; in a third her back arches and her hair streams out behind her as if she is diving. Her mermaid-like shape seems familiar, and yet she holds powers that a mermaid could only dream of. These are sculptures of Sedna, the Mother of the Sea Creatures. Let me introduce her to you…

Soapstone carving

Soapstone carving. Sedna, ‘Taleelayuk’ the sea goddess by Manasie Akpaliapik, 1992.

Sedna (who might also be called Nuliajuk or Taleelayuk to give her just a few of her many names) is an important cultural figure for Inuit across the Arctic and she has an impressive origin story to match. Sedna’s story varies slightly from place to place and region to region, but one version of the legend starts with Sedna as a human woman who has refused all her would-be suitors. Eventually, she falls for a man who beguiles her with his voice and goes to live with him on an island. When they reach the island, the man she has married transforms and Sedna realises that he isn’t really a human man at all – he’s a seabird. Sedna is not happy living on the island with the seabird. Her father comes to visit her and while he is there she persuades him to help her escape. But the seabird, realising that Sedna is trying to leave the island, calls up a storm which rocks her father’s boat so much that he and Sedna think they will be killed. Sedna’s father, wanting to save himself, decides that the only way to stop the storm is to throw her overboard. Sedna manages to cling to the side of the boat by her fingers but her father chops them off so that she can’t hold on and she sinks to the bottom of the sea. She grows a tail like a fish and her fingers which have been cut off become the first sea mammals: the seals, walruses and whales of the Arctic.

Sedna now lives at the bottom of the sea and controls all of the sea mammals, which are the traditional food source of the Inuit. It is important that she is not upset or offended by human actions because she has the power to take all the sea mammals away, keeping them at the bottom of the sea with her and away from Inuit hunters. In the past, when Inuit were entirely dependent on ‘country food’ – or food harvested from the land – a lack of sea mammals would have resulted in starvation.

Serpentine carving

Green serpentine carving of Sedna, ‘Taleelayuk’ the sea goddess by Kaka Ashoona, 1961.

Shamans were traditionally the link between Sedna and the Inuit (before the loss of the shamanic tradition as a result of contact with Christian missionaries to the Arctic). If there were no sea creatures to be found, the shaman would visit Sedna underneath the sea to find out what was wrong. The shaman would then have to negotiate with Sedna so that she would allow the animals to be available for the Inuit again (sometimes these negotiations took the form of the shaman brushing her hair because, not having her fingers, Sedna is unable to do it herself). By having this total control over the principal sources of food, (as well as the clothing and fuel which were also produced from sea mammals) Sedna held the line between human life and death in her hands.

Carving of Taleelayuk the sea goddess

Black soapstone carving of Sedna, ‘Taleelayuk’ the sea goddess by Tarulagak. Before 1966.

Although the details of Sedna and her powers vary across the Arctic, the ideas of human to animal transformations (and vice versa), and the image of a female controlling force over the sea mammals are important concepts which can be found across many Arctic cultural groups. Visual art is often theorised as helping artists to represent and understand the world around them, and communicate this knowledge to the audience of people who see their works. It is unsurprising then that Sedna, who is such an important traditional cultural figure, is depicted so regularly in Inuit art. We are very fortunate to have such beautiful representations of her in our collection.

Henrietta

A new acquisition at The Polar Museum: Charles Royds’ telescope

November 29th, 2018

It’s been a bumper season for new acquisitions at The Polar Museum! As well as wrestling with the all-important ethical and legal complexities of bringing artefacts collected in the distant past into the safe care of an accredited public institution like SPRI, we have also had some relatively ‘easy wins’ this autumn. Without a doubt, the gift of Charles Royds’ telescope has been the highlight of these.

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

As some of you longer-time readers may be aware, back in 2015 the Scott Polar Research Institute was awarded £500,000 through the Heritage Lottery Fund programme, Collecting Cultures, to enhance our understanding of, and public engagement with, the Shackleton story. One of the recent focuses of this effort has been a new display in our soon-to-be-refurbished Friends Room in the Library (open to the public!) that centres on the story of Shackleton and the people he worked with. This left us casting around for interesting objects we could use that weren’t already on display in the permanent gallery.

Then, in October, our Director Professor Julian Dowdeswell received a very timely letter from a descendant of the Godson of Charles Royds kindly offering us his telescope. The letter was passed on to me to process the acquisition; but, being more of an Arctic person, I found myself learning a lot more about the explorers who visited the opposite end of the planet…

Royds, Officer of Watch

Lieutenant Royds standing on the bridge of the ship beside the compass. (c) Scott Polar Research Institute.

Sir Charles William Rawson Royds was already a distinguished and well-travelled officer in the Royal Navy before he was picked in 1901 along with Robert Falcon Scott to serve as First Lieutenant aboard the Discovery. During his three years aboard Discovery the towering Royds served alongside the ship’s then little-known Third Lieutenant, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who in addition to overseeing the Antarctic expedition’s supplies was also in charge of maintaining morale. Royds meanwhile acted as the expedition meteorologist and oversaw the daily smooth sailing of the ship under Captain Scott’s direction—as the person with overall charge of the ship the naval convention was that Scott be called Captain, though his actual rank in the Royal Navy at the time was Commander.

Cape Royds on Ross Island in Antarctica was eventually discovered and named for Royds by the crew of Discovery during the expedition. After this episode, Royds returned to his regular naval duties serving in British waters, the Mediterranean and farther afield before finally retiring with the rank of Rear Admiral. His trusty spyglass, however, continued to bear the signs of adaptation for polar use.

The most immediately striking feature of the telescope is its covering of green woollen blanket cloth, which has been rather crudely stitched on with cotton thread, I like to imagine, by Royds’ own numb, chilly hands one cold day in Antarctica. My assumption here is that the blanket would have provided extra protection to the instrument during arduous sledging journeys and would also prevent a wayward bare hand from inadvertently freezing to the metal casing in the sub-zero temperatures.

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

 

The then owner of the telescope had already sent some excellent images and provenance information with their initial letter to Professor Dowdeswell detailing how their ancestor, Lieutenant Commander Vivian Edward Marshall May, acquired the telescope early in his career. Marshall May, himself a Royal Navy officer, received the telescope, along with a sextant and sword, on his passing out of the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth from his presumably very proud Godfather, Rear-Admiral Royds. Where the sword and sextant are today remains a mystery for the time-being.

After I showed the telescope and explained its provenance to my colleagues at SPRI it was unanimously decided that we should accept the gift for the new display. All that remained was for me to arrange for the formal handover, which always involves some paperwork, and to accession the telescope into the permanent Museum collection. I’m pleased to say that this is now done and the catalogue record can be seen online, here: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/catalogue/article/y2018.13/

As I said, a nice ‘easy win’! But, the work isn’t done. Just because something is formally added to the museum register doesn’t mean it will be frozen in time (no pun intended) with the story never to change. I would still like to know where the sword and sextant ended up, whether the cover on the telescope really is a specific polar adaptation and where else it has been. It isn’t even clear what make or model it is. There are no visible markings and I’m no telescope specialist… Even the easy ones raise more questions than they answer.