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Solving the “Mystery of the Wilson sledge runner”

August 30th, 2017

This object is the “Wilson sledge runner”, and admittedly it does not look very interesting in its own right:

But appearances can be deceptive, because the story goes that this fragment was actually part of the dramatic moment when Scott’s party, nearing the South Pole on 18th January 1912, saw the first signs that the Norwegians had been there already and had their hopes of being first to the Pole dashed.

The sledge runner was being used as a flag pole with a black marker flag and a note with a statement of the Norwegians calculations of their position.  Edward Wilson and Scott both recorded this moment in their diaries, and Wilson also sketched the site before collecting the flag, note and part of the sledge runner:

The story goes on to tell how the fragment was allegedly found with the bodies of Scott and his party, and given to Wilson’s widow, Oriana.  From her it was passed to her great friend Evelyn Ferrar in her will, and was then brought to the Polar Museum by Evelyn’s son Nick Forbes.

Nick Forbes asked the Polar Museum to examine the sledge runner to see if this story could be “proved”.  Apart from Scott and Wilson’s diary entries which describe the finding of the flag and sledge runner, the whole story was only preserved in Nick’s family as an oral tradition.  Perhaps the fragment was not the one in the story after all.  Proving something like this beyond all doubt would be impossible but it should be possible to tell how likely the story was.

When the fragment was examined in detail it quickly became apparent that it is part of a Norwegian sledge runner from the early twentieth century.  The object is a piece of tapering metal which was used as protective cladding on a wooden sledge runner to protect it from damaging sharp ice.  It is made from German silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel which was used for a short period in the early twentieth century as a rust-free and inexpensive alternative to iron cladding.  This important fact, as well as nail holes and other features of the object show that it is certainly from a Norwegian sledge from the right period. Amundsen was a Norwegian and would have planted the flag on the sledge runner in 1911.  So, mystery solved – or not?

Unfortunately the English team was also using Norwegian sledges, and Scott bought all the sledges for both the Discovery (1901-4) and Terra Nova (1910-13) expeditions from Oslo!  This means the fragment could actually be just a random piece of sledge runner from another of Scott’s journeys which has been confused with the “Wilson” fragment.  This is very possible because Nick Forbes’ family have been closely connected to the world of Polar exploration for generations, especially Scott’s Discovery expedition where Nick’s grandfather H.T. Ferrar was the geologist.

The clues to solving the mystery of whose sledge runner this really was took a long time to find.  I hunted through the Archives at SPRI looking for accounts of finding the bodies of the Polar party, along with their effects.  I tried to track the journey of the sledge runner from there to the Forbes family through notebooks, wills, letters and exhibition catalogues, but frustratingly it was never considered worthy of mention.  The flag and the note collected by Wilson at the same time were given to SPRI by Oriana Wilson herself in 1930, and interestingly these were never mentioned in any written sources either, but their provenance is not in doubt.  I crawled around in our stores measuring sledge runners from our Discovery and Terra Nova sledges, and eventually I even looked under the stairs at Amundsen’s delightful house near Oslo where one of the only surviving Norwegian South Pole sledges is stored:

I read many accounts of early twentieth century sledging.  In short, I became a sledge runner nerd!

The crucial evidence to solve the mystery is visible in the sledge runner itself.  On each side are parallel folds which show where it was wrapped around the wooden runner.  The distance between these folds is 10mm, which would be the thickness of the runner too.   The runners from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions are about 15mm thick and so much too thick to have fitted the fragment.  Meanwhile, Amundsen’s diary and his official account of his expedition show that he was obsessed with reducing the weight of all his equipment to the bare minimum.  He actually ordered his sledges to be broken up, pared down as thin as possible and then rebuilt, saving many kilos in weight.  The sledges which survive from Amundsen’s expedition show that the runners were about 40% thinner than those used by the English, and were about 10mm thick.  The nails used for cladding were also the same as those which were used with Nick Forbes’ fragment.  So the fragment could definitely have come from an Amundsen sledge.

Amundsen used thin temporary under-runners covered with metal cladding to protect the wooden runners in rough conditions.  In many cases the cladding was made of steel, but according to his own account the leading sledge in the South Pole journey had non-ferrous fixings because iron plays havoc with compass readings.

Amundsen described how his team broke their under-runners in half to make flag poles and skied off in different directions to plant them near the Pole – just to ensure they had definitely covered the territory.  A photograph of Wisting with his sledge taken near the South Pole in 1911 and now in Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo shows a whole under-runner fixed to the sledge, the same type as was later used to make the flag poles:

The weight of all the evidence taken together strongly supports the story of the sledge runner.  The full story of the authentication has been written up and is now published in the latest issue of Polar Record. It will be made available free of charge through the University Repository Green Access scheme early in 2018.  In the meantime the metal fragment has been kindly loaned to the Polar Museum by Nick Forbes and is on display there with the flag and note which were found at the same time.

 

Sophie

We’re All Going on A Summer Not-Holiday: Part 1

May 27th, 2017

This blog post is written by PhD student Samuel Cook

Five of us from the Scott Polar Research Institute – me, Tom, TJ (all PhD students), Antonio (a postdoctoral researcher) and Poul (our supervisor) – are going to be spending the entirety of July doing fieldwork in Greenland. Specifically, at Store Glacier, about halfway up the west coast of Greenland. We’ll be joined by researchers from other institutions and will be conducting a variety of scientific work – such as setting up time-lapse cameras at the calving front (i.e. the end of the glacier where ice falls off into the fjord), using drones to gather improved data on the glacier’s surface elevation and velocity, and radar measurements of ice thickness and basal properties – at several different locations on the glacier, up to 60 km into the interior of the ice sheet.

The location of Store Glacier (inset). The big green thing is the domain I use in my modelling work.

The location of Store Glacier (inset). The big green thing is the domain I use in my modelling work.

This presents several challenges. To start with, a logistical one: getting that many people and all the things they need to survive and use (food, tents, scientific equipment, clothes, etc….) to somewhere that could charitably be described as the middle of nowhere isn’t simple. We have to drive van loads of the bulkier stuff over to Aalborg in Denmark so that that can be shipped to Greenland, but this has to be done a few weeks in advance of our departure (June 27th) to make sure it arrives before we do. To get to Greenland ourselves, we have to fly via Copenhagen (Greenland being Danish, flying from Denmark is the easiest route), then on to Greenland. We then have to take a couple of internal flights within Greenland and a couple of helicopter journeys to get to the vicinity of Store. All this has to be done with us carrying all our personal kit. Such fun. And there’s all the paperwork to fill in to satisfy EU, British and Greenlandic customs regulations. It just gets better.

We also have to buy and test all the equipment, as well as buying all our own personal gear. This is a) expensive, b) complicated and c) tiring. It turns out two days of putting up and taking down a succession of tents to check for tears is hard work. On the plus side, they all seem to be intact. Unlike my fingers. I’ve also spent a gratuitously-large amount of money on buying all sorts of outdoorsy equipment to ensure I have enough clothing for a month. And so I don’t die of exposure. Or mosquitoes. There are going to be a lot of mosquitoes. You can’t catch anything from them, but the bites are unpleasant enough anyway.

Antonio, TJ, Tom and I setting up the biggest of the tents.

(Left to right) Antonio, TJ, Tom and I setting up the biggest of the tents.

Finally, there’s also a huge amount of university admin to wade through, funding to be applied for and so on. All of which also has to be done well in advance, and not forgetting the need to actually plan what we’re doing once we’re in the field, to make sure we don’t leave anything vital behind. The group has a lot of spreadsheets on the go, to put it mildly.

So, in terms of all the necessary preparatory work, it’s pretty safe to say that glaciological fieldwork is a long way from being a straightforward experience. Once we’re back at the end of July, I’ll write another post about the actual fieldwork. Watch this space…

The residents of Rothera

February 6th, 2017

Award-winning artist Darren Rees received the Artist in Residency honour from the Friends of The Scott Polar Research Institute in 2015, and he travelled with the Royal Navy on HMS Protector from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula. His new book Ice Bound documents his journey with a collection of sketches, watercolour and acrylic paintings executed in situ.

Darren’s new exhibition is on show at the Polar Museum until 23 February, and features over seventy of the original artworks and small sketchbooks from Ice Bound – wonderfully showing us more of his methods, encounters and experiences in the far south. All artworks are for sale.

Of all the time during my residency, my time at the British Antarctic Survey base at Rothera was my most productive. The Royal Navy was tasked with pumping fuel for the forthcoming winter and to assist with survey work for improvements to the harbour area. This warranted an extended stay for HMS Protector and crew and I spent three full days on land at Rothera making the most of the landscape and its wild residents. In particular I enjoyed very close proximity to Antarctic Fur Seals, Antarctic (Blue-eyed) Shags, Adelie Penguins and especially the charismatic Southern Elephant Seals that were loafing around the buildings. These made great models as they were used to people walking around and were keen to exploit the relative shelter afforded by the buildings.

Studying elephant seals close up might not be to everyone’s liking as the experience was a full-on sensory overload. Breaking wind, belching and roaring, they sounded like orcs having an altercation at a steam engine rally. The aromas were rich and pungent and luckily I didn’t paint with scratch-n-sniff materials.

The landscape was equally as breath-taking and was irresistible to an artist with paint. After several days on the move aboard Protector, this was the first time I could sit and paint giant icebergs directly with no fear of the perspective or background moving.

Darren Rees

 

 

 

 

Ice Bound: In the Antarctic with artist Darren Rees

January 20th, 2017

Award-winning artist Darren Rees received the Artist in Residency honour from the Friends of The Scott Polar Research Institute in 2015, and he travelled with the Royal Navy on HMS Protector from the Falkland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula. His new book Ice Bound documents his journey with a collection of sketches, watercolour and acrylic paintings executed in situ.

Darren’s new exhibition is at on at the Polar Museum, Cambridge from 18th January to 25th February 2017, with over seventy of the original artworks and small sketchbooks from Ice Bound, wonderfully showing us more of his methods, encounters and experiences in the far south. Not only that, but a full colour book and all of the artworks are available for sale.

It’s been a lifetime’s ambition to experience the natural wonders of Antarctica, and as a wildlife enthusiast I’ve always wanted to witness the large penguin colonies of the far south. I’ve been lucky enough to see penguins in the wild in Galapagos and South Africa – wonderful occasions for sure but these had been small groups of a dozen or so birds. My time as artist in residence started in the Falkland Islands where there are spectacular numbers of penguins and I had opportunities on three days to visit three colonies.

The first was close to Port Stanley, at Gypsy Cove, where there were hundreds of Magellanic Penguins hunkered amongst the grass tussocks on the low cliff slopes. Hundreds more were strewn across the perfect white sand beach below and there was no shortage of interesting models as I sketched and painted. It was also my first full day in the field – I had arrived the day before after a long flight from Brize Norton via Ascension Island – so there were new birds everywhere with Blackish Cinclodes, Upland Goose, Austral Thrush and Dark-throated Finch. In the shallow bay there were Peale’s Dolphins bursting through the water, with larger Sei Whales surfacing further out.

My second day took me to Telephone Cove where there was a colony of engaging Rockhopper Penguins – totally adorable! My guide for the day was a farmer called Adrian who loved showing people the prize exhibits on his land. He was also a keen sports fan and it was rather surreal spending the day sketching and painting penguins while he listened to Radio 5-live broadcasting International Rugby and then the League Cup Final footie from half-way around the world! 

Other side-show attractions included Peregrines, Giant Petrel, a beautiful dark Variable Hawk soaring with Turkey Vultures, and another Sei Whale in the bay. For the record Chelsea beat Spurs 2-0 with goals from John Terry and Diego Costa, yet Rockhoppers United were easily my team-of-the-day.

On the third day I met Peter, a local fisherman-cum-guide who took me to Volunteer Point. It was an amazing drive, first by road to Johnson’s Farm, then off-road across endless exposed moor to Volunteer Point. It’s a fantastic place and worth the bumpy, and at times muddy, ride. A broad, beautiful white beach stretched to turquoise surf, with grassy dunes and short turf and there were birds everywhere. Gentoo’s, Magellanic and King Penguins dotted the landscape in great numbers, and there was just too little time.. I took lots of photos for a frantic half hour before knuckling down to paint for nearly three hours. At first the weather was fine but then there was a slight drizzle in the air that just persisted and proved difficult for watercolours…

I persevered working with the King Penguins, and I recall being a little disappointed by my efforts but this could never ruin the experience of being there. Now I look back and even think that the spotting on the paintings – a little like a marbling effect – actually enhances the image.

Darren Rees

 

 

With thanks to Mascot Media publishers. Darren’s book is available in our shop, or directly from the publisher.

 

The mystery of the ‘Morning’ tablecloth

January 9th, 2017

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Way back in the summer of 2015, I came across a white linen tablecloth embroidered with signatures in various colours (Y: 2008/21) – and have been meaning to write a post about it since then, as all was not as it first seemed. The original catalogue entry described it as being embroidered with the signatures of the crew of Morning, the ship from the British Relief Expeditions of 1902–03 and 1903–04, which went to the Antarctic to relieve Scott’s British National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Discovery). It was donated by the family of William Colbeck, captain of Morning, whose wife did the embroidery. Click here to view the catalogue entry for the tablecloth.

A bit of basic internet research showed there is a tradition of signing tablecloths and then embroidering over them to create a memento from an event or experience. Examples I came across included one from 1914 with suffragettes’ signatures (including Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst), one with the signatures of the 1926 Australian cricket team, and another with signatures from a Japanese internment camp in 1942.

I had assumed that this tablecloth must have been signed at a dinner to celebrate the return of the Morning and the end of the expedition. I had no reason to question this, until I started trying to decipher the signatures (some of the handwriting was quite difficult to read) and to cross-reference them with the names on a crew list from the Morning. I soon discovered that a) I couldn’t find a crew list, and b) that there were lots of people who I knew hadn’t been on Morning and some who had never been on a polar expedition.

Some of the handwriting was quite challenging to read...

Once I started looking closely and deciphering all of the signatures, I noticed that the centre of the tablecloth contained the names of the scientists on the British Antarctic Expedition 1898–1900 (Southern Cross), the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica, (but not the name of the expedition leader, Carsten Borchgrevink). So I then thought the tablecloth must have been started by the Southern Cross expedition, and assumed it was a dinner to celebrate their return… until I discovered that Hanson died on 22 August 1898 soon after the expedition set out.

southern-cross-names

Bernard Jensen (Captain S.Y. “Southern Cross”), Louis Bernacchi (2nd Magnetic Observer), Hugh Blackwell Evans (Collector), Herlof Klovstakd (Doctor), Anton Fougher (Assistant Collector), Nicolai Hanson (Zoologist), William Colbeck, Sub-Lieut. R.N.R. (Chief Magnetic Observer).

I then tried to match up the names with other expeditions. At this point, I posted a photo of the tablecloth on Twitter and got a response from the National Maritime Museum stating that the tablecloth contains Southern Cross names in the centre, with one corner devoted to officers from Discovery and another to officers from Morning.

It would be great to do some research to find out exactly who everyone was – and identify what expedition they were on, what their polar connection was, or what their connection to Colbeck was. It would be also be interesting to see whether there is any significance in the colours – do they relate to an expedition, or a time when the tablecloth was signed? And are the positions on the tablecloth significant – if one corner is for Morning and one for Discovery, what about the two?

I had started out hoping to be able to trace the tablecloth to a particular dinner or other event, before concluding that it must have been the equivalent of an autograph book to Colbeck – something he started before or in the early days of the Southern Cross expedition (before Hanson died) and decided to keep up. However, further information has come to light which suggests that the tablecloth may date from the departure dinners (rather than the return dinners) of Southern Cross and Morning.

Greta

Sounding out the Antarctic

November 23rd, 2016

This blog post was written by Grace Atkinson, a local student who came to see us in the Museum and asked if there was anything she could do. We gave her a research project, and this blog post is the outcome.

As an International Baccalaureate student with a keen interest in both geography and the Antarctic I decided to contact the Polar Museum to see if there was a project I could do outside of my studies to enhance my geographical knowledge as I am planning to study Geography at University. After looking at the exhibits I thought a blog post about radio-echo sounding in the Antarctic would be an engaging topic to research.

My aim is to increase people’s awareness of the different techniques used by scientists in the Antarctic to collect data from the ice sheets as the study of ice is becoming increasingly important; its thickness is useful in determining the impacts of climate change. Radio-echo sounding is a geophysical technique which investigates the thickness of glaciers and ice sheets, this becoming crucial within the study of glaciology. Before radio echo sounding was invented by the Scott Polar Research Institute in the 1960s, scientists such as Amory Waite, used radio to measure ice thickness however this method wasn’t widely known. Radar became more popular after an incident involving a WW11 Allied aircraft which when flying across Greenland crashed into the ice due to miscalculations with their radar altimeters. The accident caused increased interest in using the radar for experiments that measure ice sheet thickness in the Arctic.

Oliver Shepard stands on snow holding ice core drill during the Transglobe Expedition 1979-82.

There are lots of ways to study ice. In this picture Oliver Shepard stands on snow holding ice core drill during the Transglobe Expedition 1979-82.

The technique of radio-echo sounding since being developed in the 1960s is now used by a variety of institutes such as the US National Science Foundation to investigate and map the ice covered terrain in the Antarctic. As water and ice are transparent, low frequency electro magnetic waves can be used in the Antarctic to obtain the information and this method is accurate which is why it is used in other scientific investigations, for example marine acoustic sounding. There are echo pulses which penetrate the ice sheets enabling scientists to receive and analyse the data. These pulses are particularly useful for researchers studying the dynamics of ice sheets and their internal ice structure in sub-glacial regions. The radio echo sounding machine has two crucial components, these being the transmitter which sends out the echo pulses, and the receiver which records the strength of waves and the time it takes for waves to bounce back.

Traditional measurements of sea ice thickness are through drill holes which are effective at giving a good overview of ice thickness in extensive areas, however, the use of electromagnetism in radio echo sounding is much more accurate and reliable by comparison. In addition to this, one of the biggest advantages of radio echo sounding in the drilling of holes is its speed.

The invention of radio echo sounding has been influential and the gateway to the development of more recent methods of measuring sea ice thickness, for example the satellite altimetry which relies on the use of a radar pulse. However, there are limitations to the measurements as the laser only collects data in cloud-free conditions.

After researching the use of radio echo sounding in the Antarctic regions I believe it has proven to be the technology of major interest and importance due to its significance in scientific development such as the discovery of subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

Read about some of the work carried out by scientists at SPRI in recent years here.

A brilliant conference for the Polar Museums Network

November 7th, 2016
Thanks to Willy Nesset from Ishavsmuseet for the group photo.

Thanks to Willy Nesset from Ishavsmuseet for the group photo.

Towards the end of October, Charlotte, Sophie, Bryan and I attended the inaugural conference of the Polar Museums Network (PMN), an initiative launched last year to strengthen and spread the knowledge of polar history, science and exploration, and to build relationships between museums with polar collections. The conference was held at the Fram Museum in Oslo, which houses Fridtjof Nansen’s and Roald Amundsen’s famous ship, Fram. We were joined by 35 delegates from 18 museums from across five continents, as well as by academics and independent researchers.

Over the three days we heard lots of engaging and informative presentation on a wide range of subjects such as exhibitions, conservation and cataloguing. We learned about the challenges of operating museums on the Antarctic continent, about the heroes and anti-heroes of polar exploration and how their flaws can help us connect with them, and the mystery of the pinstriped textiles found on Scott and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions. Particular highlights for me included learning about the 3D laser scanning of Scott’s Discovery and a chance to go inside the James Caird with footage taken by its conservator. Lots of people tweeted the conversations that were happening at the conference, which we’ve collected in a ‘Storify’ so take a look here to find out more about the papers.

A wide range of museums – big and small, national and local, public and private were represented – but we were able to find many commonalities in our three main areas of focus, Arctic exploration, Antarctic exploration, and peoples of the North. And a surprising number of museums have ships (and share many of the challenges associated with them).

We also dedicated an afternoon to planning the activities of the PMN and how to build on the momentum generated by the conference. Hopefully, we’ll be holding another conference in two years time with even more people attending. You can find out more about the PMN and how to join here.

The conference was followed by a study tour which took us around the beautifully autumnal Oslo fjord to visit Uranienborg, Amundsen’s home which is almost exactly how he left it when he disappeared in 1928; the Ski Museum at Holmenkollen, where we saw many objects from Amundsen’s South Pole expedition, along with a pair of Scott’s skis and Nansen’s branch boat – not to mention the enormous ski jump (!); and Polhøgda, Nansen’s home and office which is today home to the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.

Geir Kløver and the Fram Museum were fantastic hosts, and even treated us to a conference dinner on the deck of the Fram – definitely something to remember. We also had plenty of opportunity to look around the museum and brush up on our Norwegian polar history.

It really was a brilliant few days – I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conference where I’ve found every single paper so engaging and relevant to what I’m doing. For me, it was also great to share our Antarctic collections and the work of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project with the wider polar museums sector. Needless to say, we’ve all come away buzzing with enthusiasm and with lots of leads and connections to follow up.

Greta

Operation Deep Freeze: Return to the South Pole

November 3rd, 2016

On the 31st October 1956, Rear Admiral George Dufek, U.S. Navy and his companions flew towards the South Pole hoping to become the first people to stand at the South Pole since Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN and his companions had departed in 1912. Unlike Amundsen and Scott, who travelled south with dogs, ponies, motor sledges  and on ski and foot, Dufek and his men were in the comparative comfort of ‘Que Serra Serra’) a U.S Navy ski equipped version of the famous DC3 airliner and transporter. The plane was named after the popular Doris Day song, ‘Whatever will be will be, que sera serra’.

Hot air was blown through tubes to preheat the engines (source: US Navy)

Hot air was blown through tubes to preheat the engines (source: US Navy)

The purpose of the journey was to ascertain if a plane could land safely at the South Pole, where the Americans intended to build a scientific base for the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). In preparation for the flight, photographs from Amundsen’s and Scott’s expedition were studied to see the depth of their footprints, indicating the thickness of the snow, and ascertain if the surrounding area was flat enough to land a plane. This information and reconnaissance flights indicated that a landing could be made but in the event of an accident two large aircraft accompanied ‘Que Serra Serra’ and were ready to drop survival equipment.  Commander ‘Trigger’ Hawkes, an experienced Antarctic pilot was chosen as pilot along with Lieutenant Commander C.S. Shinn.  Hawkes chose to give the Shinn, a younger pilot, the honour of landing the plane at the South Pole.

Captain Hawkes interviews Rear Admiral Dufek at the South Pole but the film had frozen solid (source: US Navy)

Captain Hawkes interviews Rear Admiral Dufek at the South Pole but the film had frozen solid (source: US Navy)

The flight south followed the route pioneered by Sir Ernest Shackleton and chosen by Captain R.F. Scott: departing from Ross Island across the Ross ice Shelf, ascending up the Beardmore Glacier to the polar plateau and then on to the South Pole. Que Serra Serra arrived at the Pole and had a smooth landing. The American flag was raised and then Hawkes interviewed Dufek with a movie camera but later found out that the interview was not recorded as the film in the camera had frozen solid. A metal radar reflector was installed to assist future flights to find the same location.

Que Serra Serra prepares to take off from the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Que Serra Serra prepares to take off from the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Alarmingly, the men started to notice frostbite on each other’s faces and Dufek gave the order, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ Preparing to take off, the pilots revved up the plane’s engines but it would not move; the skis had frozen to the snow and ice. To assist with taking off, Que Serra Serra had Jet Assisted take Off (JATO) rockets which were normally ignited once the plane was moving. Each JATO provided the equivalent amount of power an engine for 30 seconds.  Realising that he was stuck, Shinn ignited four JATOs at once, then another four, then another four and then his last three. The pilot and crew of the aircraft flying above were horrified to see a great cloud of smoke and flame but suddenly Que Serra Serra appeared – flying, albeit low and slow. Arriving back at McMurdo Station, Ross Island the news was broadcast that forty-four years after Amundsen’s and Scott’s great expeditions the American Stars and Stripes now flew at the South Pole.

The first Americans to stand at the South Pole (source: US Navy)

The first Americans to stand at the South Pole (source: US Navy)

Bryan Lintott

The Antarctic Cataloguing Project is drawing to a close…

October 31st, 2016

antc-objects

The Antarctic Cataloguing Project will be coming to an end in less than two weeks, and so will my time at the Polar Museum. I can’t believe how quickly the two years have flown by!

The project set out to create a fully researched and illustrated online catalogue all of the Antarctic objects in the museum’s collection. This involved describing, measuring, photographing and condition-assessing each object in the collection, and conducting research to find out more about the objects, the people who used them and the expeditions they were used on. The project also aimed to cross-reference the objects in the museum with material in the Archives and Picture Library at SPRI (e.g. if we have Scott’s goggles, have we got a photo of him wearing them or a diary entry where he refers to them?), and with comparable objects in other national and international collections, and to embed the resultant information in the catalogue itself. Quite a lot of work for one person in two years! Needless to say, I felt somewhat daunted by the task when I started in November 2014…

I spent the first three-four months of the project developing cataloguing guidelines and a consistent structure for the catalogue records which would work for any object in the museum (be it Arctic or Antarctic, modern or historical, object or artwork) and which would also correspond with the Picture Library and Archive catalogues where possible. I also did extensive work to cross-reference the different keyword and classification systems already used in the Museum, Picture Library and Archive catalogues to create standardised and structured systems and develop controlled termlists where possible. (I’m a bit of a cataloguing geek so this job was perfect for me!) Details of this work will be available on the project page on the museum website.

It wasn’t until February 2015 that I was ready to start looking at the objects – and since then I’ve looked at every single Antarctic object in the collection (about 2400 items) and have produced detailed catalogue records in the new consistent structure for each, with neat descriptions and new photos. These are now available on the online catalogue, and I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to add an advanced search on the website in the coming weeks.

antc-objects-2

The Antarctic catalogue is available at www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/catalogue

A team of volunteers has worked on a parallel project to draw together existing biographical information about expeditions and expedition members to create biographical catalogue records for them. These will form a shared resource between the Museum, Archive and Picture Library and we’re hoping that these will become available online in due course – so if you’re looking at an object belonging to Scott, you’ll be able to click on his name and it will bring up his biography. I’ve also had the assistance of an absolutely brilliant volunteer who has done extensive research on some of the lesser known Antarctic expeditions, and also on the manufacturers of objects in the collection.

In addition to all of this (because I didn’t have enough to do!), we’ve been busy making five short films about life in the Antarctic on the themes of clothing, transport, food, navigation and science. Each film features objects from the Polar Museum, interviews with guest contributors talking about their experiences in the Antarctic, and historic and modern photographs. Look out for a blog post on these in the near future.

img_6466for-selection-only

I’m really going to miss the Polar Museum and SPRI, but it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable two years and I’m really pleased to have ‘completed’ the catalogue (in as much as cataloguing work is ever complete). My biggest sense of achievement comes from having photographed the sledges over three very hot days in August. Many of the sledges are stored on the top shelves of our very small ‘large objects’ store and I had not-so-secretly been hoping that we would run out of time before we had the chance to photograph them. It was utterly exhausting and quite nerve-wracking at times, but it’s brilliant to know that they’re done.

I’d like to say an enormous thank you to everyone at the Polar Museum, particularly to Sophie and Christina for all of the condition assessing, to Chris and Tom at the Department of Biochemistry for all of the photography, and to all of the volunteers who’ve helped on the project.

Greta

 

Who was Robert Lawrie?

October 12th, 2016

One of the things that we wanted to do as part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project was to find out more about the manufacturers of objects in the collection and to establish their connection with polar exploration.

lawrie-anoraks

Working our way through the Antarctic collection, I came across about 30 items associated with Robert Lawrie Ltd. – crampons, ice axes, boots, and lots and lots of anoraks (click here to view the catalogue entries). It’s not always clear from the descriptions in the original accession register or from the objects themselves whether the items were manufactured by Lawrie, or whether they were supplied by Lawrie acting as an agent for other manufactures – and I wanted to be able to pin down which was which. Furthermore, it seemed like Lawrie was a prominent figure in the world of exploration in the period 1930-1960, and he even had a glacier in Antarctica named after him in 1959 (Lawrie Glacier at 66°04’ S 64°36’ W). So I wanted to find out more…

Boots and mittens treated with whale oil to prevent the leather freezing.

Boots and mittens supplied to the British Graham Land Expedition 1934-37. They were treated with whale oil to prevent the leather freezing.

Robert Lawrie was born in 1903 and trained as a boot and shoemaker with his father’s firm in Burnley, Lancashire. As a young man, he was an accomplished climber and alpinist and by the late 1920s was manufacturing and supplying mountaineering boots to his own design. In 1931, he made a pair of boots for a man called Ray Greene, who went on to become the doctor on the 1933 Mount Everest expedition. At this time there were many crossovers in the development of equipment for mountaineering expeditions and polar expeditions. Lawrie was commissioned to supply 30 pairs of boots for the porters, as well as some high-altitude boots for the Europeans on this expedition. Until this point there’d been a somewhat closed supply-chain for the prestigious Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society expeditions – and it seems like this was Lawrie’s break into manufacturing for exploration.

Edmund Hillary's measurements.

Edmund Hillary’s measurements.

By 1935, Lawrie was specialising in climbing and skiing boots and equipment and offered a personalised boot making service. He supplied the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934-37 (where he was experimenting with non-freezing leather for boots and mittens by treating it with whale oil) and Edmund Hillary’s 1953 ascent of Everest.

Despite extensive efforts to track them down, it seems that the company records for Robert Lawrie Ltd. have almost completely disappeared so we just don’t know what was going on. However, the grandson of a friend of Robert Lawrie’s who has the book that contained the templates for all the feet Lawrie made personalised boots for. The client would stand on the book and Lawrie would trace around their feet and take other measurements before making the boots. The book included the pages for Hillary’s feet and the measurements for his anorak. (As well as leading the Everest expedition, Hillary also led the New Zealand party on the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58).

Greta