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A Brief History of SPRI

Thursday, 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


All things Shackleton…

Friday, August 14th, 2015
SPRI P66/18/36. Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton (right).

SPRI P66/18/36. Frank Wild (left) and Ernest Shackleton (right).

This year we are in the midst of commemorating the centenary of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17 (Endurance and Aurora), led by Sir Ernest Shackleton. It’s a tale that hardly needs retelling: Shackleton and his men survived one of the worst disasters in Antarctic history – their ship was crushed and sank, and they were forced to make an open boat journey to Elephant Island where they lived for over four months before they were rescued.

With just under six weeks to go until the opening of our new exhibition, By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men, we’ve got Shackleton very much on our minds. The exhibition will commemorate all the men that sailed with Shackleton aboard the Endurance, and will also honour the Ross Sea Party (three of whom lost their lives), which laid the supply depots for the planned crossing of the Antarctic continent. This week saw the arrival of some of the objects we’re borrowing for the exhibition, including a pannikin which belonged to Shackleton himself and is marked with his initials, ‘E.H.S.’, and a yachtsman’s cap belonging to James Mann Wordie, expedition geologist.

New arrivals for By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men

New arrivals for By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men

We’ve spent several months drawing together information about all of the men from the Endurance expedition to create biographies for use in the exhibition and in touch-screens in the galleries. And we’ve just launched a volunteer project to put these biographies (and others) into our database, which has proved highly popular and has had an impressive sign-up.

However, we’re not just concerned with the Endurance expedition – our Shackleton focus extends to his other expeditions: the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901–04 (Discovery), led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott; the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 (Nimrod); and the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition 1921–22 (Quest), on which Shackleton died.

In 2014 SPRI received a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project, which will unite the collections at SPRI (Archive, Museum, Library and Picture Library) through new acquisitions and interpretation of material relating to Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Photographing objects from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod) for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

Photographing objects from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod) for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

The museum collection contains material from all of Shackleton’s expeditions, including foodstuffs, goggles, medals and a thermometer from Nimrod; and crampon shoes, a sledging flag and a clock from Quest; as well as boots, Shackleton’s goggles, and the sextant used by Worsley during his extraordinary feat of navigation on the crossing from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Over the past few weeks as part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, we’ve been looking carefully at all of these objects and getting them photographed in order to produce detailed records for our forthcoming online catalogue. We’ve also been condition assessing them to highlight any future conservation needs. In addition, the education and outreach team have been working to create new Shackleton-related educational resources and a programme of events.

The Archives contain Shackleton’s diaries from all of his expeditions, as well as correspondence, lecture notes, poetry and papers written by Shackleton himself and his wife Emily. The collection also includes the diaries and papers of members of Nimrod, Endurance and Quest expeditions. These are currently being added to the database so that they will be a searchable resource in the future.

By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men will open on Tuesday 22 September 2015 and run until 18 June 2016. To find out more about events commemorating the centenary of the Endurance expedition at SPRI and across the world, take a look at the Shackleton 100 website.


Volunteers Wanted: Biographical Records Project

Monday, August 3rd, 2015
Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 (SPRI P66/18/77)

Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-17 (SPRI P66/18/77)

We’re looking for volunteers to help with our Biographical Records Project to support the work of the Shackleton Project in the Archives and the Antarctic Cataloguing Project in the Museum. This is a great opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about the people associated with polar exploration.

Project Aim: The project brings together existing research into people and expeditions and places the information on Modes, our collections database.

Background: Our biographical records provide a rich source of information on the people who have lived and worked in the polar regions, and the people contacted to them. From explorers to families, to newspaper editors and manufacturers, the biographies provide a wonderful insight into the lives of these people. Over the years we have amassed a wealth of knowledge, and the time has come to bring this together on our collections database. This will enable us to enhance vistor experience in the museum and online via our website, and will assist in collections management in the Archives, Museum and Picture Library.

The Work: This is a computer-based project, with some additional research in the Library collections. The work will involve transferring information from a variety of mediums, predominantly Microsoft Word or Excel documents, plus some paper records, into a template on our Modes database. Full training on completing the template will be provided. Volunteers will be given a set of people connected to a particular expedition.

Please contact Naomi Boneham ( or Greta Bertram ( if you’re interested in taking part in this project or want to find out more.


A big thank you to all our volunteers!

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015
Martin, one of our front of house volunteers, ready to welcome visitors in to the museum.

Martin, one of our front of house volunteers, ready to welcome visitors in to the museum.

This week is National Volunteers’ Week – an annual celebration of the fantastic contribution of millions of volunteers across the UK – so we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight some of the work that our volunteers at the Polar Museum do and to say an enormous thank you to them! Like many museums, The Polar Museum relies on its team of volunteers to carry out many of its day to day activities.

It’s fair to say that without our front of house volunteers, we wouldn’t have a museum open to the public! The front of house volunteers are the first people visitors encounter when they enter the museum – they welcome visitors to the museum, explain what visitors can see in the galleries, answer any questions visitors may have and help out in the museum shop.

Our education events volunteers are essential to running events at the museum. We run educational events for over 5000 people of all ages each year, and we wouldn’t be able to cater for anywhere near those numbers if we didn’t have volunteers doing everything from stewarding and assisting visitors to running activities themselves.

Volunteers also help out with research into the collections – one of our volunteers is currently researching the relatively unknown Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition 1949-52 in order to create a summary of the exhibition and biographies of the expedition members for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project.

In the past we’ve also had conservation volunteers who have helped to re-house the Inuit and Siberian archaeological and ethnographic material in the museum store.

But it’s not just in the museum where you can find volunteers! Over the years volunteers in the Archives have carried out a number of projects, from transcribing polar diaries to listing hut plans. Current volunteers are assisting in a complete review of the collections, which involves looking at the original documents and comparing them to their catalogue entries ready for our new database. And in the Library, volunteers are sorting the polar press clippings into categories and cataloguing the map collections.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering in the Museum email; for volunteering in the Archives email; and for volunteering in the Library email

I still haven’t had the chance to meet all of our volunteers, but I really do want to say a huge thank you for the brilliant work that you do – we really really really appreciate it!


Scott’s wedding cake

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


Not many people know that the Polar Museum has a piece of Captain Scott's wedding cake, which was donated to us in 1983 by his son, Peter.  When I discovered this I was intrigued (especially as it is the wedding season) and decided to take a closer look.  The piece of cake is still in the box which it came to the museum in – an old pink cardboard jewellery box:


Inside, the cake is wrapped in a piece of paper, and there is a press cutting about the wedding, and also a handwritten note on an envelope.  The note is from Oriana Wilson (the wife of Edward Wilson, who died with Scott in Antarctica), although there is no clue who it was written to.  It says "I am so sorry that this has got so squashed – it was in my husband's tailcoat pocket after the reception, and I am afraid he sat on the pocket!  But it tastes all right I hope":


Perhaps the person who received the cake didn't much fancy it after that and decided to keep it as a souvenir instead, and ironically that is how it has survived for so long.

The cake itself is very fragile and crumbling to bits, so it can't be completely unwrapped. 


Inside the outer layer of paper, the cake is wrapped in a bit of doily, presumably from the wedding reception.  You can just see a bit of cake poking out of the wrapping – and it looks as though it was a plain sponge cake, not a fruit cake as I was expecting.  Some of the loose crumbs are darker brown, which might suggest it was a chocolate and vanilla marble sponge, or might be related to how the cake has degraded with age.  I can't see any sign of icing… 


You can just see the edge of the cake poking out in the upper right area above the "wheel" shaped cutout – it looks like a bit of old shortbread wrapped in paper.  On the lower left of the image are dark brown crumbs.

Naturally we would never eat part of a museum artefact, or even have a little lick (and frankly I wasn't even slightly tempted to try a piece of cake over a hundred years old which has been sat on into the bargain).  However, I did sniff it and can report a slight whiff of sweetness still survives.

It might seem surprising that cake could survive so long without going mouldy, but if it was just allowed to dry out naturally and kept in a reasonably dry atmosphere, it would simply go hard and brittle, and not mouldy at all.  Sometimes sugar can deteriorate over a long time by a chemical reaction (a type of oxidation process called the Brown-Mallarmé reaction) but I can't see enough of the cake to tell whether this might be happening in this case.

The press cutting is fascinating, with lots of information about the wedding dress and going away outfit (which included "a large brown hat with blue wings").  The bride, Kathleen, was clearly quite well connected, as the ceremony took place at the Chapel Royal in Hampton Court, and the reception was at the Oak Room of Hampton Court Palace (Scott himself had quite a modest background).  The wedding was on 2nd September 1908, when Kathleen was already 30 and a fully fledged sculptor moving in artistic circles.  This explains why Auguste Rodin and J.M.Barrie (author of Peter Pan) were both at the wedding!  Although they came from very different worlds, Scott and Kathleen had a happy marriage.

The press cutting and the note were both getting damaged by being squashed into the box with the cake, so they have now been taken into the archive, which is their proper home.  Sadly the cake is too fragile to be displayed…



McKenzie’s unshrinkable mittens

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Every now and then you come across an object in the collection that really speaks to you about the conditions for which it was made. For me, it was this pair of mittens, made for Edward McKenzie, who was one of 5 stokers on the Terra Nova during Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13.


A stoker was responsible for keeping the boiler going in a steam ship – a bit like the fireman on a steam locomotive – but would also be expected to turn his hand to maintenance and repair of the ship’s engines. The mittens were given to the Polar Museum after McKenzie’s death in 1973, together with other clothing and tools that he had used during the Terra Nova expedition.

The mittens have a label inside them proclaiming that they are made from “Wolsey Unshrinkable” wool. Wolsey is a British knitwear manufacturer, founded in 1755 and still selling menswear today. They developed a way of making "unshrinkable woollens" towards the end of the nineteenth century, and these mittens are thus among the most practical, high-tech clothing of their time. In 1911, Wolsey supplied woollen underwear and accessories to both Scott's and Amundsen's Antarctic expeditions, presumably hedging their bets about which party would win the race to the South Pole!

Both men wrote back endorsing the excellence of Wolsey's underwear, and the company capitalised on this by using their testimonials in their advertising. Scott diligently sent a photograph showing three of the expedition party sitting on a sledge in their woollen undergarments back to England. The photograph was used by Wolsey in an advert, together with a personal testimonial from Scott: 

"I have much pleasure in informing you that the Wolsey Woollen Goods supplied to this expedition by you have been highly satisfactory. The materials are excellent for our purpose, and I am very grateful for the careful attention you have paid to all details. I enclose a photo showing the clothing in use in the Antarctic Regions, which may be of interest to you. (Signed) R. Scott, Captain, R.N." 

The photograph used in the advert was taken by Herbert Ponting on 7 February 1911 and is shown below. 

In fact, the wool and cotton clothing that was favoured by the British Antarctic Expeditions was not the best choice for the Polar climate. Although it was warm and (relatively) light, it easily became damp and froze stiff, leaving the men colder than ever. This was a particular problem while man hauling the sledges, which was hard, sweaty work. By 2 August 1911, Scott had started to have doubts about their choice of clothing:

"We have discovered a hundred details of clothes, mits, and footwear: there seems no solution to the difficulties which attach to these articles in extreme cold; all Wilson can say, speaking broadly, is ‘the gear is excellent, excellent.’ One continues to wonder as to the possibilities of fur clothing as made by the Esquimaux, with a sneaking feeling that it may outclass our more civilised garb. For us this can only be a matter of speculation, as it would have been quite impossible to have obtained such articles. With the exception of this radically different alternative, I feel sure we are as near perfection as experience can direct. At any rate we can now hold that our system of clothing has come through a severer test than any other, fur included." (Scott's diary, 2 August 1911).

McKenzie's mittens didn't undergo this "severer test" because he was not among the shore party. Despite this, I think you can tell a bit about his life on board the Terra Nova by looking at these mittens. Firstly, there is the fact that they are fingerless: you need to be able to use your hands while working on a ship, so this is a compromise between warmth and dexterity. (We also have some fur gloves in the collection which McKenzie would have worn on top of his mittens when he needed greater warmth.) The mittens are also very long, and would have reached all the way to McKenzie's elbows, again providing as much insulation as possible without hampering movement. The wool used to make them is dark grey, presumably a practical colour for someone whose job primarily involved shovelling coal and maintaining the ship’s engine! The outsides of the mittens have felted on the wrists and palms, and it is easy to imagine how this happened through daily use. The insides, however, still look as good as new, testament to the thickness of the knitted fabric. The picture below shows the outside (left) and inside (right) of one of the mittens, and you can see how felted the outside is compared with the inside.

As a keen hand-knitter, the mittens piqued my interest: how did Wolsey make them so thick? The vertical lines running down them show that they have been knitted from a ribbing stitch, but they are thicker and more "spongy" than you would expect for ordinary ribbing. After looking at the construction of the mittens closely, I think they have been made from "fisherman's rib", a special type of ribbing that is similar to brioche stitch (the two stitch patterns are worked differently but give a similar result). Fisherman’s rib produces a very thick, squishy fabric (and uses 50% more yarn than plain ribbing!) but the result will be warm and cosy. Unsurprisingly, it was traditionally used for fishermen's jumpers so it is a very appropriate choice of stitch pattern for these mittens.

I am in the process of knitting a swatch myself, to test this theory and see if McKenzie's mittens really have been made from fisherman's rib. I will update the blog in a few days with the results!

– Christina