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The residents of Rothera

Monday, 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

Friday, 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.


Operation Deep Freeze: Return to the South Pole

Thursday, 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

Shackleton Exhibition on International Tour – First Stop the Falkland Islands!

Thursday, May 19th, 2016

The Polar Museum Shackleton exhibition “By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men” is going on international tour in 2016, and the first stop will be the Falkland Islands Museum in Stanley. This blog post tells the story of how we got the Shackleton exhibition to the Falkland Islands.

It all started back in February 2016 when I e-mailed Leona Roberts, Director of the Falklands Islands Museum & National Trust to see whether they were interested in working with SPRI and willing to show the Shackleton exhibition. Straight away Leona replied to say that they would be “absolutely delighted” to take it. She thought the exhibition would be of enormous interest to both local people in the Falkland Islands and to visitors, and it would allow the Museum to mark the centenary of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in a way that they could not hope to do so otherwise. I was very fortunate to be able to visit the Falkland Islands between 13 – 20 March 2016 to meet Leona and help organise and plan the exhibition. I had a busy week on the islands, and as well as seeing Leona and the Museum team, I also met the Museum Trustees, the Governor of the Falkland Islands – Mr Colin Roberts and members of the Falkland Islands Legislative Council to tell them about the exhibition. Everybody I met was very enthusiastic and supportive and made generous offers of help. While I was in Stanley, I took the opportunity to visit the Jane Cameron National Archives and was shown a fascinating photographic album produced by the Falkland Islands naturalist A.G. Bennett in the early 1900s. The album contained several original photographs taken by Bennett of “The Shackleton expedition at Stanley 1916”.

Shackleton 31 May 1916. Image: A G Bennett Collection, Jane Cameron National Archives. The Falkland Islands.

Shackleton 31 May 1916. Image: A G Bennett Collection, Jane Cameron National Archives. The Falkland Islands.

Back in the UK, staff in the Polar Museum worked hard to get the exhibition ready to send to the Falkland Islands before the end of April. Bryan Lintott, the curator of the Shackleton exhibition, used the Bennett photographs to develop new exhibition content to tell the story of Shackleton in the Falkland Islands during 1916, Charlotte Connelly, the Museum Curator, prepared the exhibition license agreement with the University legal services team, and I worked out the logistics to ship the exhibition the 12,700 km from Cambridge to Stanley.  As well as the fifteen exhibition information panels, we also needed to freight a replica scale wooden model of the lifeboat the “James Caird” made especially by the polar explorer Seb Coulthard for the Museum, along with a couple of boxes of Shackleton merchandise for their shop. To protect the exhibition panels from damage during transport we had special protective cardboard boxes made up for us by a local company Performance Packing UK in Haddenham.

James Caird model by Seb Coulthard

James Caird model by Seb Coulthard


Packed and ready to go (Bryan Lintott, left, and John Shears, right.)

Packed up and ready to go (Bryan Lintott, left, and John Shears, right.)

On Friday 22 April the shipment was finally all packed up and ready to go at SPRI. Bryan and I then drove it to Chiltern Air Freight in Colnbrook, Berkshire. Chiltern Air Freight, in partnership with Sulivan Shipping in Stanley, have for many years provided regular freight services to the Falkland Islands. Our shipment was very different from the usual freight boxes but Chiltern Air Freight looked after it with great care and attention. It went by air freight from London, UK to Miami, USA and then to Montevideo in Uruguay where it arrived on 28 April. In Montevideo, the freight was transhipped from the airport to the docks and loaded on to the Falkland Islands resupply vessel MV Scout, and it finally arrived in Stanley on 5 May.


Falkland Islands Museum Manager Andrea Barlow takes a first peek at the newly arrived packages.

Falkland Islands Museum Manager Andrea Barlow takes a first peek at the newly arrived packages.

The Shackleton exhibition has now been delivered safely to the Falkland Islands and is being put up at the Museum as I write. The exhibition will be opened by the Governor on 31 May 2016 – exactly 100 years to the day that Sir Ernest Shackleton, along with Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, arrived in the islands to organise the rescue of their companions marooned on Elephant Island in Antarctica.

John Shears

Telling the story of Shackleton and his men

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

The Polar Museum’s new exhibition, By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and his Men, is now open! But how have we gone about telling the story of Shackleton and his men?

The first stage in putting together an exhibition like this is research: understanding the history of the event, the objects, images and archival material that may be available, and then collating this information into a useable format. During this phase, ideas start to emerge about a major theme upon which to tell the story. In this exhibition it’s about the expedition and all of the men (and Mrs Chippy the cat). Each member of the expedition has their own portrait and biography. To enhance their stories, a range of personal artefacts, documents and letters are on display. These range from James Wordie’s sailing hat to formal log books and affection letters to loved ones.

Image 1

The story of the expedition is revealed through images from Scott Polar Research Institute’s Picture Library and quotes from the men’s journals and books. On display is the Endurance spar, the largest extant piece of the Endurance that is not on the seabed. On a smaller scale is Shackleton’s pannikin that travelled with him all the way from England, and later aboard the James Caird and across South Georgia. The cooking pot that he used with Frank Worsley and Tom Crean on this epic mountain crossing is also on display.

Image 2

The visual design of the exhibition was inspired by George Marston’s paintings, and the contrast between the Antarctic day and night. Whilst blue and white are the colours associated with Antarctica, they become merged in Marston’s pictures and the background colours of the exhibition panels. An image of Endurance marooned in a frozen sea is on panel, and emphasises the vast area in which the tiny ship and its crew were trapped.

Image 3

The Endurance spar, which is normally kept in the Institute’s Friends’ Room is now on public display for museum visitors to see. Moving this large and important artefact was skilfully undertaken by the museum team and as – usually – happens, it all went smoothly.

Image 4

The exhibition will run until 18 June 2016. We hope that you can come and discover the amazing story of how Shackleton and his men survived near disaster in the most hostile environment on the planet.


So Fargo, so good…

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

The Wells Fargo Museum in Anchorage has a fantastic collection of artefacts made by the native peoples of Alaska, including the Aleut, Athabascans, Tlingit, Inupiat and Yupik. These groups have a very varied and beautiful material culture, and we are excited to be borrowing a large number of objects made by these people from the Wells Fargo Museum for our special exhibition in the summer and autumn of 2016.

Organising a loan exhibition when the lending museum is on the other side of the world brings its own challenges. Not the least of these is that a lot of historic Alaskan native artefacts are made using animal material covered by CITES laws on the trade in endangered species. This means that many of them have to have special licences to travel to the UK. Arranging these is a complex task for Willow!

The Wells Fargo Museum (which has a wonderful-sounding address on Northern Lights Boulevard, Anchorage) very generously gave us a choice of over 100 artefacts to borrow. But we only have room for about half that number in our show cases, so we had to choose. We only want to bring over the objects we can show and no more, since transporting museum artefacts round the world is risky for them, not to mention complicated and expensive.

The exhibition is being curated at the Polar Museum by the delightful Larry Rockhill, a SPRI Emeritus Associate and expert in Alaskan art:

Image of person

Using database printouts from Wells Fargo, Larry drew up a shortlist of the objects he wanted to tell the stories in the exhibition. Then we set about checking how many we have room for – the old-fashioned way.

I measured the footprints of all our display cases and shelves, and then taped these out with masking tape on a huge table in the Map Room. Next, using measurements from the Wells Fargo database, I cut out paper footprints of all the objects on the shortlist so we could see how much room they would take up on display. Then Larry and I arranged all the object footprints inside the display case footprints. We didn’t have room for everything, but this process helped us narrow the list down further and work out which objects were most important.

IMG_20150521_123924387_HDR  IMG_20150521_123930430

While we were looking in detail at how the objects will fit in the cases, we were also able to work out which ones will need display mounts. I am particularly excited about a group of prehistoric animal and human figures made from ivory, which are thousands of years old. They are all very small and so will need to be displayed thoughtfully to bring out their understated beauty.  This is a similar ivory carving recently sold at Sotheby’s – it is 2000 years old and just over 5 inches high.


Now that the object list is finalised, we can go ahead and arrange transport to the UK – with any luck there is still plenty of time to do all the paperwork before next summer…




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.


New Exhibition in the Temporary Gallery!

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

‘Ice Limit’ by Royal Academy Artist Emma Stibbon

Interview by Joy Martin

Night Navigation

“Night Navigation”

It is always a pleasure to walk through the Polar Museum’s Temporary Gallery on my way into the office each day, and for the past week this space has been in transition: our exhibition of Scott’s photographs has been taken down, and the gallery has been filled with tools, drop cloths, ladders, the busy sound of drilling, and, of course, the beautiful and evocative giant artworks in Emma Stibbon’s new exhibition.

Emma Stibbon is an award-winning artist with an international reputation. She is based in Bristol and is currently the Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Brighton. Her new exhibition for the Polar Museum follows her recent Artist Placement travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula with the Royal Navy through a programme organised by Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute (FoSPRI). She also joined an expedition to Svalbard in the High Arctic organised by Drawing on a large scale, Stibbon works in delicate media, including ink, watercolour, graphite and aluminium powder on paper. She often depicts wilderness and the remote and landscapes that are undergoing transformation.

I sat down for a chat with Emma during a break in the work of hanging the exhibition. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Q: So, how did the artist residency come about?
ES: I was fortunate to be selected for the FoSPRI Artist in Residency programme back in 2013, which was also funded by Bonhams and supported by the Royal Navy. So I travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula aboard HMS Protector, a Royal Navy icebreaker, reaching as far south as Rothera Station, which is the furthest south I’ve ever been.

Q: What was it like to see Antarctica?
ES: The experience is extraordinary. It’s a very disorientating landscape – you can’t really judge scale or distance. I found it to be otherworldly, like travelling into an internal world.

Q: And what inspired you to go?
ES: It is the most remarkable landscape on the planet, and I knew it would offer a rich visual subject matter. But although there is a seductive beauty there, one cannot ignore the underlying environmental concerns – that ice sheets and glaciers face a precarious future, and their evident retreat on the Peninsula is clear. One of the reasons I applied for the residency was to witness something of this. There is an urgency of change that I feel compelled to explore. In this exhibition I hope to convey something of the awesome beauty of Antarctica. But I would also like to suggest that despite the apparent monumentality of place, we are facing the inevitable frailty of change.

Ice Limit installation

Installing the exhibition in the gallery.
Q: There is an interesting legacy of artists accompanying polar expeditions. Can you say something about this?
ES: Historically, in pre-photography times, an artist would have accompanied an expedition to visually record the topography. Obviously now things are different – onboard HMS Protector I was constantly aware of the sophisticated technologies recording data during the voyage. At times, the act of drawing from observation in my sketchbook felt absurd…I thought, ‘What am I doing, trying to define something in pencil or a bit of ink on paper, alongside the precision of modern data collection?’ However, I do believe the human response to places is still meaningful, and that the tactile quality of drawing connects people on an emotional level. Interestingly, the ship’s Bridge still relies on the human eye to identify types of ice while navigating.

Q: How have you actually done the work?
ES: My work evolves through quite a lengthy production. I usually spend some time gathering information ‘in the field’ through travelling and gathering imagery drawing from direct observation and through the camera. In the studio this evolves into the drawn or printed image. I try to represent and ‘stage’ the subject through the composition and material construction of the pictorial space. The scale of the work is important to me; I want to create immersive drawings that communicate something of the sensory experience of the place – to try to connect the viewer with the Polar environment.

Q: Any final thoughts?
ES: It was so exciting. I still dream about it.
The exhibition is now open and will be running until 5 September 2015 in the Temporary Gallery of the Polar Museum.


Joy Martin

For one week only… 3 Siberian objects on display in The Polar Museum

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This week, we are preparing a number of beautiful objects from our reserve collections to be sent to the Manchester Museum for an exhibition  ‘Siberia: At the Edge of the World’ which opens 4 October 2014 – 1 March 2015.

Until Saturday 20 September, we have put other similar objects on display in the museum.


Nentsy knife with sheath. SPRI Museum: N: 373a-b. Given by Mrs F. G. Jackson, 1939

This Nentsy knife with sheath from the Yamal region would have been used for ceremonial purposes. The Yamal Peninsula is a stretch of peatland that extends from northern Siberia into the Kara Sea, far above the Arctic Circle. To the east lie the shallow waters of the Gulf of Ob; to the west, the Baydaratskaya Bay, which is ice-covered for most of the year. Yamal in the language of the Nenets means the end of the world.


Hair Ornaments. SPRI Museum N: 384f-h. Given by Mrs F. G. Jackson, 1939

These hair ornaments are made of brass, beads and sinew, and were worn by Nentsy women to decorate their plaits. These examples were collected by Frederick George Jackson during his 3000 mile sledge-journey across the frozen tundra of Siberia in 1893–94.  The Nenets, also known as Samoyed, are an  indigenous people of the Russsian far north, whose main subsistence comes from hunting and reindeer herding.

Bridget Cusack
Museum Development Coordinator

The Andrée Expedition: A doomed experiment

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Andree's Arctic balloon expedition 1897

S. A. Andrée and Knut Frænkel with the crashed balloon on the pack ice. The exposed film for this photograph and others from the failed 1897 expedition was recovered in 1930. Photographed by Nils Strindberg. SPRI  P: 48/28/1

‘Andree and Fraenkel stood looking at it, as if the first to arrive at the scene of a disaster or a remarkable anomaly, while Strindberg walked off on the ice and took photographs of it’.
from The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

In 1897, the race to reach the Geographic North Pole was still an open contest.  Several explorers before Andrée had tried and failed (including Peary, Franklin and Nansen), but none of them had made an attempt to get there in a hot air balloon.  Salomon August Andrée was inspired to see if he could sail over the top of the world after a conversation with fellow explorer A. E. Nordenskiöd in 1894, who was considering using a balloon to discover more about Antarctica.

making the balloon

Making the balloon

Andrée, already a keen aeronaut, secured funding and commissioned Henri Lachambre’s balloon workshop in Paris to manufacture a balloon strong enough for long flights from 600 pieces of fortified silk.  He recruited two young fellow Swedes to accompany him: photographer Nils Strindberg, to create a photographic aerial record of the arctic, and engineer Knut Fraenkel, to record the scientific observations of the expedition.

Andrée, Strindberg and Fraenkel set off in their balloon from Danes Island on July 11th 1897, after one failed attempt the previous summer.  Although blustery, the wind was far from favourable.  The balloon struggled from the start, dropping three of its four guide ropes; losing gas from several unvarnished seams and becoming frozen and waterlogged the further north the explorers drifted.  Sixty five hours and 295 miles after departure, the balloon was forced down onto pack ice.  The men had three sledges and a boat along with supplies for several weeks.  They camped on ice floes for over two months, shooting and eating polar bears, seals or ivory gulls when their rations ran out.

standing over a polar bear

Men standing over a polar bear. Knut Frænkel left, Nils Strindberg right

Pulling the boat


In September, they saw land for the first time since July and decided to move on to White Island to build themselves a sturdier camp for the winter, aiming to continue their journey in the Spring.  No one knows how the men died, but it would appear that they did so within days of reaching the island, as although they had gathered materials with which to build, they were never used and the sledges and boat were never unpacked.  The remains of the explorers were discovered by chance during a thaw in 1930 and from Andrée’s diary found in the camp, it was discerned that the three Swedish explorers never came any closer than 475 miles from the North Pole. Their remains were found by the crew of a whaling ship 33 years later, both the diary and the camera along with five rolls of exposed film, were found near their bodies.


The remains of the three explorers are brought straight from the ship through the center of Stockholm on October 5, 1930, beginning “one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden” (Sverker Sörlin).

The fate of the expedition was shrouded in mystery and its disappearance part of cultural lore in Sweden and to a certain extent elsewhere.  The explorers were actively sought for a couple of years and remained the subject of myth and rumor, with frequent international newspaper reports of possible theories.  An extensive archive of American newspaper reports from the first few years, 1896–99, titled “The Mystery of Andree”, shows a much richer media interest in the expedition after it disappeared than before. A great variety of fates are suggested for it, inspired by finds, or reported finds, of remnants of what might be a balloon basket, or great amounts of balloon silk, or by stories of men falling from the sky, or visions by psychics, all of which would typically locate the stranded balloon far from Danskøya and Svalbard.

The second half of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century has often been called the Heroic Age of polar exploration and this expedition, of manly daring and lands being conquered by technological ingenuity, appealed powerfully to the imagination of the age.

This photograph, taken from the Scott Polar Research Institute’s photographic libraries captures the moment that the balloon falls to earth on the fated expedition. Andrée was fastidious about documenting his attempt to reach the North Pole.  Not only did he keep a diary, but he also invited the talented young photographer, Nils Strindberg, to be the official expedition photographer.  Ninety three of the photographs were saved and are and many are on display at the Gränna museum in Sweden.

This photograph is part of our forthcoming exhibition The Thing Is … which will explore the many ways in which we consider and care for museum objects, how and why objects gain meaning and why we collect them and their accompanying stories. Pairing an object from each of the University of Cambridge Museums and the Botanic Gardens with an object taken from the reserve collections at the Polar Museum, The Thing Is … uses innovative touch screen technology to explore the relationships between each pair and invites the public to contribute to the curatorial process. The dialogue between the objects highlights the often surprising correspondences between things and audiences.

Kaddy 2

Kaddy Benyon is the The Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute’s invited poet in residence funded by Arts Council England to research and write her second collection, Call Her Alaska, a contemporary re-imagining of The Snow Queen. Kaddy is a Granta New Poet and was highly commended in the Forward Prizes in 2013.

Born in 1973, she worked as a television scriptwriter for a number of years, penning over 70 episodes of Hollyoaks and Grange Hill, as well as three young adult novels.  After completing an MA in Creative Writing, Kaddy won the Crashaw Prize with the manuscript for her first collection of poetry, Milk Fever, (Salt Publishing, 2012).

Kaddy Benyon and Bridget Cusack