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Exhibitions « The Polar Museum: news blog


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

The journey of a new stamp collection

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Hannah Carney, Creative Apprentice, University of Cambridge Museums


The Polar Museum’s new exhibition is Delivery by Design: Stamps in Antarctica and I was lucky enough to go and see the stamps, printing proofs and the original artwork being moved from the British Library to The Polar Museum with the assistance of the Foreign Commonwealth Office.

Stamps 362

On 30 April, Bridget Cusack, The Polar Museum’s Development Coordinator and I went to the British Library in London to pick up the collection. We met with Ken Ball from Crown Agents, and Vicky Taylor and Paul Skinner from the British Library. Once everyone was there, we went up to Paul’s office to see and collect the stamps. The collection was in several envelopes and when we got to the office, staff from the British Library were writing a list of all the stamps that they  were going to hand over.

Stamps 382 

While the list was being typed up, Ken Ball suggested that we did a random sampling to see the condition of the stamps. I enjoyed this as I got to see the artwork up close and all the detail which went into it. I really liked looking at the printing proofs as you can see all the notes which were written for the printers.  I also thought that it was interesting to see the range of designs of the stamps, as there were the obvious designs like penguins and the less obvious ones such as the sea life of Antarctica.

Stamps 365

After we did the sampling Bridget, Vicky, Ken and Paul all signed the documents that they needed to. Then we had to load all the stamps into our means of transport for the day (Bridget’s car.) This was interesting as we had to fit all of the stamps into two boxes and load them into car. Once everything was safely and securely packed up it was time for the trip back.

Overall I really enjoyed this experience as it taught me a lot about moving objects, the logistics and the effort it takes to collect objects.

The creation of an exhibition

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Creating exhibitions for The Polar Museum is challenging. It requires intense research and dealing with a wealth of material (much of which is original) but being limited by space – and managing the expertise and enthusiasm of Polar community curators as they endeavour to share their knowledge and experience of the Arctic and Antarctica. It is also deeply rewarding to be at the edge of current research, providing exhibitions that convey the present state of knowledge and also to raise questions about new fields of research. 

Each exhibition is unique; conveying an artist’s response to the Polar Regions; communicating the latest scientific research; or discussing historical themes and characters. Sometimes all three of these aspects can be in one exhibition. One size does not fit all, and creating a narrative structure on which to base an exhibition is a core task.

Polar Hydrography 1

Our current exhibition, Sea Monsters to Sonar: Mapping the Polar Oceans was the idea of Dr John Ash an associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) and former submariner. To gather ideas and material for the exhibition, he and I travelled to Portsmouth and visited HMS Protector, the Royal Navy's polar patrol vessel and one equipped with excellent facilities for mapping; we also visited the nearby Submarine Museum. We had the privilege of visiting the United Kingdom's Hydrographic Office (UKHO) where we saw original polar maps and charts and the latest developments in mapping the seabed and coastlines of the harsh Polar Regions. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) were also very helpful with information from their Mapping and Geographic Information Centre (MAGIC) and they kindly loaned us a model of the James Clark Ross, a scientific vessel that they operate.

Inspired and informed by our colleagues at the Scott Polar Research Institute, the ideas for the exhibition began to emerge until we were ready to develop themes, design panels and choose the final items for display. Fortunately, our Conservator, Sophie Rowe, is fluent in Danish and assisted in securing replicas of Inuit driftwood maps, the originals of which are in the National Museum of Greenland. Here in Cambridge, the University Library kindly loaned a Mercator Atlas and the Whipple Museum of the History of Science provided an instrument for measuring depth. SPRI's own collections provided a rich source of visual, archival and artistic material. Exhibitions are a team effort and thanks to expert and enthusiastic support from our colleagues John’s vision is now a ‘live’ exhibition.

Polar Hydrography 2

When a visitor leaves The Polar Museum we hope that they know more than when they entered but we also hope that they're now curious to know even more about the Polar Regions. The current exhibition, Sea Monsters to Sonar: Mapping the Polar Oceans, offers science, art, history and a 'submarine'! Once again we hope to have combined several interesting themes to create another informative and engaging exhibition.

Bryan Lintott, Exhibitions Officer

The tag of a famous dog

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The brass tag of a dog named Tresor is one of the most recent additions to the Museum’s permanent display. Tresor was one of thirty-three Siberian sledging dogs on Scott’s British Antarctic Terra Nova Expedition (1911-13).

The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the South Pole and got back alive, was an expert in using dog teams: they were a key factor in his success. By killing a certain number of the dogs at each stage of his journey to create food for the others, Amundsen reduced the weight of supplies needed for the trip. He also ensured that his men would not have to pull the sledges themselves, which was Scott’s exhausting method in his fatal attempt on the Pole.

Unlike Amundsen, Scott didn’t believe that dog teams would be effective as a means of transport in Antartica, but the members of the expedition felt a great deal of affection for their dogs. They must have been a welcome reminder of the normality of home in the strange and lonely Antarctic environment. 

The expedition geologist and founder of SPRI, Frank Debenham, wrote a story about one of them, Stareek. In the Antarctic, a book of light-hearted stories from the expedition published in 1952, gives us a wonderful sense of how the presence of the dogs gave things a domestic feel, writing that “sledging-dogs have just as much individuality as we know exists in our own pets in civilised life.”

He also described the pleasure of working with them, explaining that

“One of the delightful things about dog-driving is their eagerness for work. When you came out of the hut with the dog-harnesses on your arm the loose dogs would rush up to you and try to insert their heads into the loop of the harness, begging to be taken.”

They were a lot more fun than the stubborn and obstinate ponies which were more heavily relied on for transportation by Scott and his men.

Despite his scepticism about the dogs’ usefulness, Scott himself was profoundly compassionate and concerned for the wellbeing of all the animals he took with him to Antarctica. On one occasion, a team pulled by thirteen sledge dogs crossed a concealed crevass. Only the lead dog made it across: the rest were left hanging by their harnesses in the sudden chasm, and two had slipped out and fallen to the bottom completely. It took the men hours to rescue the dogs; Scott himself insisted on being lowered 65 feet into the crevasse in order to rescue the two who had fallen.

Tresor Photo

When Debenham finally left Antarctica in February 1913, of all the surviving sledging dogs it was Tresor he took with him, whom he described as “a marvel of quietness and amiability.” Looking at the photographic portrait of Tresor, it’s not hard to read those human characteristics in his face – he seems peaceful and benevolent; his gaze passes off into the middle distance as if he’s gently contemplating something. Debenham’s sketch makes his affection for Tresor palpable – he’s given him a friendly smile and that same contemplative expression.

Tresor Sketch

Returning to England via Sydney, Debenham left Tresor with a young man called Archbold. After Tresor’s death, his dog tag was kept in a button box for many years. Luckily, its connection to a well-travelled dog and a historic expedition was identified and we are delighted to see it join The Polar Museum collection.