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Polar Cows

Tuesday, July 13th, 2021

Residents and visitors to Cambridge will have noticed that there are some new faces around town. The extensive public art event ‘Cows About Cambridge’ has seen ninety sculptures of cows take to the streets, parks and public buildings of the city, each one designed by an artist, school or community group. Here at the Scott Polar Research Institute, we have our very own: a ‘mini moo’ called Morca, who has been designed and named by students at the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology. She can be found at the side entrance to the Institute, off Lensfield Road, and looks very much at home in the harsh, wintery conditions of the Polar Museum. But what about other cows and domesticated animals in the Polar regions? Is Morca really the first to set foot on the ice?

Morca the cow sculpture

‘Morca’ the cow, part of the Cows About Cambridge public art trail

Although reindeer domestication has occurred for centuries in the Arctic, you might think that examples of domesticated animals in the South Polar region would be few and far between, but not so! Photographs taken during the South Georgia surveys in the 1950s show a working dairy farm, and chickens being kept by the only policeman on the island, Mr Barry Goss. South Georgia is a remote location in its own right, some domesticated animals have made it even further south than this.

A cow (lying down) and calf in a field on the Grytviken dairy farm look towards the camera.

Cows on the Grytviken dairy farm

Some twenty years after Captain Scott infamously took ponies to Antarctica for his ill-fated Terra Nova expedition, another naval officer brought with him his own group of animals. When US Admiral Richard Byrd went on his Second Antarctic Expedition in 1933, he took with him three Guernsey cows. The somewhat outlandishly named Klondike Gay Nira, Deerfoot Guernsey Maid, and Foremost Southern Girl ,were transported to Antarctica and would spend over a year on the ice. They were joined by a young calf, named Iceberg, who was born to Klondike Gay Nira en route.

It seems that an easy supply of milk was not necessarily the only reason for moving three cows across sea and ice. Public image and fame were big issues even then, not least because expeditions such as Byrd’s were privately funded. Laying claim to being the first people to run a functional farm in the Antarctic was a major coup for Byrd and his expedition, and landed the three cows with national fame. Iceberg especially, who was born at sea and raised in Antarctica, landed back in the United States to a hero’s welcome.

Another reason for taking cows to the Antarctic comes down to the political situation at the time. Numerous claims were being made for ownership of slices of the continent, and Byrd was adamant that America should follow suit. Running a farm was a way of showing evidence that the USA had a settlement on Antarctica, which was a requirement when making a claim on a territory. Although America never did fulfil Byrd’s wishes, and all claims were subsequently frozen following the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, his three Guernsey cows (and little Iceberg) have earned their place in Antarctic history. Morca is truly walking in the hoofsteps of legends.

If you want to come and visit Morca, and discover more amazing stories from the Polar regions, book your free ticket to visit the museum on the University of Cambridge Museums website.

A Special Visitor – Part Two. Willy’s Diary

Monday, December 9th, 2019

This is the second part of a 2 part blog post. Read part one here.

From the 13th – 20th October we were absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to invite Willy Topkok, an Iñupiaq man and experienced artist, to visit us here at the Scott Polar ResearchInstitute for a week. It was an exciting, interesting and hugely fun experience for everyone involved so we thought we’d share a post of everything Willy got up to during his stay.

Monday 14th October
Monday was Willy’s first full day in Cambridge. After a quick hello to everyone in the Museum and Education & Outreach teams, Willy viewed our current temporary exhibition “Tikigaq:Point Hope, Life on Alaska’s North Slope” sharing his own stories of his Alaskan heritage throughout, followed by a tour of our Polar Library with Librarian Peter Lund.
Next up was lunch with members of the Museum and Library team where, still adjusting to the temperature change from the desert-like temperatures of Arizona (where he currently lives) to a far cooler Cambridge, the first thing Willy ordered was a hot tea!
After re-fuelling, it was time for Willy to have a private tour of the Polar Museum and a behind-the-scenes look in our stores at more of the Alaskan objects we have in our collection.

Willy holding a boot from our Alaskan collection

Later in the day, Willy joined everyone at SPRI for a special afternoon tea break in the temporary gallery of the Polar Museum where he met staff and students alike – all of whom were very pleased to meet him.

Tuesday 15th October
Even after a busy first day, Willy was just as eager to find out what was next in store for him during his visit. To start off his second day, Willy was accompanied by Collections Assistant Mia Surridge for some sight seeing in Cambridge, with a visit to Kings College and a stop at the famous Corpus Clock too. He was thoroughly impressed with the architecture and hearing all about the traditional Carol’s from Kings Christmas Eve service – but mostly he said he just couldn’t wait to show all the pictures to everyone at home!

Willy standing by the Corpus Clock

After working up quite the appetite from touring the streets of Cambridge, Willy then stopped for some much-needed lunch at the University Centre with Mia and Rosie Amos, Education and Outreach Assistant, before heading back to SPRI to give a talk to PHaSS (The Polar Humanities and Social Sciences Workshop) where he displayed his bowdrill and beading work which they were so fascinated by that Willy ended upextending his talk further.
A speedy tea break was had and then it was time for Willy to begin his second talk of the day, this time to a group of volunteers from The Polar Museum front of house team. Much like with PHaSS, there were laughs and gasps from all in the audience (followed by lots of questions) as Willy, dressed in his traditional clothing, demonstrated his amazing storytelling skills.

Willy giving his talk to our volunteersTo round off his day, a certainly well-deserved dinner was had by Willy with the company of Education and Outreach Assistant, Naomi Boneham. After some great food and a good old chat, he was ready to head to get some rest before his next busy day.

Wednesday 16th October
On Wednesday, Willy was accompanied to London for the day by Collections Project Cataloguer Henrietta Hammant, catching the train (or as Willy called it a ‘trolley’) bright and early from Cambridge station. First stop was the British Museum where they had a look at the North American and Asia galleries as well as the Ancient Greek collection – ever-eager to capture every possible moment of his trip, Willy found much joy in not only seeing the displays first hand but making sure he got plenty of photos to show his friends and family back at home too!

Willy standing outside the British Museum

Up next was a quick trip on the tube to Green Park where Willy and Henrietta had a scenic walk to Buckingham Palace. Willy was not only amazed by the palace itself but delighted to find out the Queen was actually at home! Of course, not wanting to waste a second of their day Willy and Henrietta then set off for a walk through St James’ park to get to Westminster Abbey and then to the Houses of Parliament before crossing the river to see the London Eye. It was certainly a day packed full of London must-sees and landmarks and both Henrietta and Willy agreed it was a successful trip indeed!

Willy standing outside Buckingham Palace

Thursday 17th October
After a morning of free time followed by lunch with Henrietta, Willy set off to visit the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where, after a viewing of their Star Carr exhibition, he met Senior Curator of Anthropology, Dr Anita Herle and Liz Walsh, a PhD student who did her fieldwork on Alaska’s North Slope. Following tea it was then time to head up to the photographic collection to meet Manager of the Photographic Collections, Dr Jocelyne Dudding who shared some fantastic historic images from both Siberia and Alaska, he was even allowed to take some copies home as they featured people who were from his ancestral homelands.
Willy later enjoyed dinner with Liz Walsh where they both had a lovely time talking about Northern Alaska, with perhaps the highlight of all being that Willy was able to speak in a little Iñupiaq to her.

Friday 18th October
Willy started off his morning back in our Polar Library and much to his delight, whilst browsing through some of the books in our collection, he saw the familiar names of both friends and relatives as well as pictures of their artworks featured on the pages. Next, he took some time to have a look at The Polar Museum himself as, being so busy earlier in the week with activities, he hadn’t yet had chance to properly enjoy our collections in his own time!
Later in the day, Willy was due to give a talk in the temporary gallery as part of our Festival of Ideas events at The Polar Museum. Attending visitors received a private insight into the “Tikigaq: Point Hope, Life on Alaska’s North Slope” exhibition. Willy couldn’t have been happier to talk to the many intrigued visitors more personally after his talk.

Willy with a visitor at The Polar Museum

The day didn’t end there though, as Willy then attended both dinner at the University Centre and an Intelligence Seminar at Corpus Christi about ‘KGB “illegal” operations in England’ with SPRI Research Associate Bryan Lintott. Both Willy and Bryan had an enjoyable evening which rounded off Willy’s penultimate day in Cambridge.

Saturday 20th October
On his final day, Willy kindly came along to The Polar Museum’s Family Day where guests could see demonstrations of his skilled beadwork first hand and hear about his love of the Inupiat way of life whilst Willy himself was thrilled at the fact he got to meet people from all over the world – in fact we’re almost certain he spoke to every single one of the 944 visitors we had on the day!
Then before we knew it, and much to everyone’s sadness, it was time to say our goodbyes to Willy, though not without having a quick group photo beforehand of course…

Willy with Polar Museum staff

As a final treat, Henrietta took Willy for a slap-up last supper before he returned to his hotel ready for an early morning flight home to Arizona, after what was an incredibly special and memorable trip.

Polar Book Group: Mills and Boon at the Poles

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

As well as non-fiction works, the Polar Library also has a fairly extensive collection of fiction based in or about the Polar Regions. While predominantly of the adventure or thriller genres, there is a surprising amount of romantic fiction written about the Polar Regions. Among these items, 3 particular books stand out – they are 3 stories from Mills & Boon set in various cold parts of the world.

Mills & Boon has published many stories since its beginnings in 1908 – at first a more general publisher, it started targeting its marketing at female readers and the publisher today is known as one of the leading lights in romantic fiction. The stories cover a variety of settings and situations, from historical romance, to the paranormal, to relationships between medical professionals. In the early 80s this also extended to the cold areas of the world.

Frozen_Heart Arctic_Enemy Northern_Magic

In Frozen Heart (first published 1980), New Zealand Journalist Kerin manages to be included in a trip to the Antarctic, ostensibly as Information Officer but actually to act as an undercover psychological observer. However, the base commander, Dain Ransome, is someone she previously inadvertently snubbed and who has certain ideas about a woman’s place in Antarctica. Tensions run high through various events, including a night alone in a blizzard and a long Antarctic night…

Arctic Enemy (first published 1981) sees Canadian journalist Sarah Grey take part in the maiden voyage of a ship newly built and designed to sail the dangerous Arctic waters. While the ship’s owner Tony Freeland is nothing but charming, she finds herself irritated by yet drawn to his cousin, Guy Court, partner in Freeland’s firm and a harsh uncompromising Safety Inspector. Tensions run high through various events, including a trip into the Arctic ice, a night in a blizzard and a storm in an iceberg filled sea…

Finally, in Northern Magic (first published 1982) Shannon Hayes flies to Anchorage, Alaska to join her fiancé Rick. However, when she arrives, Rick is nowhere to be found and his apparent new employer, Cody Steele, doesn’t know anything of Rick’s whereabouts. He does try to help her find him however and tensions run high through various events including a night in an Alaskan cabin and a perilous flight in the Far North…

As you may have gathered from the above descriptions, the stories portrayed in these books are very similar in terms of plot and characters – it is possible to trace certain common traits between the beautiful female leads and their tall, dark (mostly) and handsome counterparts. However, in each case, the author demonstrates an excellent knowledge of the chosen region: knowing the perils of frostbite and concussion, how polar explorers survive in a blizzard, what causes the Northern Lights and so on. While they aren’t the epic stories of explorers of old, they do give us a little insight into what daily life in these situations is like.


Polar Book Group: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016







A little while ago, our Curator, Charlotte, asked for suggestions for Polar-themed reading. The response was both enthusiastic and eclectic, and covered everything from fiction to science, and from cultural history to biographies.

This has inspired some of us to write about some favourite Polar books, and we’ll be posting about them here over the next few months – our own Polar book group! The first post comes from the SPRI Librarian, Peter Lund, and is about a novel that he first read over 20 years ago: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

If you would like to contribute a blog post or review about your favourite Polar book, please e-mail us at – we’d love to see them!


It was, I think, December 1993 when I walked into Waterstone’s in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and first picked up Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  Forever settling down to read it in the midst of Christmas family get-togethers intrigued my family and friends – what makes this novel so compelling?

You get the chilling sense of atmosphere as well as a hint of Smilla’s displacement from Greenland from the opening lines:

“IT IS FREEZING, an extraordinary -180C, and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.”

Touch the language, breathe the description, then meet the bloody-minded, committed heroine, Smilla Jaspersen who engages you with her grit, panache and a style which is all her own. In the book’s first City-set section we are quickly drawn into her isolated existence, a Greenlander adrift in Copenhagen. The mystery of the death of Isaiah, a boy she befriended, son of her neighbour in her block of apartments is unveiled. We understand her need to investigate his seemingly accidental death, and her distrust of the authorities. During subsequent locations at Sea and on the Ice the mystery is cleverly developed, creating a masterpiece and the novel succeeds handsomely as a thriller.

Julia Ormond as Miss Smilla in the 1997 film adaptation Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Julia Ormond as Miss Smilla in the 1997 film adaptation Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

But what brings me to re-read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is much more than Nordic noir. I loved reliving the evocative description of place – be it Copenhagen at night, the base at Thule in Greenland or the glacial sense of ice and snow. I delighted in the many incidental scenes – how Smilla recognises a Volvo car shadowing her, her penchant for reading Euclid’s Elements to Isaiah, falling in love, her latent expertise in the physics of snow and ice. There’s the author’s casual, yet confident, grasp of technical details; Smilla doesn’t recognise any old rope, it’s:  “8mm Kernmantle double rope in bright alpine safety colours – a friend from the ice cap”.   Then there are the ironic throwaway lines at the end of some chapters bringing a sharp sense of humour. There’s so much to delight in reading and re-reading Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

In North Greenland distances are measured in siniks, by ‘sleeps’, the number of nights that a journey requires. It’s been many siniks since I first read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow: it’s been wonderful to rediscover this novel in the Scott Polar Research Institute Library.


Are Polar explorers more likely to be born on Christmas day?

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

It is a natural human instinct to look for patterns. While entering the birth and death dates for all the people involved in Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions into a database, I couldn’t help noticing familiar dates. I spotted two people with the same birthday as me (Robert Selbie Clark and Henry McNish), as well as men born on my wedding anniversary (Huberht Taylor Hudson), my mother-in-law’s birthday (James Murray) … and even one prescient soul (Thomas Taylor) who was born on Antarctica Day some 130 years before the day was even inaugurated!


Significant birthdays: (left to right) Robert Clark, Huberht Hudson and Thomas Taylor.

However, I also noticed what seemed to be a disproportionate number of birthdays on Christmas day. Was this a real trend? How could I tell if it was? Are Polar explorers really more likely to be born on Christmas day? Or rather, are you more likely to become a Polar explorer if you have a Christmas birthday?

Of the 230 different people in our database, we have the full date of birth for 105 of them (46%). Four were born on Christmas day: Arthur Samuel Bailey (born in 1878, took part in the Terra Nova expedition), Walter Ernest How (1885, Endurance) and William Lashly and William Lofthouse Heald (1867 and 1875, both Discovery and Terra Nova). That’s not even counting the two near-misses who were born on Boxing day: Frank Debenham (1883, Terra Nova) and Leslie Thompson (1886, Aurora). In fact, 16 people were born in December – a lot more than in any other month. The graph below – which uses polar co-ordinates, appropriately! – shows this strikingly:


Distribution of month of birth for crew members on Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions. Graph: Tom Sutch.

Bailey, How, Lashly and Heald make up 3.8% of the 105 known birth dates – about 14 times bigger than the 0.27% probability that somebody will be born on any given day (1/365.25 = 0.0027). So you might think this is proof that polar explorers are more likely to be born on Christmas day – and even that there is some link between these two circumstances. Surely this is more than coincidence?

It is not actually that remarkable to find two people who were born on the same day, even among quite a small group. A famous maths problem asks how many people you would need at a party for there to be a 50% chance that at least two of them share a birthday. The answer, somewhat counter-intuitively, is 23 – that is, if you have a group of 23 people, there is an even chance that at least two of them will be born on the same day. By the time you have 50 people at your party, there is a 97% chance that there will be at least one shared birthday. (To put it another way, there is only a 3% chance that all 50 people will have a unique birthday.) Given our group of 105 people, there is a probability of 99.9999% that some of them will have the same birthday – it would be really remarkable if none of them did.

This is not quite the same as our problem, however. The birthday problem assumes that it doesn’t matter which day is shared, which hugely increases the chance that you’ll find two people with a birthday in common. To find out how likely it is that four Polar explorers will have birthdays on Christmas day, you need to use the binomial distribution. This tells us that the probability of at least 4 people out of 105 being born on Christmas day is 0.02154% – very unlikely indeed.

Christmas babies: (clockwise from top) William Lashly, Arthur Bailey and Wally How.

Christmas babies: (clockwise from top) William Lashly, Arthur Bailey and Wally How.

Before I get too excited about this, a word of warning: this is a relatively small sample, and the date of birth is only known for 46% of our 230 Polar explorers. If none of the others were born on Christmas day (quite possible given that you’re more likely to record your birthday if it is on an “important” date), then the probability of at least 4 Christmas-born explorers goes up to 0.39% – nearly 20 times greater (but still quite unlikely). I have also assumed in my calculations that there is an equal chance of being born on any given day. In fact, birth frequencies fluctuate slightly throughout the year, with the most common birth month in Europe being July. We can’t assume that this was also true in nineteenth-century Britain – or elsewhere, given that some of the men on Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions were born in other countries. Nevertheless, it looks as if the high number of Christmas birthdays is more than just coincidence.

Why is this? It is already well known that your month of birth can affect everything from academic and sporting achievement to health or choice of career. Maybe having a significant birthday (like Christmas day) makes you more likely to stand out among your peers, and to follow an adventurous career? Or perhaps babies born in the depths of winter have an affinity for bleak, icy places?! Whatever the reason, it seems that Christmas babies really are more likely to become Polar explorers.

Merry Christmas!





An operatic chorus of angry penguins

Friday, November 20th, 2015

Earlier this week, some of our team went to a performance of On the Axis of This World, a new opera about Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole. The opera will be next be performed here at SPRI, in March 2016: more information will be coming soon on our website. In the meantime, here’s a guest post from SPRI’s Library Assistant, Martin French, about a very different opera inspired by the same expedition:


“Das Opfer (The Sacrifice): Klavier-Auszug mit Gesang – Winfried Zillig, (*7) : 91(08) [1910-13 Scott] [Zil]

Opfer - cover

This two part opera is loosely based on the story of the ill-fated Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The fact that the original explorers did not return from the expedition does not prevent Zillig from writing a triumphant ending – Oates leaves the team (the titular sacrifice) so that the others can survive and return.

And just in case there wasn’t enough tension, choruses of angry penguins express their displeasure at their realm being invaded. The work begins with a 4-part chorus introducing the work. However, on page 9 of the work, the following stage direction is given:

Opfer - stage direction

‘Der Chor beginnt seine Verwandlung in den Chor der Pinguine anzudeuten: da wird ein Kostüm umgeworfen, dort eine Maske aufgesetzt. Noch im Anfang dieser Entwicklung, beim Einsatz des Orchester-Zwischensatzes (Ouvertüre) wird es dunkel.’ [The chorus members start their transformation into the Penguin Chorus: here, a costume is put on, there a mask is worn. While this transformation is happening, when the Orchestra interlude (overture) starts, the lights go out.]

For the rest of the show, the chorus must sing and dance whilst dressed as penguins – they sing a ‘Spottchores’ (song of mockery) and a song of triumph with a victory dance. The chorus soon takes up the following cry:

“Niemals! Seit Ewigkeit sind nur wir hier, und so soll es in Ewigkeit sein. Oder es müßte ein neues Geschlecht von Männern entstanden sein und eine neue Weltzeit beginnen.” [Never! We have been here forever and we will be here forever. Unless a new type of Man comes into being and a new era begins.]

However, a soprano-alto duo reminds the chorus that “Verzweifelte sind am meisten zu fürchten” [Desperate men are the ones to be feared most]. The movement ends with the summoning of blizzard and hurricane to kill off the explorers and the victory dance begins.

All in all, the penguin chorus seems to be a surreal addition to the story. According to an article I found referring to this opera, the anti-human penguin chorus was added to find favour with the Nazi regime, since the explorers were supposed to conquer ‘envious subhuman races’ – however, since there aren’t actually any people indigenous to the Antarctic, they had to be replaced by penguins.

In a way, the penguin chorus and their antics almost seem to take precedence over the fate of Oates and his travelling companions. Whether this was intentional or not is uncertain, however it does effectively symbolise the perceived battle between Man and Nature in the extreme parts of the world.”



We couldn’t find any pictures of this opera in production – a shame as we would have loved to see the chorus of angry penguins! Instead, here are some pictures of angry penguins from around the Polar Museum:


(Clockwise from top: cuddly penguins from our shop (£8), penguins on our prize-winning cake, and Greta pretending to be an enraged spheniscid)

Friday fun: homemade hats for heroes

Friday, October 9th, 2015

We’ve been celebrating National Knitting Week at the Polar Museum all week! On Monday, I blogged about a pair of balaclavas that were knitted by the Empress Eugénie and her ladies for the crew of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-6.

On Tuesday, we welcomed some new woolly residents to the museum: a set of three miniature knitted explorers from the Heroic Age of Scott and Shackleton, together with six huskies, a pony, two sledges and lots of skis and ski poles. These have all been knitted for us by the immensely talented Eileen, and are full of accurate detail:


You can read more about our new woolly team members and what they will be doing in a new blog by our Education Officer, Naomi.

One of the great things about these figures is that everything they’re wearing has been hand-knitted – including the hand-knitted items! I tied myself in knots this morning, thinking about the meta implications of this (and the possibility of knitting a knitted figure that was wearing a knitted hat…) before deciding that recursive knitting was probably too silly a topic even for a Friday Fun blog post.


If you’ve been inspired by these pictures to try out some Heroic Age fashions, then you’ve come to the right place, especially as today is also Woolly Hat Day! While Greta was at the Science and Society conference in Durham recently, she picked up a flyer for an exhibition about Antarctica that is currently on at the Palace Green Library. As part of the exhibition, they are encouraging people to knit hats based on ones worn by Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, in order to raise money for the charity Walking with the Wounded. If you would like to join in, you can download the patterns from the website here.

When I saw the pattern, I thought that Tom Crean’s hat in particular looked very familiar. It’s exactly the same hat that he’s wearing in one of our archive photos:

Tom Crean. SPRI Picture Library P66/19/6A
Tom Crean. SPRI Picture Library P66/19/6A

It’s a curious style of hat, more like a snood or hood than a traditional bobble hat. With its decorative tassels at the corners, the designer suggests that it might work equally well as a tea cosy – I’ll report back if I ever get round to knitting one!

A few weeks ago, I came across the Spring 2015 issue of Knitting Traditions magazine, which contains an entire section devoted to knits inspired by the poles. Among the many intriguing and historically-inspired designs are a headband, a pair of socks and a hat. But best of all, there is a pattern based on a pair of mittens belonging to Edward Mackenzie that is in the Polar Museum:


I have previously blogged about these mittens, and look forward to comparing this pattern with the actual mittens in our collection!

If you fancy a more modern hat, albeit one that’s still focused on Antarctica, this one allows you to display the entire continent on your crown:


It was designed and knitted by Ken Mankoff, a geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University, during a long season of fieldwork in Antarctica. The long days (and nights) at the poles, not to mention the isolation, seem to be conducive to knitting: while researching this article, I discovered the Antarctica Knitters group, who spend their downtime on the ice creating beautiful patterns inspired by the landscape around them.

So, if you’re a knitter, I hope this post has inspired you to knit something polar-themed … and if you’re not a knitter, I promise that the blog will be free of woolly things next week. Happy Knitting Week!


Friday fun: grin and bear it

Friday, August 7th, 2015

One of the strangest things that I have encountered recently is an exhibition of mid-2oth century polar bear pictures from Germany. Collector Jean-Marie Donat has amassed hundreds of German photographs from 1920-1960 showing people posing for pictures with a polar bear (or rather, a person in a polar bear suit). The photographs include both formal and everyday occasions, and include schoolchildren, holidaymakers, soldiers and even pets.

Polar bears pop up in children’s portraits:


…at the beach:


…and even at weddings (if you click on the picture to see a bigger version, you’ll see that the bear has dressed for the occasion with a top hat):


One of the oddest things (for me) is the sense of normality that pervades these pictures. They are just ordinary snaps, of the sort that you might take on holiday or to mark a celebration … except that these pictures also have a polar bear in them! None of the people in the pictures seems fazed by this fact – as far as they are concerned, the bear is just another person in the scene.

I have no idea what sparked this particular photographic trend. One article hints that it may be related to Germany’s history of Arctic exploration, and its troubled relationship with Russia before and during the Second World War. Another article (in German) traces it back to tourist photos taken at beaches and funfairs in the 1930s: the incongruity of this fierce, exotic animal in a domestic setting was part of the fun.  Whatever the reason, the photos serve as a reminder that polar bears should be seen as friends rather than foes – indeed, they are more threatened by us than we are by them.

You can see more of these fascinating (and slightly baffling) photos here.


Friday fun (on a Monday): solar eclipse and solar compass

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

When I got into work on Friday, I was eagerly anticipating the first solar eclipse to be visible in the UK since 1999. Sadly, the sky above Cambridge was very overcast that morning, so the eclipse itself was a bit underwhelming. Here’s the view from my desk at 9.30am, when the eclipse was at its deepest:


It didn’t look much darker than a normal, gloomy March day!

However, the eclipse did remind me about one of my favourite objects in the Polar Museum, so I’m going to write about that instead:


This is a sun compass that was made and used on the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13 (Terra Nova).  A sun (or solar) compass was a useful instrument for navigation in situations where you can’t use a magnetic (needle) compass.

Magnetic compasses are of limited use in Antarctica for several reasons. Firstly, there are not one but three South Poles: the geographic South Pole, the geomagnetic South Pole, and the magnetic South Pole. The Geographic South Pole is what most people mean when they talk about the “South Pole” and was the point that Scott and Amundsen were racing to reach in 1912. There are two geographic poles, South and North, and they are the the northernmost and southernmost points on the earth’s surface (at 90°N and 90°S). If you imagine giant rod going right through the middle of the earth, and the earth spinning around this axis, the geographic poles would be located at the points where the rod went through the earth’s surface.

The magnetic and geomagnetic South Poles are not in the same location as the geographic South Pole – in fact, the magnetic South Pole is currently nearly 3000km away from the geographic South Pole! If you draw a line from your location to the geographic South Pole, and another one to the magnetic South Pole, the two lines will form an angle, known as the magnetic declination. In many parts of the world, the declination will be very small, but as you approach a geographic or magnetic pole, the difference can become very large. If you were standing halfway between the geographic and magnetic South Poles, the declination would be 180°, and your compass would be leading you in completely the wrong direction!

The magnetic South Pole is important for navigation because it is the point where the earth’s geomagnetic field is vertical: the magnetic poles are the points that the needle on a compass are attracted to. This can be useful for navigators, but also provides them with a bit of a headache: when you’re directly over a magnetic pole, the needle on your compass no longer spins round to point to the pole but instead tries to point straight up or down because the magnetic field is vertical at that point. If your compass doesn’t have an appropriate counterweight, the compass needle can break against the casing.

Another problem with trying to navigate by the magnetic poles is that they don’t stay still, but are constantly “wandering” relative to the earth’s surface. At the moment, the magnetic South Pole is drifting northwest by about 15 km per year. You might know where the it was last time it was surveyed, but it’s quite likely to have moved since then…

Finally, traditional navigation methods can be difficult in Antarctica because there is a lot of natural geomagnetic variation. On Ross Island, there is so much iron in the rock that magnetic compasses are virtually unusable and you have to use other, non-magnetic methods. This is where the sun compass comes in!

The sun compass above was made and used during the Terra Nova expedition, and was designed to be used in the vicinity of the the magnetic South Pole. It is made from wood, with a hand-written paper disc stuck to the top. The disc is divided into two sets of 12 hours (am and pm), and also has compass bearings marked in red around the outside. There is a hole in the middle of the circle that would originally have had a needle stuck in it – this casts a shadow on the face of the compass, a bit like the gnomon on a sundial. According to our collections database, “sun compasses or portable sundials  have been used in expeditions, particularly in the vicinity of the magnetic poles. This instrument affords a means of finding the time if the meridian is known, or the meridian if the time is known. It may be set with the help of a watch chronometer and held in the hand while marching. The error is no greater than that of a sluggish magnetic compass.”

The men on the Terra Nova expedition would have known the time accurately because they had chronometers with them. A meridian is a line of longitude – if you walk due south along any meridian, you will eventually end up at the geographic South Pole (which is what Scott’s men were aiming for!). This particular sun compass is marked “Cape Evans, Lat 78°S, Dec 1st” (click on the picture above to see a bigger version).

This isn’t the only sun compass in our collection – or even the only one from the Terra Nova expedition. The one below was made by Raymond Priestley and was used by Apsley Cherry-Garrard on the Terra Nova expedition:


As you can see, it has a very similar design to the other one. We also have this sun compass, which was made by Edward Wilson and used on the southern sledge journey of the Discovery expedition (Scott’s first Antarctic expedition):


I love these objects for their simplicity and homemade charm – they prove that, sometimes, simple methods beat high-tech ones, and that you can always find your way if you know where the sun is (except during an eclipse…).


Friday fun: rolling down to old Maui

Friday, December 5th, 2014

I’m working from home today, which means I have the luxury of being able to listen to music (and sing along very loudly) while I type! One of the tracks I keep coming back to is Old Maui, from The Works by Spiers and Boden:

The Spiers and Boden version is based on a whaling song from the 1850s called Rolling Down to Old Mohee. Unlike many other whaling songs from the period, this is not a work song. Instead, it tells of the sailors’ longing for home after a season catching bowhead whales in the “bold Kamchatka Sea” (now the Sea of Okhotsk).

Whaling was a thoroughly miserable business. The ships faced constant threats from storms and ice floes – and even from the whales themselves, who could capsize a vessel while thrashing around. If you were lucky enough to catch a whale, it had to be hauled onto the deck of the ship, skinned and rendered down into train oil (melted, purified blubber). This messy, stinking process was carried out in a giant metal cauldron called a try pot. We have a try pot from the Antarctic sealing industry right outside our building:


The third verse of Old Maui vividly expresses these hazards and hardships:

Through many a blow of frost and snow and bitter squalls of hail
Our spars were bent and our canvas rent as we braved the northern gale.
The cruel isles of ice-capped tiles that deck the Arctic sea
Are many, many leagues astern as we sail to old Maui.

After several months in the icy Siberian seas, the Hawaiian island of Maui, where ships were refitted at the end of the whaling season, must have seemed like a paradise. Another version of this song, by Jeff Warner, hints at attractions beyond the “green hills” and “coconut fronds”:

How soft the breeze from the island trees now the ice is far astern,
And them native maids and them island glades is awaiting our return.
Even now their big, black eyes look out hoping some fine day to see,
Our baggy sails running ‘fore the gales rolling down to old Maui.

(The “baggy sails” in the last line suggest gentle tropical breezes rather than stormy gales.)

I’m particularly taken by this song because it reminds me of several objects in the Polar Museum. We have a collection of prints from 1856, taken from drawings made during a journey across eastern Siberia in 1852. The drawings date from the same time as Rolling Down to Old  Mohee and show some of the places and people that the whalers might have encountered:



“Le port de st pierre et paul au kamtchatka”, N:1230/28 (top) and “Kamtchadals, une halte en hiver”, N:1230/23 (bottom), Scott Polar Research Institute

A more modern view of this region was given in a recent exhibition in the Polar Museum, which showed photographs from the Siberian port of Magadan.

I’m also reminded of our large collection of scrimshaw, decorative whalebone objects that were made by people involved with the whaling industry. Whaling expeditions were long and tedious and some sailors spent their free time carving and engraving whalebone. Many pieces of scrimshaw show images of whaling and maritime warfare, but others show exotic scenes from foreign countries or wistful images of home. I’ve chosen the piece below because it dates from the 1850s (the same time as Rolling Down to Old Mohee), but also because it it has a more humorous image than most. One side shows a woman caught in a storm that has blown her umbrella away – perhaps the sailor who made it is contrasting the “bitter blasts” of the Kamchatka Sea with a blustery day back home?


Whale tooth, Y: 62/15/5, Scott Polar Research Institute