skip to primary navigation skip to content


Object in Focus « The Polar Museum: news blog

Object in Focus

Museum Speed Dating – Shackleton in the Spotlight

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

Ernest Shackleton was an eminent polar explorer who voyaged to the Antarctic four times, leading three of his own expeditions. On two of those expeditions he made ‘furthest South’ records on his attempts on the South Pole. He was also responsible for (amongst many other achievements) one heroic open-boat sea crossing to rescue his men from certain death. Shackleton is undoubtedly an iconic figure of the twentieth century, and one that we are proud to represent through our collection of fascinating, poignant and unique objects in the Polar Museum, archives and picture library.

Now we want you to vote for your favourite Shackleton object.

Sir Ernest Shackleton

What does Shackleton have to do with our new hashtag – #MuseumSpeedDating? No, the Polar Museum hasn’t decided to branch out into matchmaking (though I’m sure our penguin could thaw even the iciest of hearts!). Instead, this is a new way to show you some more of our Shackleton collection, and find out what you’d like to see more of too. Using this hashtag, we’ve posted 10 short films across all of our social media channels about some of the amazing objects in our collection.

We’re inviting you to vote for your favourite object by liking or sharing its short film on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. The objects with the most votes will be made into longer, more in-depth films by a professional filmmaker. They’ll help us to draw out not only what’s fascinating about the objects themselves, but what they can tell us about who Shackleton was and how he lived. These longer films will also include material from our archive and picture library which will throw even more light on Shackleton as a man and a leader.

This project all started with a grant we received from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to help us grow, improve and interpret our collection of objects relating to Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, for which he is perhaps best known, ran from 1914-1917 and having had the centenary of that momentous journey recently, we knew that this would be the perfect time to tell you more about all of Shackleton’s expeditions to that remote continent. We wanted to talk about the feats of scientific knowledge-building, as well as geographical exploration, which he achieved.

Shackleton is a man who lived a full life, typified by his expeditions to the Antarctic, of course, but full of people, relationships, and objects – some of which we’re lucky enough to look after. So we have spent some time researching what we have in our collection, and what they say about the man and the life he led. Uncovering some of the more surreal stories gave us greater insight into Shackleton’s truly pioneering personality and determination: like the plaque for a small boat named the ‘Raymond’ which he might have been planning to drag with him across the entire Antarctic continent before his plans were foiled. Other objects, like the barometer purportedly used to measure the height of the Antarctic volcano Mount Erebus by Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David on the British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod), show the gumption, grit and scientific merit of the men he took on his expeditions.

Raymond Plaque. Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

There’s the chronometer which helped to navigate the 800 mile open-boat journey Shackleton was forced to make from Elephant Island to South Georgia to rescue his stranded crew. The sledging flag, made by a female family member, and attached to Shackleton’s sledge on his attempts on the South Pole during the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04 (Discovery) and British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09 (Nimrod). There’s even an unopened tin of Lipton’s tea which made it all the way to the Antarctic and all the way back to the UK without ever being drunk.

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Sledging Flag.
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Lipton Tea.
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

In fact, all of the objects in our collection have different and exciting stories to tell. So it was not without some heartache that we finally narrowed down our choices to just 10 objects that we thought would represent all the multi-faceted aspects of Shackleton visible in our collections.

We’re really excited to ask you to help us decide which objects to focus on. So why not take our ten objects on a one minute speed date, work out which ones you would like to know better, and let us know – so that we can tell you more about them. Remember, voting for your favourite is as easy as liking or sharing the film!

All I can say is, having got to know all of the objects pretty well over the last few weeks, I don’t envy you having to pick just three!



The Inukshuk is Back!

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Some of you will have noticed the gap between the harpoon and the blubber pot on the grass outside the Institute in recent months. The person-shaped stone cairn, or inukshuk as it is more commonly known in the Arctic, has been in conservation for nearly a year. Now it’s back on display and looking better than ever.

Inukshuk unveiled after restoration

The inukshuk has guarded the West entrance to the Institute since the 1970s, when it was lifted into place with a crane and reassembled piece by piece using a grainy black-and-white photo taken in Canada where it was originally purchased. It was moved again to its current position in 2010 and put together in the same way, using lots of cement to fix each of the heavy pieces of pink granite in place. You might see in the before-picture here it had built up a rather unsightly waistband that we had cruelly taken to calling its ‘muffin top’.

Inukshuk at SPRI before damage

Sadly, in 2017 its powerful waistline did little to protect it from the attention of one excited visitor and the inukshuk broke in two! Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the sculpture itself was immediately boarded up to prevent any further damage—the pieces are too heavy to lift by hand. A talented team of conservators was then engaged to take on the job of rebuilding and stabilising it.

Conservators at Patina Art Collection Care worked closely with us to get an impression of the original vision of the Inuit sculptor, Aqjangajuk Shaa. Every effort was made to contact Shaa, but to no avail. Luckily, a thorough search of the archives unearthed more pictures of the inukshuk in its original site at Kinngait (Cape Dorset) in the 1960s, which did give some idea of how it once stood.

Inukshuk in Canada 1960s

We were surprised to learn that its right arm has been upside-down ever since it was first displayed here. It remained upside-down even when it was moved in 2010, and again in 2013 when the arm was damaged and reattached. We took advantage of the new repairs to correct this and also to ever so slightly reposition the legs to give the impression of movement, which was also more apparent in the early pictures.

It was great watching Dee and Ricky from Mtec using their crane to lift it back into place and to see it all come together over several days. The granite pieces were expertly drilled through where it wouldn’t be visible, so that metal dowels could be used to hold the sculpture together and fix it securely to the concrete base. Lyndsey and Andrew from Patina also thought very hard how to place the toes, which were previously swamped in cement. The joins are now altogether cleaner, more fluid and sturdier than they were before, and even the old break from 2013 was retouched so it can hardly be seen.

MTec begin the installation process

Sadly, we recently heard that Aqjangajuk Shaa (1937-2019) died in March this year, just as we were making arrangements for his inukshuk’s return. We hope you’ll agree that the inukshuk in its newly re-invigorated state is a fitting tribute to Shaa’s legacy as a celebrated artist, and will give plenty of joy for generations to come.

The MTec and Patina Art team

Ship-shape again! The fully conserved silver Terra Nova model revealed at last

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

This extraordinary solid silver model of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova was generously donated to the museum in 2010 by Scott’s descendants.  At that point it looked as if it had weathered a few storms:

the Terra Nova model after a few storms

The masts were bent and a lot of the rigging was broken or missing sections.  There was also a very distracting yellow coating over the metal which made it look almost more like a brass model than a silver one.

On closer inspection there were lots of old repairs to the model, either with solder, or with new wire rigging which didn’t match the old, or with original rigging wire repositioned or used to tie loose bits on.  Even the bowsprit was held on with a blob of Blu-tak inside the hull.  All in all it would be a daunting task to try and restore some of its original beauty.  And why did it look so battered in the first place?

The model was actually a present to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s son Peter, given to him in honour of his father’s gallantry in 1913, soon after the news of Scott’s death was announced in Britain.  The subscribers of “John Bull Magazine” had a whip-round and commissioned the model for Peter, whom they called “John Bull’s boy”.  Peter was 4 at the time.

To a modern eye it seems extraordinary enough to make a ship model out of sterling silver, although in fact this was in vogue in the 1910’s and this one was made by the famous London silversmiths, Mappin and Webb.  It seems even more unusual to give such a thing as a present to a 4 year-old boy.  But the damage to the rigging, masts and bowsprit, not to mention the amateur repairs, all show that Peter must have played with the ship (and possibly dropped it), and that it was part of his life.  Peter’s family remember the ship being in their childhood home, and from there it was very kindly given to the museum.

When conserving the model we wanted to repair much of the damage without losing all traces of this history, which is what makes the ship unique.  The first stage was to remove the old yellow coating.  This was originally applied to stop the ship from tarnishing, but had become disfiguring in its own right.  Removing it was enormously time-consuming, and was done with the help of ultra-violet light, as described in an earlier blog post.

Once the coating was gone and the silver gently polished, repairs to the masts and rigging could start.  We had a choice to take the model to a specialist conservation silversmith, who could deconstruct the rigging and completely restore it.  But this would erase all the quirks introduced by Peter Scott over the years and lose an important part of the ship’s story.  So instead the repairs were done by me, as the in-house conservator at the museum, using less interventive techniques.

As a non-rigging expert, understanding the rig and repairing it was an intimidating prospect, so I enlisted help from Janet West, Emeritus Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute and a renowned expert on scrimshaw.  Understanding ship rigging is bread and butter to her and we spent invaluable hours looking at the model and comparing it to photos of the Terra Nova in Antarctica.  It turned out that, although the hull was a perfect replica of the ship (according to the original plans) the rigging was very approximate and could not have worked in real life.  To be fair to the model maker, it would be almost impossible to rig the model realistically because the number of criss-crossing wires would become overwhelming.

Talking with Janet gave me confidence to start repairing the rigging.  I began with the footropes which hold the sails furled and then entered a hugely enjoyable flow state repairing everything else.  I used very fine nylon thread, archival tissue and adhesive to tie and reconnect the fine wires together.  I repositioned some original wire that had been wound round things to get it out of the way and by the end found that there was actually much less missing rigging than I first thought.  This is the finished article:

the newly conserved model

The result now strikes a balance – the ship still shows evidence of its past but has regained some of its “wow factor” too.

Sophie Rowe

What on earth is an IMP?

Thursday, November 2nd, 2017


In my time at the Polar Museum, I looked at every single Antarctic object in the collection for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, and can reveal that my favourite object is the ‘IMP’, mostly because of its sheer bizarreness.

During the project we found five medical boxes from the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58 (CTAE), two of which were mysteriously labelled ‘IMP’. IMP, as it turns out, stands for Integrating Motor Pneumotachograph. The IMP was developed in the 1950s by Dr Heinz Wolff to determine energy expenditure. At the time, there was a lot of interest in research on cold adaptation and survival, and the IMP was part of an ambitious programme of physiological experiments devised by Dr Allan Rogers, the medical officer on the expedition, to be conducted during the winter and throughout the trans-continental journey on the CTAE.

The IMP consisted of an air pump and flowmeter housed in a plastic box, which connected on one side with a mask fitted over the face and on the other with a sample-collecting unit packed in a bag worn on the back. The IMP measured the total volume of air breathed out by the wearer over a given time, and from this expired air it automatically took representative (or integrated) samples collected in glass ampoules which could then be analysed to determine the oxygen consumption. There’s a great video of the IMP in action (at 1:23).

Wearing the IMP was not a popular activity – the men had to be bribed and press-ganged into doing so – and only one man, Geoff Pratt, managed to wear it day and night for a whole week (only removing it to eat and drink). Pratt described the experience: ‘having continuously to breathe through the mouth leads to unpleasant dryness and outside in the cold the front teeth become “edgy”. You never, for a single moment, escape from a suffocating feeling and a very conscious effort in breathing’.(1) And he got frostbitten on his face during the experiment! But things were not much easier for Rogers, who had to remain constantly near Pratt in order to change the ampoules and keep an eye on the instruments, and even stayed awake at night to make sure the mask remained in place while Pratt slept. There’s a great photo by George Lowe of Pratt wearing the IMP. (2)


We have lots of associated IMP equipment that we don’t fully understand what it’s for – gas canisters, a lot of tubing, syringe-like things and a strange electrical unit for example, as well as mouth pieces, nose clips, and lots of spare transistors (click here to view the IMP items on the catalogue). But my favourite bits are the face masks, which were adapted from an RAF rubber face mask, with the cheeks lined with chamois leather. Some of them have foil-backed green felt covers safety pinned to them (which may have been to prevent condensed breath freezing on the masks).  The best bit is that quite a few of the masks we have are marked with the names of the wearer: ‘Geoff’ (John Geoffrey Drewe Pratt); ‘Taffy’ (E. Williams); ‘V.E.F.’ (Bunny Fuchs); ‘Ralph’ (Ralph Lenton); and ‘Roy’ (Desmond Homard).

The IMP was a big improvement on other instruments for measuring energy expenditure but in this case it proved to be a failure. The various components, such as the transistors and batteries, were unreliable and on his return to Britain, Rogers found that the breath samples that had been collected had been contaminated and the entire experiment rendered completely useless!

  • (1) Haddesley, S. (2012). Shackleton’s Dream: Fuchs, Hillary and the Crossing of Antarctica. The History Press. p.121.
  • (2) Lowe, G. and Lewis-Jones, H. (2014). The Crossing of Antarctica: Original Photographs from the Epic Journey that Fulfilled Shackleton’s Dream. London: Thames and Hudson, pp.126-127.


Solving the “Mystery of the Wilson sledge runner”

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The mystery of the ‘Morning’ tablecloth

Monday, January 9th, 2017


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


“Terra Nova” sails into the museum at last

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

The Polar Museum has 17 ship models which are mini replicas of vessels used in famous expeditions to the North and South. So I was surprised to discover that until very recently the Museum did not have any model of Scott’s ship “Terra Nova”. That is why there has been no display of this ship in the gallery – until now.

Polar Museum buffs might remember that we do have a model of the Terra Nova made entirely out of silver, very kindly given to us in 2010 by the descendants of Robert Falcon Scott. This needs highly specialized conservation work to repair it and we are actively fundraising for this to be done by a conservation silversmith. But until this work is completed it can’t be put on display.

However, we now also have a traditional wooden scale model of the Terra Nova, very kindly donated by Lindsey Westcott. Lindsey is a descendant of Robert Forde, who served as Chief Petty Officer on the Terra Nova Expedition in 1910-13, and took part in sledging journeys to the Cape in 1911.

The model is a 1:96 scale replica, made by Colin Freeman exactly according to the original ship plans which are held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We decided it would be a perfect addition to the ship model case in the museum gallery:


There was no spare space in the ship model display, so we decided to replace the model of the Gjøa, which was the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, sailed by Roald Amundsen. The ship models are all suspended from very fine steel wire in fitted metal cradles, which look a bit like birds when the model is taken out:


The Terra Nova hull is not the same shape as the Gjøa, so new cradles had to be made. Once again we called on the services of trusty mountmaker Bob Bourne to make fitted cradles for the new model. Then we swapped the two ships over:


Here are the Gjøa and the Terra Nova sailing past eachother on the museum trolley – something which never happened in real life.

There are numerous famous photos of the Terra Nova taken by Herbert Ponting and others, all in black and white. Personally I really like the splashes of colour on the model which remind you that of course the ship was not black and white in real life.  Also the fine detail is amazing:


Because of the way it was installed, we could not re-use the steel wires which were used to hang the Gjøa, so we had to get new wire. Finding the right thickness to match the rest of the display was tricky, until Bob sourced some very fine twisted steel wire in a fishing shop. Apparently it is the perfect thing for catching pike! The wires were threaded through the new cradle, and the Terra Nova could be hung in place:


The ship display now shows the Erebus, the Nimrod, the Fram, and the Terra Nova, and so reflects much more closely the stories of Franklin, Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen which are told in the museum gallery. So many thanks to Lindsey Westcott!


Object in Focus: carving in ivory of a polar bear hunting a seal

Friday, December 18th, 2015

willow3 willow2

The polar bear, the harbinger of Christmas consumerism and more recently the living symbol of climate change has a much older and more magical reputation in their native range within the Arctic Circle, born from their long established relationship with the Inuit people with whom they have shared their frozen world for thousands of years.


Carving of a polar bear hunting a seal, Polar Museum Y: 88/1/24.

Traditionally the Inuit carved with bone or ivory, and would make small objects such as this polar bear from Baffin Island, Nunavut (the largest island in Canada). We have several carvings of polar bears in our collections, all of which could fit into the palm of your hand and could be carried from camp to camp.  The Inuit lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving with the seasons in search of caribou, muskox, seal or fish.  The carvings were therefore of necessity small and easily handled, and could be viewed from any angle, they were not ‘scenes’ to be set on a shelf and admired (as with much of modern Inuit art), but instead were transportable objects, of arctic fauna, daily life and myths, created as teaching tools, toys, or for use in religious rituals.

So you can see just how small these carvings are, here’s the same bear with a penny for scale:


Carving of a polar bear hunting a seal, Polar Museum Y: 88/1/24.

…and here’s an even smaller one:


Carving of a polar bear, Polar Museum Y: 88/1/20.

…and here’s a REALLY tiny one:


Carving of a polar bear, Polar Museum Y: 74/9/4.

Culturally the Inuit believed in three worlds – living humans, animals, and spirits – with these worlds often colliding and becoming intertwined. Their religion was based on animism: the belief that all living and non-living things had a soul, and consequently their world was populated with Demons and Deities. They had shamans who acted as mediators between the spirit and the supernatural world, and who could summon spirit helpers, or ‘tornaq’, at will.  The Inuit believed that the greatest danger they faced was from the spirits of the animals they had to kill for food and clothing, or from the Demons and Deities whose spirits might take revenge if the animals were not treated with due respect after being killed.

The polar bear, in Inuit culture, was a mystical and spiritual animal, greatly respected for their cunning and for their prowess as a top predator.  But the reverence went beyond simple respect of their strength or hunting skills, for in Inuit mythology the polar bear was considered ‘almost man’ and it was believed that the spirits of polar bears and humans were interchangeable.  The polar bear was also imbued with many supernatural powers.  They were shape-shifters and could transform themselves into ‘human’ form by removing their bear skin, and becoming a bear again by putting it back on. They could also transform into birds or ice to elude hunters. The polar bear’s likeness could also be incorporated into a Tupilak, an avenging monster used by a Shaman to harm his enemies, a much feared curse:


Tupilak hunter and seal, Polar Museum Y: 2010/10/75.

The polar bear was the most prized of the hunt.  Legend has it that the polar bear spirit was the most powerful, dangerous, and potentially revengeful spirit after that of the Demon Goddess Sedna, Mother of the Sea Beasts:


Carving in serpentine of the sea goddess Sedna, Polar Museum Y: 2005/7/1.

The Inuit believed that if they worshiped the polar bear, he would allow himself to be killed by them, and then if treated with due respect, he would encourage living polar bears to allow themselves be killed by the same hunter – and so that hunter would be successful in future hunts. They had a special set of complicated taboos and rituals that  needed to be observed  in order to be respectful of the polar bear – more so that for any other animal as the polar bear’s spirit was considered very dangerous if offended, and may persecute the hunter or his family with illness or other misfortune. There were many gestures of respect and kindness, for example, the skin of the polar bear had to be hung in a particular place in the hunter’s home for a prescribed period of time;  the bear spirit should be offered appropriate spirit tools, and be given water to drink (as polar bears were thought to be perpetually thirsty).  It was not always easy to pay due respect as the gestures were many and complicated, and must be done in a prescribed way so as not to cause offence.

Just to confuse matters even further, it was believed that the polar bears’ spirits could also be benevolent towards man, if they chose to be – they might provide captured prey to those who were hungry, or would torment others who would not share their food with those less fortunate. Legend had it that the Inuit’s ancestors learned how to hunt seals by watching polar bears, and the polar bear would often be the tornaq for the Shaman, who would carry a carving of this animal about his person.

The polar bear then, powerful and mighty in the flesh, small and transportable in the hand, was the subject of a whole range of myths and legends in Inuit culture. Comfortable in the water as on ground, inspiring respect as much as fear, the polar bear was central to the Inuit’s belief system for thousands of years. Who would have thought that something so small held so much significance?


Object in focus: self-heating cocoa tin

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

This post is the first in a new occasional series in this blog: Object in Focus. Members of the Polar Museum team will write about an object from our collection that interests them – it could be big or small, Arctic or Antarctic, famous or obscure, on display or buried in our stores … anything that has caught our eye recently and that we’d like to share with you! I’m going to kick off with a real oddity that I discovered while we were doing a practice condition survey for this season’s UKAHT team: the self-heating cocoa tin.


Yes, it is a tin of Heinz “cocoa milk” that can heat up inside the tin, giving you a hot drink in minutes without the need for a separate fire or heater.

The tins were developed by Heinz in the early 1940s. The range included six types of soup (oxtail, kidney, cream of chicken, cream of celery, cream of green pea, and mock turtle), malt milk and cocoa milk. The idea of the self-heating tin was not new – for example, here is a patent from 1907 for a self-heating tin invented by the Aetna Self-Heating Company (you can see a replica of the original tins here). These earlier tins had a chamber filled with calcium oxide (quicklime), which produces a great deal of of heat when mixed with water. However, the Heinz versions used a different mechanism that had been invented and patented by the chemical company ICI. Inside the tin was a tube filled with smokeless fuel (some sources say cordite!) that was ignited with a fuse at the top of the tin. Within 4 minutes, the tin and its contents were piping hot and could be poured out. Anyone could have a hot meal without cooking apparatus.


The British Army included self-heating tins in soldiers’ ration packs for the first time during the Normandy landings of June 1944. They must have seemed like an attractive proposition: hot food for tired troops who were waiting in tense and uncertain situations, without the need for fires that could give away their position to the enemy. The reality was somewhat different, however. If the instructions were not followed absolutely to the letter, then the tins could burst or even explode, showering you with the hot contents.

Here’s Sophie reading the rather terrifying-sounding instructions on the back of our tin:

cocoa1  cocoa2

They say:








The underlined instructions were absolutely crucial if the tins were to be used safely – and, unfortunately, they weren’t always. Soldiers were often careless with the instructions, lighting the wick prematurely, or with a cigarette, or not punching the holes correctly. One veteran, Ray Eaglen, remembers being issued with these tins by the British Army in 1944, when he was sent to France during the Normandy landings:

“Hundreds of soldiers were packed into the Liberty Ships like sardines. There was scarcely room to sleep, sanitary arrangements were primitive and there was little in the way of food. At one stage we were issued with army biscuits and cans of self-heating soup. One lighted a touch paper in the top of the can and after a while a hot can of soup was produced, at least that was the theory. From time to time unfortunately, we had cans which exploded, showering hot soup on anyone within range.”

Another soldier, Lawrence McHugh, remembers a colleague getting hot tomato soup in his ears because he had punched the tin in the sides rather than the top!

This film footage from the Imperial War Museum shows soldiers waiting to depart for Normandy prior to the D-day landings. Right at the end of the film (at about 3 minutes and 15 seconds), you can see one of these self-heating tins in use, being lit with a Swan Vesta match. Unfortunately, the film ends before we see if the outcome was a lovely warm drink of cocoa milk or a scalded ear…

Our tins (we have two, both of cocoa milk) date from a bit later than the second world war. They were brought back from the Antarctic in the 1950s by John Cheal, a surveyor with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (which later became the British Antarctic Survey), who had Cheal Point named after him. Both our tins are unopened, so presumably still contain both their cocoa milk and the heating mechanism. It would be interesting to know if they are still self-heating after all these years, but obviously we can’t try this out as they are museum objects. I will just have to try one of the other brands of self-heating tin that are sold today – although this description of the contents as “brown, lumpen, heavily spiced sludge” sounds rather less appealing than a delicious mug of Heinz cocoa milk!