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Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate

Monday, December 9th, 2019

On the 30th November we were delighted to welcome back our twelve teenage co-curators to celebrate the launch of their exhibition ‘Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate’.

After a week of incredibly hard work in August this year, the then year 12 students had provided our museum team with a detailed framework for their exhibition. Since then, a lot has happened – the student’s ideas have been made into a reality, and the students themselves have moved into year 13 and completed their university applications. Let’s have a catch up.

Welcoming back the student curators

The exhibition is all about climate change – current research, stories of empowerment and hope for the future. The co-curators were adamant that this should not be an exhibition to upset people, but to educate them in up-to-date scientific facts, and encourage them that co-operation is the way forward. The way they wanted this information to be presented is often striking, and there are a number of new features which have not been seen before in our temporary gallery space.

Exhibition display

A large floor sticker can be found in front of the Institute reception desk. A map of the Antarctic, it shows scientific bases located across the continent, as well as the animals which live on and around it. Small flocks of penguins bump up against McMurdo station, while the seas are filled with whales and fish. Bringing a youthful feel to this part of the exhibition, this map has already been a hit with some of our youngest visitors – allowing them to stand on the Antarctic and perhaps imagine themselves as the polar explorers of the future.

Antarctic floor sticker

The inclusion of a ‘voting wall’, with thought-provoking questions set to change over the course of the exhibition, was high on the co-curators’ priority list. With counters to make your views known, it has already sparked conversations within the Institute. Keep an eye on our social media channels for the results.

Voting wall

There is also information about the youth strikes, a topic which was very close to the hearts of our young co-curators. The ‘collage wall’ featuring posters and images from youth strikes in the UK and Inuvik in Northern Canada certainly brings home that this is a global issue, being addressed by a global community. The wall itself has already been incredibly well documented as the backdrop to hundreds of selfies using the hashtag #ThinIceExhibition.

Climate protest wall

Alongside these unusual exhibition features, there is a fantastic selection of objects from the museum’s collection, chosen by the co-curators, and a lot of information about our changing climate. From information about the historic explorers and the data they collected hundreds of years ago, to cutting-edge information about the unprecedented changes we are now recording in atmospheric carbon levels, there is something for everyone to see, read, do and enjoy.

While this has been a fantastic project to bring to life – taking the co-curation team’s ideas and making them a reality – the real highlight was seeing them all again at our launch event. This group of teenagers began the process feeling unsure as to whether Cambridge might be for them, and they all left saying that they felt as if they’d never been away. With university applications for this term now in full swing, we wish them all the best of luck with their further studies, and hope that they know they are welcome back any time!
If you’d like to come and see ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, to vote on the voting wall, stand on the floor sticker and maybe even take a selfie in front of the collage wall, it will be running until the end of March 2020.

A Special Visitor – Part Two. Willy’s Diary

Monday, December 9th, 2019

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.

A Special Visitor – Part One

Monday, December 9th, 2019

One of the real joys of working in museums is being able to invite guests from our ‘source communities’ to see the museum and visit the objects in our care. Source communities are the real people and places which the objects in our collections come from. So building and maintaining relationships with these people and places is incredibly important.
The Institute was thrilled, therefore, to invite Willy Topkok, an Iñupiaq man and artist from northern Alaska, to visit the museum for a week. SPRI has many links to Alaska and to life in the northern reaches of the State, so we couldn’t wait to learn even more from him. Willy came to talk to us about his life and skills as a traditional artist, and even spoke about some of the objects in our collection. “The Polar Museum was excellent. I saw my late grandfather’s name Frank Elanna, with pictures of his beautiful ivory carvings, along with Uncle Mose Millgrock’s ivory carvings, uncle Lincoln Millergrock’s ivory carvings, my cousin Charlie Kokuluk’s ivory carvings. Paul Tiulana, Justin, Eugene Tiulana’s carvings. I was fascinated to see these beautiful names in Cambridge, UK.”

Willy outside the Polar Museum

One of Willy’s favourite topics of conversation is his Iñupiaq heritage and family history, and he charmed many people with his stories during his visit. Willy’s parents hailed from the small villages of Teller and Wales on the west coast of Alaska. This part of the US juts out into the Bering Straight – reaching towards Russia and the International Date Line just a few miles away. Willy’s life is intertwined with these two countries, so culturally different and yet so geographically close.
Willy writes, “My late mother had this tiny little picture in her Bible. She used to always show me the picture and tell me her mother was very good at sewing. This picture was taken in 1926. She [Willy’s mother] was three years old and holding on to her mother’s hand in the picture. She is the little girl on the bottom right. Louise Tungwenuk Topkok Todd, my grandmother, was born about the late 1800s or early 1900s and she did not understand English. The tall young man far left was my grandfather, my mother’s father, he was born in 1881 in Siberian Russia, on Russia’s Big Diomede Island. My grandfather’s half-brother, Spike Millergrock, was from Little Diomede Alaska.”
Willy’s family had a big impact on the direction his life would take, “When I was about eight or ten years old I was forced to learn my native arts like carving walrus ivory, skin sewing. I did not want to learn” but as Willy went on, he began to enjoy learning how to produce traditional artwork. “My grandmother loved to sit beside me while I did my native arts because she loved to see my little Eskimo dancers on walrus ivory scrimshaw. Then she would have hot tea sitting beside me telling me some beautiful stories of my people”.

Willy’s family

Willy became a very skilled artist, specialising in ivory carving, graphic arts, skin sewing, dancing, singing, and of course, story-telling. We were so fortunate to be able to watch Willy beading, demonstrating his sewing techniques and giving us gripping first-hand accounts of what life had been like for him growing up between the villages of Teller and Wales. “Even to this day now I love doing my native arts and I even love to teach my native arts, the past few years I have taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Native Arts.” Willy also spoke and taught at our Family Open Day, where he talked with our visitors, told stories and demonstrated his work. “Saturday Oct. 19, 2019 – fun fun fun greeting people from all over the world at the Scott Polar Research Institute”.

Speaking to visitors at our Arctic Family Day

Willy went to high school in Oregon, where he met (now Professor) Larry Rockhill, who went on to become an Emeritus Associate with SPRI. Larry’s own academic interests also lie somewhere between Alaska and Russia, and so it is little wonder that he and Willy kept in contact for so many years. It was this deep friendship which meant that Larry put Willy forward as a possible candidate to visit the museum here in Cambridge, and we’re very pleased that he did.
For a more detailed account of Willy’s time spent in the UK, please read our next post. This trip diary, outlines the busy days he spent with us here in the Institute and in other museums across Cambridge and London. It was an absolute pleasure to have Willy to stay and share his history, cultural heritage and traditions with us. To leave you with Willy’s words, “I can’t thank you more than enough for a dream visit to the United Kingdom.”

iDiscover in the library

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Researchers across the world are now able to access the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) library’s collection through the University of Cambridge’s online catalogue iDiscover. Nearly 170,000 individual catalogue records were transferred into the iDiscover database at the end of September. These records describe each and every book, article, pamphlet or disc in our extensive collection, and among them over 110,000 journal articles. Anyone interested in polar research can find these resources simply by clicking on iDiscover in the SPRI or University Library websites – anywhere where there’s an Internet connection.


Polar research is more important than ever before. Understanding our changing climate relies on understanding changes in the polar regions – and the impact they are having on the rest of the world. The peoples and cultures of the northern polar regions offer a unique perspective on the ways humans can interrelate with their environment. The iDiscover catalogue is a major resource for facilitating conversations with northern populations, and climate-change research more generally.


The SPRI library staff are delighted to be opening the collection up through iDiscover. A new user found a book in SPRI the very day the data was transferred. She had been looking for the book all summer, and suddenly it had popped up in iDiscover. She hadn’t ever heard of the SPRI library before.


The SPRI library boasts a unique collection of work on the polar regions, spanning history, biography, poetry, fiction, social anthropology and the hard sciences. Its special collection contains volumes of key importance to the history of our understanding of the world – such as a seventeenth-century description of the seas under the earth, the Mundus Subterraneus by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Readers can pursue their interests in subjects as diverse as reindeer husbandry, Arctic politics, sea ice and the meditations of Mrs. Chippy, the cat who accompanied Shackleton’s polar expedition from 1914 – 1915.


The library also houses one of the world’s key collections of Russian literature on the polar regions, dating from the early explorations of Siberia until the present day. Russian research has always formed a crucial contribution to the world’s knowledge of both the north and south poles, and the people who live there. The Russian collection contains rare and valuable work on the languages and histories of Russia’s indigenous communities. The iDiscover catalogue makes the Russian collection available to scholars across the world – including scholars from the world’s indigenous northern communities. We hope the iDiscover catalogue will help indigenous communities remain in contact with each other, and with the scientific community in the world more generally. Try it for yourself here

A Viennese Whirl: The Madness of Conferences

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

Hello again, dear readers, for another blog post; this time about that great totem of academia: the conference. The last week of April saw several of my compatriots and I jet off to Vienna, there to attend the 2017 EGU General Assembly (EGU for short). EGU is the European Geoscience Union; the umbrella body that covers all Earth-Science-type researchers on the continent. The General Assembly draws 14,000-odd scientists to Vienna every year for a week in April, ranging from atmospheric physicists to volcanologists. The conference is huge, with a kaleidoscope of subjects and sessions covered – obviously, we were mainly going to attend the cryosphere strand (i.e. the bit that covers snow and ice) – but, if you have other research interests, there’ll be a session for them too.

The EGU logo.

The EGU logo.

The conference lasts from Monday to Friday, with a few pre-conference events on the preceding Sunday. Each day, each research area will have several sessions of oral presentations on specific areas within that strand, starting at 08:30 and carrying on until 17:00.So, for the cryosphere, a session might be on the behaviour of glaciers in a particular geographical area, or on a particular method for investigating ice, or it might be deliberately broad, to ensure that cross-cutting research doesn’t get left out. At the end of each day, between 17:30 and 19:00, there are poster sessions related to each of the oral sessions. These are for work that isn’t sufficiently-finished for an oral presentation, or that is perhaps lower impact, or if you don’t want the formality of an actual talk. Essentially, poster sessions consist of a big hall filled with posters, with the researcher responsible standing in front of their poster. Any conference attendee can wander round, read the posters and talk to the researchers about their work on the poster. It’s a useful way of presenting and getting feedback on your work in an informal setting. And of networking, which is in many ways equally valuable – at a big conference like EGU, most of the big names in the field will be in attendance, so it’s a great way of meeting them, which could turn out to be very useful in organising collaborations or getting a job.