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Posts Tagged ‘Polar Museum’

New Science in the Museum

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016

I mentioned in my original blog post was that I’ve had one or two ideas about how the Museum could better communicate modern Polar science. Well, here’s one of them: revamping the interactive science displays. The Museum currently has three touchscreens explaining modern Polar science, entitled, respectively, Ice, Climate and Science. These were first installed when the museum was redeveloped in 2010 and are now a little out of date as technology and science have moved on a lot in the last few years. There’s plenty of good information, but the whole thing could do with being rethought and revamped to make it clearer and more representative of the current foci of Polar science.

The Museum's current interactive screen setup

The Museum’s current interactive screen setup

This would be a good way of improving the Museum’s modern science offering – the screens are simply html pages, so there’s very little back end to manage – without having to spend a lot of time or money. I’ve come up with a few suggestions for how things could be improved, such as dedicating one screen to providing the background to Polar science, one to remote sensing (satellites and all that jazz) and one to computer modelling (I may be slightly biased there). These last two are essential tools across all aspects of modern science, so it seems sensible to focus on them. This redesign will also give the Museum the opportunity to link in with the scientific research work many of the staff are involved in, which would also greatly help it to better represent recent scientific developments.

Perhaps you can think of some things that you’d really like to see in the museum. If so, drop the team a line at or find them on Twitter or Facebook!


Old Science in the Museum

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

I promised in my last blog post to give some details about some of the more unusual or interesting objects I’ve found whilst poring over the Museum’s scientific collection. I mentioned Andrée’s stuffed carrier pigeon previously, but here are four more objects that I think give a good sense of the Museum’s holdings.

First up is an early pocket sun compass used by Captain Sir James Clark Ross on his voyages in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Ross’s work was crucial in fixing the position of both Magnetic Poles, which allowed great improvements in Polar navigation. Until the shape and contours of Earth’s magnetic field were known, navigation near the Poles had to be carried out using non-magnetic instruments, such as a sun compass, because the difference between true north/south and magnetic north/south was very large at these high latitudes, but of unknown magnitude. Therefore, other solutions were devised, making this compass not only an item of immense historical significance, but also a good demonstration of practical navigation and the difficulties inherent in early Polar exploration.

Ross's sun compass

Ross’s sun compass

Of possibly even greater historical significance is the second item: Amundsen’s reckoning of his position at the South Pole. Scott and his men found this tied to a flag when they arrived five weeks later and thus knew they had been beaten. The text reads:

‘The Norwegian Home Polheim // is situated in 89° 58′ S Lat // SE by E (comp.) 8 miles // 15 Decbr. 1911 // Roald Amundsen’

Amundsen went to a great deal of effort to verify his position and make sure he had actually reached the Pole, sending men out in several directions for several miles, just to be certain they hadn’t got it wrong. This piece of paper is therefore the outcome of some quite precise navigational and cartographic science as well as marking one of humanity’s major exploratory achievements.

Amundsen’s reckoning of his position

Amundsen’s reckoning of his position

The third object symbolises what is perhaps a lesser-known facet of Polar science: geology. Geology was an important element of many early Polar expeditions, with Antarctic fossils and rocks used to support the emerging theory of continental drift and plate tectonics, and remains of interest to this day. Indeed, this particular piece of rock is a specimen of basaltic lava from the 1967 eruption of Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands (just off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula). Antarctica might be seen as a frozen continent, but this piece of lava goes to show that it’s alive and kicking!

Deception Island lava

Deception Island lava

The fourth and final object brings us bang up to date. It’s a digital optical module (DOM) from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory. The observatory was completed in 2010 and sits more than a kilometre under the ice sheet at the South Pole, with thousands of DOMs spread over a cubic kilometre of ice. The observatory detects the flashes of light emitted by neutrinos as they interact with normal matter, allowing information about their origin and energy to be extracted. It’s also unexpectedly turned out to be a surprisingly-useful glaciological tool, as it’s allowed scientists to map the movement of deep layers of the ice, which would otherwise be virtually impossible. This particular DOM developed a fault in testing, so wasn’t used, but this remains probably the Museum’s best current example of modern Polar science and of so-called ‘Big Science’.

Digital Optical Module from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Digital Optical Module from the IceCube Neutrino Observatory

Samuel Cook, work placement student

Science at the Polar Museum!

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

I’m an MPhil student at SPRI, hopefully progressing on to a PhD come October, and after realising I was going to have a three-month gap over the summer between the end of the former and the start of the latter, I was anxious to do something vaguely productive for at least a part of it. I therefore spoke to Charlotte, the curator, who it turned out had something in mind for just such an occasion. My academic work focuses on computer modelling of glaciers, which, you may think, has very little to do with a museum. To some extent, you’d be right, but not entirely (and who says you can’t be interested in more than one thing anyway?). What I was being asked to do, using my scientific expertise, was to look through the Polar Museum’s large collection of science-related artefacts, identify strengths and weaknesses, and suggest items that could be added to the collection to fill any obvious gaps, particularly with regards to modern Polar science (see, I said modelling wasn’t entirely irrelevant). This was known to be a bit of a gap in what was, unsurprisingly, a more historically-oriented collection.

Stuffed carrier pigeon from the Andrée balloon expedition to the North Pole

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes, it’s a bird. The Museum’s stuffed carrier pigeon from the fatally-unsuccessful Andrée balloon expedition to the North Pole.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time combing through the Museum’s database, launching exploratory expeditions to the basement and deciding quite what you categorise a stuffed carrier pigeon as (is it natural history? Is it communications technology? Is it a navigational aid?), I’ve managed to get a fair idea of what we have and haven’t already got. As a result of this, I’ll be writing a report for Charlotte outlining the current state of the collection and suggesting what we might want to consider acquiring to strengthen it. One problem that has become obvious is that, with modern Polar science being so based on remote sensing (i.e. using satellites and airborne instruments to gather data) and computer analysis, the actual number of tangible objects related to it is rather smaller than it was a century ago – and most of the ones that do exist are essentially variations on the theme of ‘something that looks like a smartphone’. Given getting an entire satellite isn’t really practical for such a small museum, I’ve had to think a bit more widely about what best represents modern science. I’ve come up with a few ideas, so watch this space to see if any exciting new gizmos make their appearance in the future! Further blog posts will be forthcoming, giving a bit more detail about some of the objects I’ve found and some of my ideas.

Needless to say, it’s been a busy few weeks!


Sewing Antarctica

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Sewing Antarctica2

Trying to communicate the sheer scale of the Antarctic and what the landscape actually looks like can be a tough job… The continent is more than fifty times the size of the UK and there are ice sheets, mountain ranges, crevasses, active volcanoes and lakes – lava lakes, meltwater lakes and huge lakes under the ice. We frequently use paper maps in our education and outreach sessions, but have been wanting to get our hands on something far more exciting and interactive. For some time, we’ve been wanting a tactile map which could be used as a multi-sensory resource for a range of people, and we’ve finally been able to commission local artist Jenny Langley to make us a textile map!

Keen to be as accurate as possible, we roped in a host of friendly academics from SPRI and beyond to advise. Dr Gareth Rees provided us with scale maps (winter and summer), and worked with us to look at lichen, the structure of ice and the colour of penguin guano (poo). Professor Julian Dowdeswell shared his knowledge about the Transantarctic Mountains, ice shelves and crevasses. Professor Clive Oppenheimer talked us through photos of strange lava tunnels, rock formations and vivid mineral colourings of Mount Erebus. It’s illegal to buy rocks and fossils from the Antarctic continent so Dr Peter Clarkson helped us source some plausibly Antarctic specimens. And we spent a lovely day at the British Antarctic Survey talking to Dr Katrin Linse and Dr Huw Griffiths about some of their exciting deep sea finds. All of this information will be added to the map.

Word spread and soon a number of interested people were asking about progress and sharing ideas, which led to a fun Friday evening with Jenny and a group of staff and volunteers. Fuelled by a glass or two of wine, we stitched krill, starfish, rocks, ice, lichen, penguin guano and sea – all of which will be added to the mat.

The map will be delivered at the end of August. We know there’ll be three-dimensional mountains; we know there’ll be pockets in which to hide treasures such as rocks and fossils; we know there’ll be flaps which will lift up to reveal deep sea creatures and hidden parts of the continent; and we know there’ll be a secret lake. But what we don’t know is just what the final result will be – and we can’t to see it! We do know that it will be extremely beautiful and we will definitely be sharing the finished map so that everyone can begin to marvel at the sheer size and incredible geography of the Antarctic!

Naomi C.

Rocks rock for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project

Monday, July 6th, 2015


Work is continuing apace on the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, with over 600 objects examined, described and condition assessed. Working by object type (which makes life much easier in terms of accessing the objects in the store, and facilitates description and condition assessment as you know what to look out for), Sophie, Christina and I have now worked our way through all of the goggles, medals, boots, clothing, snowshoes, crampons and skis housed in our main store (this excludes those items in the auxiliary store and in the gallery, which we will deal with at a later date).

Having spent two-three months working on the clothing, which included socks and slippers, mittens and gloves, hats and scarves, trousers, jumpers and endless numbers of anoraks, it made a very pleasant change this week to whizz through the entire collection of geological specimens in a single day. Not being a geologist, there’s very little I can say about a rock, so describing them was really rather easy and all I had to do was take a few measurements! Thankfully, many of the geological specimens had already been identified and this was recorded in the catalogue, but there were still quite a few with the really helpful description of ‘rock’ – although occasionally there was a bit more detail, like ‘small rock’.

The great thing about SPRI is that you are surrounded by people who know about polar things, so there’s usually someone in the building with the required knowledge. So we turned to SPRI’s resident geologist, Dr Peter Clarkson, who spent 22 years working as a geologist with the British Antarctic Survey, to help us out. Unfortunately, with such small samples and so little contextual information for the rocks identified as needing the ‘PCT’ (Peter Clarkson Treatment), we weren’t able to get an identification for everything. However, Peter was extremely helpful and filled in a lot of gaps, even if it did mean pointing out that some of the samples were of very doubtful Antarctic provenance and that others were really nothing special and it wasn’t quite clear why they were even in the collection! And, having run everything by a geologist, we’re almost certain that we’ve got identifications for all the things that we’re ever likely to be able to identify.


We then moved onto to natural history specimens, which largely consists of eggs (also pleasingly quick to examine). But it’s not just penguin eggs! I always forget that, for the purposes of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, ‘the Antarctic’ doesn’t just refer to the continent of Antarctica, but also includes Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, where wildlife is more diverse. However, I think that many of these eggs may also be of doubtful Antarctic provenance (for example, a group thirteen eggs collected by Edward Adrian Wilson, doctor and artist on Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 which may well have been collected in the UK), but unfortunately we don’t currently have a resident ornithological expert – so if anyone’s good at identifying birds’ eggs, we’ve got a good selection!

sperm whale ear drum

And I really shouldn’t forget to mention that we have a bone from a sperm whale’s ear – just because.


Record reformatting is happening

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

The final structure of our template record (field headings only).

It’s been a long time coming but we have finally (or very nearly almost) finalised our standardised record template which will work for all of the objects in the museum’s collections – be they Arctic, Antarctic, polar general or art works. This has been an enormous part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project so far – and perhaps a much bigger and more-time consuming task than I’d first expected – but I’m absolutely certain that it’s been worthwhile. To accompany the template we’ve also produced some really detailed guidelines on what information should be recorded where and in what format, how and when to repeat individual fields or groups of fields, and when to use termlists.

As well as setting up termlists for all the fields where we want to use controlled terminology, we’ve made huge advances in our use of the functionality of Modes (our collections management database) in order to set up termlists which hyperlink to biographical records for people, organisations and expeditions. These records still need populating – an ongoing task that we’ll be working on for quite a while – but everything is now in place. The great thing is that these are resources that can be shared by the museum, archive and picture library catalogues, and we won’t need to repeat biographical information in individual object/archive/photographic records. And ultimately, if all goes according to plan, this biographical information will become available as part of the Antarctic online catalogue, whereby clicking on the name of person or expedition will take you to a page about them.

After a wave of terror (what if it all goes wrong?) and a very deep breath, I’ve now started reformatting the Antarctic records to match the new template. Unfortunately, because of the inconsistencies in the structure of the existing records, it isn’t possible to map records from the old format to the new so it has to be done by hand. However, I don’t mind doing it. In fact, reformatting records makes me very very happy! And it gives me a chance to familiarise myself with the information in the records and to tidy up some of the data where necessary. The plan is that whenever I add a new physical description to an Antarctic object record following the object study/condition assessment, I’ll reformat the record – so this will obviously be an ongoing process throughout the two years of the project. And I really hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reformat all of the other records in the database that are outside the scope of the project (i.e. everything that isn’t Antarctic).

Although it’s going to be a slow process, the benefits will be enormous. A standard record format will make it much easier to search our collections and will help us manage information about the objects and things that happen to them, such as keeping track of research visits, conditions checks, exhibitions and loans. It will also help with the creation of the online catalogue – the current differing structures of records makes writing the code for the web catalogue a challenge. And, although perhaps not so important in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless very important to me, the records will all look the same and will be a thing of beauty! I can’t wait!