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The Women who made SPRI

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

During lockdown, I have been working on a new temporary exhibition which will celebrate SPRI’s centenary year. Though it has been strange to think about a new exhibition, not knowing exactly when it will open or when you will be able to see it, it has been lovely to learn more about SPRI’s history. In particular, it’s been fascinating to uncover the stories of the women whose lives have been linked to SPRI since its inception and beyond. I’d like to introduce you to some of my favourites in the exhibition, and if you’d like to see them again, or learn more about any other women of SPRI (or men, for that matter!) then do come along to our centenary exhibition once the museum reopens.

SPRI

The Founding Mothers

Founded in 1920, SPRI was the brain-child of Terra Nova geologist Frank Debenham, but it took more than one woman to bring his ideas to fruition. Perhaps the most well-known of these early female pioneers was Kathleen Scott, the indomitable widow of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Kathleen was a well-renowned sculptor in her own right who had studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris long before meeting her future husband. As well as donating several statues to the museum, Kathleen was instrumental in introducing Debenham to the right people to help get SPRI off the ground, and in securing funding for the Institute. Once SPRI had become a reality, British naturalist Oriana Wilson helped to furnish it with some of the most famous polar objects it holds today – her husband Edward Wilson’s Antarctic watercolours. Oriana persuaded Debenham to include a purpose built gallery in the 1934 building, so that the paintings could be put on display and admired.

Kathleen Scott

Kathleen Scott, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and George Frederick Wyatt on the bridge of the ‘Terra Nova’

Oriana Wilson

Oriana Wilson

The Shapers

In the late 1920s the British anthropologist Dr Ethel John Lindgren began a career studying different cultural groups across Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Lindgren gathered knowledge and collected cultural objects from the people she studied, later donating many of these objects to SPRI’s museum collection. Her collection was used to teach aspiring western polar explorers the best ways to deal with the harsh environments they would be facing. Lindgren also lectured the MPhil students at SPRI about the people she had met and their ways of life. Lindgren’s collections, and the many other objects donated to the Institute, had to be accurately recorded and catalogued so that they could be put to good use. In the early days of SPRI, this work fell to women who volunteered their time. Miss W M Drake, arranged and catalogued a good proportion of the collection, including equipment, maps and books. Her meticulous record keeping in all areas ensured the smooth operating of the Institute and its collections and she later went on to paid employment as the official Assistant to the Director. Her work forms the foundations of our records today.

‘Overnight camp on the banks of the Oura’ by Ivan Dmitriyevich Bulychov. Presented to SPRI by Dr E Lindgren.

Miss W M Drake

Miss W M Drake

The Knowledge Holders

Women connected to SPRI were instrumental in the formation of our knowledge about the polar regions. Hilda Richardson was a glaciologist and the only employee of the International Glaciological Society following its creation in 1936. The society, which had its headquarters at SPRI for almost 70 years, became a well-renowned international organisation under her leadership, publishing prestigious academic journals and organising international symposia.

In our understanding of the polar regions, it can be all too easy to only consider western perspectives, but indigenous knowledge is invaluable to understanding and surviving in the Arctic environment. As Dr Lindgren showed SPRI’s early MPhil students, the foremost knowledge holders in the Arctic are the people who live and work there, their ancestors having inhabited the far north for thousands of years. Gusdiana was a Tunumiit from North Eastern Greenland who was instrumental in the expeditions of British explorer Gino Watkins’ in the 1930s. Photographs in SPRI’s archives show Gusdiana sewing kayaks for the western explorers, who would use these traditional boats to hunt seal. Kayaks are made by stretching animal skins over a frame and sewing them together to make a watertight vessel, and this process of stretching and sewing is traditionally done by Inuit women. Without Gusdiana, Watkins and the men of his expedition would not have been able to hunt using these specially designed craft.

Gusdiana

Portrait of Gusdiana

Gusdiana sewing skin on kayak

Gusdiana sewing skin on to a kayak as Gino Watkins watches her work.

Women have been instrumental to SPRI over its 100 year history. Whether by supporting its early years, to ensuring the standard and care of its collections, to making the discoveries and teaching the knowledge which informs its work. SPRI is now home to many female scientists, social scientists, museum, library and archive professionals, financial and administrative staff, and without them, and the women who came before them, the very character of the Institute would not be what it is today.

 

A Brief History of SPRI

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

A lot has changed in the hundred years since the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) was officially founded. In the 1920s, western explorers were still visiting the polar regions in wooden boats, but not fifty years later technology had advanced so much that man had landed on the moon. Another fifty years went by and now scientists and researchers can overwinter at the South Pole – once so inaccessible as to be deadly – in a station fully fitted with comfortable beds, hot meals and internet connection. So, with all the change and upheaval of the last century, what has happened to SPRI?

1920 – The Scott Polar Research Institute started life in the attic of the Sedgwick Museum – crammed full of polar artifacts, equipment and scientific data. In spite of these modest beginnings, the camaraderie and friendly atmosphere which are still characteristic of SPRI today were created by the men and women who visited the attic, united by their interest in the polar regions.

1934 – A group of famous designers collaborated on a purpose-built home for SPRI on Lensfield Road. The renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker designed the building, while MacDonald Gill painted the spectacular domed maps which can still be seen in the Memorial Hall. Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen – a distinguished sculptor – donated her own works which still keep watch over the Institute above the door and in the garden on Lensfield Road.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

MacDonald Gill and Priscilla Johnston paint the Memorial Hall domes

Bust of Captain Scott by Lady Kathleen Scott

1940s – During World War II SPRI helped the British government research clothing and equipment for Arctic missions. The museum collection at SPRI was initially a teaching collection, designed to equip polar explorers with the hard-won knowledge of their predecessors. During WWII, this specialist knowledge of equipment and polar clothing was especially useful when the War Office was considering a possible northern invasion route into Europe.

1959 – SPRI was heavily involved in setting up the Antarctic Treaty which protects the Antarctic as a continent for scientific research. An incredibly important agreement for the governance of the Antarctic even today, the Antarctic Treaty ensures that nobody owns the Antarctic. It also dedicates the continent as a place for peace and science. SPRI scientists helped to produce this remarkable treaty.

1968 – A lecture theatre, laboratories and ‘cold rooms’ for research were added to the building, more than doubling its size. SPRI is a specialist institute with specialist facilities – as scientific research within the university became ever more advanced, so more unusual features were added to SPRI. Today a large freezer in the basement is used for everything from testing kit to freezing our historic museum collections to protect them from insects and other pests!

The SPRI Lecture Theatre

1970s – SPRI scientists perfected the invention of radio echo sounding. This revolutionary new glaciological technique meant that scientists could fly over the ice sheets and measure how thick they were by emitting radio waves and measuring how long it took them to bounce back to the plane. This technique led to the discovery of a hidden world of lakes and volcanoes beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Radio Echo Sounding

1980 – SPRI welcomed the first students to its brand new Polar Studies program which still runs to this day. SPRI has always been a place of learning – first, it was for collaboration and the analysis of data by early explorers, then it became somewhere for budding polar scientists to benefit from the experience of the past. Today, students at the Institute study everything from the social sciences to climate change.

1998 – The Shackleton Memorial Library opened, securing SPRI’s position as the largest polar library in the world. The library at SPRI is home to an enormous collection of over 54,000 monographs, DVDs, Masters and Doctoral theses, as well as pamphlets, press-cuttings, periodicals and around 18,000 maps. As a resource on the polar regions it is of international importance.

The Polar Library

The Shackleton Memorial Library

2000s – SPRI was a well established hub of polar research and information as public interest in the polar regions continued to rise. As the general public became increasingly aware of the effects of climate change on the polar regions, SPRI’s role as a resource and centre for research on these fragile ecosystems became even more important.

2010 – The Polar Museum underwent a total refurbishment, in time for the centenary of the death of Captain Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912. The museum now has permanent displays on the indigenous communities of the Arctic, the western explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic and contemporary scientific research in the polar regions. There is also a dedicated temporary exhibition space.

The Polar Museum

2020 – The Scott Polar Research Institute celebrates 100 years of polar research. So much has changed since the attic days of the early 1920s, and who knows what the next 100 years have in store for SPRI, but if the last century is anything to go by then it’s sure to be busy!

SPRI today

 

A Century of Polar Research

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

The year 2020 marks 100 years since the establishment of the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI). While our founders could never have imagined what this year would be like, we are grateful to the foresight which lead them to create an Institute, a building and most importantly, a community, which has dedicated itself to researching and understanding the polar regions ever since.

The Scott Polar Research Institute today.

Let’s wind the clock right back to the very beginning – Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 (Terra Nova). Frank Debenham and Raymond Priestley, geologists on the expedition, realised they needed a place to share their data, and the lessons they had learned on expeditions, with other polar explorers and researchers. The Terra Nova expedition ultimately ended in the tragic death of Captain Scott and the other four members of his polar party on their return from the South Pole. But Debenham and Priestley remembered their idea for a ‘polar headquarters’ and in 1920 it was made a reality thanks to funds donated after Scott’s death.

The Southern Party upon reaching the South Pole. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13

Frank Debenham examines geological samples. British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13.

In 1920 the Scott Polar Research Institute was officially opened as part of the University of Cambridge and it flourished. Polar explorers and researchers shared their knowledge and experience with the next generation of scientists. Documents and objects formed comprehensive archival and varied museum collections. People wrote from far and wide to ask questions of the experts who worked there, and the veranda of the old building was found to be just the right size for oiling sealskin kayaks. In 1934, the Institute moved into its current home on Lensfield Road – adorned with Kathleen Scott’s sculpture of her late husband above the front door.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

Bust of Captain Scott by Kathleen Scott above the entrance to the Polar Museum.

In spite of its Antarctic beginnings, SPRI was always also interested in the people and environment of the Arctic. Terence Armstrong and John Elbo were employed to work in the Russian and north American Arctic in the 1940s and researchers from the Institute continue to work with Arctic communities to this day. Increasingly in recent years, SPRI has been privileged to learn from the knowledge and advice of visiting indigenous scholars, artists and community representatives.

Visiting artist Willy Topkok viewing our Alaskan collection

In the Antarctic, SPRI scientists pioneered a technique known as radio-echo sounding in the 60s and 70s, which allowed glaciologists to measure the depth of ice in the Antarctic ice-sheet. This was made possible by instruments designed and developed at the Institute in a project led by Stan Evans and Gordon Robin. For the first time, we were beginning to understand how much ice was actually in Antarctica!

Radio Echo Sounding

Today, SPRI contributes significantly to our global understanding of climate change and its impact on the polar regions. Building on the work of previous expeditions and scientists, as well as spearheading new research in glaciology, glacimarine environments and remote sensing.

Drone launch

Researchers from the RESPONDER project team launch a drone

SPRI continues to fulfil its promise to educate the next generation of polar researchers. An MPhil degree in polar studies was introduced in the 1970s, its present-day form taking shape in 1980. PhD students from across the world also undertake vital research across a wide range of academic areas. Their work is enriched by SPRI’s unparalleled archives, picture library and museum collections which educate and inspire researchers and public alike. What’s more, the SPRI library is the largest library of the polar regions in the world.

The Polar Library

The Polar Library

In its hundred year history, SPRI has continually adapted to new challenges and questions in polar research. It remains as relevant today as a site for learning as it was at its conception. This year, we will be sharing our history in more detail in a series of blog and social media posts, and we can’t wait to have you along for the ride.

Resources to Engage Blind and Partially Sighted Visitors with the Shackleton Collections

Wednesday, September 25th, 2019

Over the past year we have been working on increasing access for blind and partially sighted visitors to our Shackleton collections. We wanted to create a number of meaningful resources that could be used by a variety of ages, and by visitors who have partial sight loss as well as those who may be fully blind. This is especially important as most of the Shackleton artefacts currently on display are very fragile and behind glass so cannot be handled.

This is part of a wider National Lottery Heritage Funded project called By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project. All of these resources are suitable for adults and children, but will require some assistance from the museum reception volunteers, so please do ask at the museum reception if you would like to use any of them.

The resources are as follows:

• A 10 minute audio introduction to the Polar Museum and its layout, and audio descriptions of 10 different artefacts from the Shackleton collection (both produced by Vocaleyes)
These are available to download from our website as well as available from the museum reception desk on our current audio devices.

• Vocaleyes also delivered two sessions of Visual Awareness training for our staff, volunteers and colleagues in the University of Cambridge Museums in July of this year. This enables us to now offer basic guiding for BPSP visitors around the museum. If you are interested in this assistance with your visit please do let us know in advance so we can make sure a fully trained volunteer and/or member of staff is available.

• We have purchased a swell printer to make tactile drawings, which are images with raised, tangible outlines. Using this we have produced drawings of wildlife photographs taken on the Shackleton expeditions, as well as some wonderful tactile artwork created by Sarah Airriess which shows the James Caird and how it was turned into a shelter on Elephant Island. We also have tactile maps of the museum floor plan which can be used by visitors as they move around the museum. It is hoped that in the future, further tactile drawings can be created for a variety of activities and events.

• We have commissioned Mattes and Miniatures Visual Effects Ltd to create two replica items which visitors can fully handle and explore. These are a replica pair of eye shades used in the Antarctic by Lieutenant Charles Royds on the Discovery Expedition (1901-1904), and a replica model of a Nansen sledge, including all the equipment which would have been packed on it.
Both have turned out incredibly beautiful and are near perfect replicas of the originals which we are very lucky to have.

• We also have a magnifying sheet and a torch available to borrow to help visitors see the objects in the display cases.

All of these resources will be available from the museum reception desk from the beginning of October so please do speak to our lovely museum volunteers if you would like to access any of them and they will be happy to assist you. We are very excited about these resources so please do visit us to try them out – we would love to hear your feedback on them!

Tikiġaq/Point Hope. Building an exhibition.

Monday, April 29th, 2019

On Wednesday 1 May a new special exhibition called Tikiġaq / Point Hope: Life on Alaska’s North Slope will open, free, at the Polar Museum. The exhibition has been a long time in the making; but, when a recent acquisition arrived that dramatically altered its direction, we got a valuable reminder about the power of engaging with different communities.

In late 2017 the Polar Museum was approached by somebody with an old leather suitcase full to bursting with intriguing bone, fur, ivory and stone items that, according to their hundred-year-old labels, came from ‘Tigara, Alaska’. Known by many today as Point Hope, the small Alaskan village of Tikiġaq on the Western-most extremity of Alaska’s North Slope has a rich and varied history stretching back over millennia. The items in the suitcase, which represent several periods of Tikiġaq’s past from stone arrowheads to more recent fur items made for sale by the indigenous Iñupiaq, were collected by a missionary called Reginald Hoare who sent them back to his family in Britain. However, the information contained in some of the old labels gave us pause to think especially carefully about how to approach them. Some of the implements in the collection were labelled by Hoare as having been found in graves or ‘among bones’.

An assortment of objects

An assortment of objects unpacked from the suitcase.
(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

The presence of grave goods in museums is highly contentious. Criticisms have been levelled at museums that have continued to acquire or display culturally sensitive materials with seemingly little regard for the wishes of the indigenous people who created them. Yet, the International Council of Museums code of ethics states that when it comes to such items, where possible museums should respect the wishes of originator communities. So, after some research and seeking advice from contacts in Alaska, we reached out to community representatives in Tikiġaq to alert them to the existence of the Hoare collection.

We eventually got a reply from Tikiġaq-born artist Othniel Art Oomittuk Junior who was very keen to hear about our plans for the Alaska exhibition. From this point things moved quickly and we welcomed Art’s kind offer to visit Cambridge and give his perspective on the new collection. Now, it was in the course of these discussions that we got our next big surprise.

Art examining a pipe

Othniel Art Oomittuk Junior examining a pipe
(c) Scott Polar Research Institute. Picture credit: Charlotte Connelly

Art put us in touch with London-based historian Tom Lowenstein, who has written extensively about Point Hope. Tom described how, whilst visiting a friend some years ago, he was introduced to someone who had made a curious find in their attic. By an amazing coincidence this attic happened to be in the house that once belonged to a relative of our Tikiġaq missionary, Hoare. To his astonishment, Tom was shown a wooden chest containing more items of ivory and fur labelled in the same hand as those in the suitcase and also accompanied with a huge box of letters from Alaska!

Ivory needle case

Ivory needle case
(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

With Tom’s help, we were able to reunite these various dispersed parts of the Hoare collection at the Polar Museum in time for Art’s visit. Art expressed his happiness that the items had found a good home, even saying that the grave goods had an important story that should be told through the display. In turn, we learned so much more from Art about the items and life in Tikiġaq than we ever would have had we not reached out first.

A new acquisition at The Polar Museum: Charles Royds’ telescope

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

It’s been a bumper season for new acquisitions at The Polar Museum! As well as wrestling with the all-important ethical and legal complexities of bringing artefacts collected in the distant past into the safe care of an accredited public institution like SPRI, we have also had some relatively ‘easy wins’ this autumn. Without a doubt, the gift of Charles Royds’ telescope has been the highlight of these.

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

As some of you longer-time readers may be aware, back in 2015 the Scott Polar Research Institute was awarded £500,000 through the Heritage Lottery Fund programme, Collecting Cultures, to enhance our understanding of, and public engagement with, the Shackleton story. One of the recent focuses of this effort has been a new display in our soon-to-be-refurbished Friends Room in the Library (open to the public!) that centres on the story of Shackleton and the people he worked with. This left us casting around for interesting objects we could use that weren’t already on display in the permanent gallery.

Then, in October, our Director Professor Julian Dowdeswell received a very timely letter from a descendant of the Godson of Charles Royds kindly offering us his telescope. The letter was passed on to me to process the acquisition; but, being more of an Arctic person, I found myself learning a lot more about the explorers who visited the opposite end of the planet…

Royds, Officer of Watch

Lieutenant Royds standing on the bridge of the ship beside the compass. (c) Scott Polar Research Institute.

Sir Charles William Rawson Royds was already a distinguished and well-travelled officer in the Royal Navy before he was picked in 1901 along with Robert Falcon Scott to serve as First Lieutenant aboard the Discovery. During his three years aboard Discovery the towering Royds served alongside the ship’s then little-known Third Lieutenant, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who in addition to overseeing the Antarctic expedition’s supplies was also in charge of maintaining morale. Royds meanwhile acted as the expedition meteorologist and oversaw the daily smooth sailing of the ship under Captain Scott’s direction—as the person with overall charge of the ship the naval convention was that Scott be called Captain, though his actual rank in the Royal Navy at the time was Commander.

Cape Royds on Ross Island in Antarctica was eventually discovered and named for Royds by the crew of Discovery during the expedition. After this episode, Royds returned to his regular naval duties serving in British waters, the Mediterranean and farther afield before finally retiring with the rank of Rear Admiral. His trusty spyglass, however, continued to bear the signs of adaptation for polar use.

The most immediately striking feature of the telescope is its covering of green woollen blanket cloth, which has been rather crudely stitched on with cotton thread, I like to imagine, by Royds’ own numb, chilly hands one cold day in Antarctica. My assumption here is that the blanket would have provided extra protection to the instrument during arduous sledging journeys and would also prevent a wayward bare hand from inadvertently freezing to the metal casing in the sub-zero temperatures.

(c) Scott Polar Research Institute

 

The then owner of the telescope had already sent some excellent images and provenance information with their initial letter to Professor Dowdeswell detailing how their ancestor, Lieutenant Commander Vivian Edward Marshall May, acquired the telescope early in his career. Marshall May, himself a Royal Navy officer, received the telescope, along with a sextant and sword, on his passing out of the Royal Navy College at Dartmouth from his presumably very proud Godfather, Rear-Admiral Royds. Where the sword and sextant are today remains a mystery for the time-being.

After I showed the telescope and explained its provenance to my colleagues at SPRI it was unanimously decided that we should accept the gift for the new display. All that remained was for me to arrange for the formal handover, which always involves some paperwork, and to accession the telescope into the permanent Museum collection. I’m pleased to say that this is now done and the catalogue record can be seen online, here: https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/museum/catalogue/article/y2018.13/

As I said, a nice ‘easy win’! But, the work isn’t done. Just because something is formally added to the museum register doesn’t mean it will be frozen in time (no pun intended) with the story never to change. I would still like to know where the sword and sextant ended up, whether the cover on the telescope really is a specific polar adaptation and where else it has been. It isn’t even clear what make or model it is. There are no visible markings and I’m no telescope specialist… Even the easy ones raise more questions than they answer.

Art UK Sculpture Project

Monday, October 29th, 2018

It started with a pretty innocent question at the top of an email in March, just one month after I started my job at the Museum: ‘are there sculptures at the Scott Polar Research Institute?’

Yes.

I knew that much. It was plain to me and anyone else who had visited the Museum at SPRI that we have sculpture in the collection. In fact, SPRI has in its care one of the largest collections of Inuit sculpture in Great Britain. But, what I didn’t know was just what other sorts of sculpture we have at SPRI, and how many sculptures are there in total.

(© SPRI) An older SPRI image of a walrus carved from soapstone and walrus ivory by artist Joe Emiqutailaq, Belcher Islands, Nunavut, c. 1970.

The original question came from Art UK, a national arts charity with a global reach and an ambitious mission ‘to open up art in public collections for enjoyment, learning and research.’ SPRI worked with Art UK in 2016 to showcase some of the paintings in our art collection alongside those from more than 3000 other collections across the UK: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/collections:scott-polar-research-institute-university-of-cambridge/page/3

However, this time round Art UK is interested in getting some of our more three-dimensional artworks out there. This new project is part of a wider, three-year national effort to digitise 170,000 sculptures of all types from public collections around the country.

The first task, then, was for me to put together a working list of all the items in our care that Art UK regard as sculpture. The only major caveats for this were that 1) the items had to have been made in the last 1000 years, and 2) nothing made of ivory, bone, jade or wax was to be included. The first condition wasn’t going to be much of a problem for us—aside from a few small archaeological pieces and geological specimens, the collections at SPRI don’t go back more than a few centuries. But, avoiding ivory and bone was going to be difficult: indigenous carvers and artists from across the Arctic have long used the bones and ivory from the tusks and teeth of marine mammals traditionally hunted as part of their subsistence diet for raw materials. Understandably, Art UK are concerned to avoid showing-off materials coming from contentious sources, such as ivory from protected species like the endangered African elephant, but the marine ivory at SPRI is from permitted indigenous sources and so is less problematic.

Once the Museum Curator and I explained our case, Art UK were happy to make an exception for us. Now we were going to be able to showcase the best examples from the full range of sculptural items at SPRI. All I had to do was search exhaustively through our digital database, find everything that matched the Art UK definition of a sculpture—avoiding things that look too at home on nanna’s mantelpiece—and highlight the items that would benefit from new photography. Easy!

(© SPRI) Another older SPRI image of a plaster-cast bust of a Greenland Inuit woman in by Eigil Knuth, originally made in 1937.

Well, not quite. As well as all the obvious things like the plaster busts of an Inuit woman and child made by Danish artist Eigil Knuth in 1937, I also had to consider whether the bronze bust by Kathleen Scott of her late husband that you can see above the front door of the building should be included. Does it count more as an architectural detail (not allowed) or a standalone artwork in its own right (definitely allowed). Tricky stuff, but you’ll have to wait and see what the final decision was on that one…

Once we had our final total of 145 items we were able to send the list and arrange the photoshoot with Art UK. Happily our own Josh Murfitt from the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was the one who answered the call, being contracted out by the charity to come for two days to help us capture all the details of the fabulous sculpture in our care.


(Image © SPRI) Josh photographs a carved Arctic crane bird, usually seen on display in our permanent gallery.

We had great fun trying to figure out which was the back and which was the front of some of the more abstract pieces, and we even made a few discoveries about some of them along the way. One carving inscribed on both sides with Inuktitut syllabic script—the symbols used to represent the syllables in the Inuit language—had no known artist or date. In the process of turning it round to check it for inscriptions, we saw the syllabic signature of the artist, Tumasi Kala, on the base. Other items were so large and bulky we needed a trolley to move them the few metres from our store to the temporary photo studio space that Josh had set up. It was backbreaking work, but I can’t wait to see the final results. Watch this space!


(Image © SPRI) The base of a sculpture signed by the previously unknown artist in Inuktitut syllabic lettering.

The provenance of the collection Blog 8

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

 

Three sisters known as The Misses Lefroy’ donated the majority of the Franklin relics held by the Polar Museum. How the Misses Lefroy came to have so many Franklin relics is itself a tragic story; a polar love triangle caught up in the drama and devastating loss of the last Franklin voyage. The three Lefroy sisters, Jessie, from Winchester and Louie and M. Isabel (Mary-Isabella), who lived together in Bentworth, Hants, were the daughters of George Benjamin Austen Lefroy, a grand nephew of Jane Austen, and the great nieces of Franklin through their mother Emma Cracroft. Franklin had a direct heir in Eleanor Isabella Franklin, the daughter from his first marriage to Eleanor Porden. However, when Lady Jane Franklin launched her quest to search for the lost expedition, Eleanor Isabella’s rights to inherit were waived to fund her stepmother’s campaign to mobilise public feeling and Admiralty support. Central to Jane’s campaign was the transformation of detritus from the Franklin expedition recovered by the search parties into hallowed relics through engravings and great public exhibitions.  Eleanor Isabella would have nothing to do with it.

 

 

In fact the Franklin relics passed to the Misses Lefroy from their maiden aunt, Sophia (Sophy) Cracroft, from whom they inherited. Sophy Cracroft was Franklin’s eldest niece, Jane Franklin’s companion from her marriage to the polar explorer in 1836, and aide-de-cape from the launch of Lady Jane’s campaign until her death in 1875. This blog post is concerned with the polar love triangle in the grand tragedy of the Franklin expedition because of its direct significance for Sophy’s spinsterhood, and so the inheritance of the Misses Lefroy.

 

Sophy Cracroft was born in 1816, the eldest daughter of Isabella Franklin and Thomas Cracroft and niece of the Arctic explorer, John Franklin. In 1836, she accompanied Franklin, his second wife, Jane, and his daughter from his first marriage, Eleanor, to Van Diemen’s Land [Tasmania] after Franklin had accepted the post of lieutenant governor. It was four years later, while in Tasmania that Sophy, (age 24), and Eleanor (age 16) would meet the romantic interests that would dominate their future lives. Around the time of his 24th birthday, in March 1840, John Philip Gell came to stay with the Franklins. He was an Anglican clergyman from Derbyshire, recently graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge; and came to Van Diemen’s Land with the strongest recommendation from educator and historian Thomas Arnold to be head of the first institution of higher education under Franklin’s governance. He became an immediate friend of the family, and nine years on, following his return to England, Gell joined the family proper as Eleanor’s husband. In August 1840, just a few months on from Gell’s arrival at the Franklins, there was a more dramatic disruption to Van Diemen’s Land society life, in the arrival of two ships, the “Erebus” and the “Terror”, with naval officers Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier as Captain of the latter and James Clark Ross in overall command.

 

‘Erebus’ and the ‘Terror’ in New Zealand, August 1841, by John Wilson Carmichael

 

In 1839 the British government, under pressure from the Royal Society and the British Academy, had decided to send an expedition to the Antarctic for Scientific and Geographical research. The two ships, Erebus and Terror, left Moorgate Road on the 30 September 1839 and sailed south, landing at Hobart Town, in the summer of 1840 where they were hospitably received by Sir John Franklin, Lt. Governor of Tasmania, prompting a whirlwind of balls and celebrations. On their return from Antarctica in 1841 the fancy dress ball held aboard the ships to thank the Franklins was the event of the year for Hobart Town. To host the 350 guests, the Erebus and Terror were lashed together draped in red baize and dripping with chandeliers and flowers. More than 250 mirrors were arranged on the sides of the vessels to reflect the flickering candlelight; as the dazzled visitors approached the floating ballroom, the 51st Regiment of the Hobart Town Quadrille Band charmed them along a gangway made from a line of boats decked with flags and the floral emblem of the isle. The biggest naval ball in Tasmanian colonial history, the whole event is still remembered as ‘the Glorious first of June’. With Sir John Franklin presiding in full dress uniform, Lady Jane and Sophia Cracroft by his side, the “Two Captains” were the object of every woman’s dance card.  When, just days later, Erebus and Terror departed, Crozier was deeply in love with Sophia, and she with his gallant commander James Clark Ross well known as ‘the handsomest man in the Navy’.

 

Left: copy of daguerreotype portrait taken of Francis Crozier shortly before the Franklin expedition departed in 1845. Right: Oil on canvas of James Clark Ross, made in 1834 by John Robert Wildman. The highly romanticised portrayal marks Ross’s return from his 1829-33 Arctic expedition. Over his shoulder is draped a bear skin while the Pole Star shines in the top right of the image.

 

Three years on, the Franklins and Sophia left Van Diemen’s Land, reaching Britain in June 1844, to find Crozier still love-struck and Ross a newly married man. When the Admiralty approved plans for an Arctic expedition in early 1845, it was said that it was Ross’s promise to his bride, Anne née Coulman, which prevented him from taking command. This at least was the public story, however the Erebus and Terror had undergone further transformations since they were decked out in drapes and mirrors; the vessels were now fitted with steam engines taken from London and Greenwich railway locomotives, and privately Ross’s dislike of steam navigation played a significant role. Though Crozier and Ross shared the title of two of the most experienced polar explorer of the day, a powerful lobby manoeuvred for Franklin and secured him command of the expedition with Crozier as his second, Captain of the Terror. Further, in an unusual move thought by some to have been motivated by prejudice against Crozier for being too poor, too Presbyterian and too Irish to be a proper gentleman, the selection of officers was given to his junior, James Fitzjames. In the final days before the expedition departed Crozier received a further blow that left him in a depressed state marked by Franklin and all his fellow officers – his latest rejection by Sophy, the last proposal he would make.

 

Just sixteen months later, on 12 September 1846, the Erebus and Terror became trapped in ice. The same two ships which five years before had formed a floating ballroom for young lovers became a prison for a slow death. When Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847, two years after the expedition’s departure, Crozier assumed leadership of the beleaguered mission, and when in April the following year the ships were abandoned, nine officers and fifteen men already dead, 105 souls set out under Crozier’s command for Back River (formerly Great Fish River). They marched south and then east, searching for food in a single group pulling several boat/sledges. The majority of the men died within two hundred miles of the original landing, dropping as they marched. Inuit witnesses reported a large camp at Terror Bay, with tents, graves, cannibalised bodies and a pile of skulls. Later, hauntingly, the Inuit encountered a small party in Washington Bay, headed east. The Inuit described seeing a white shape moving in the distance which at first they though was a bear but which proved to be a party of around forty white men (kabloona) dragging a boat on which a sail had been set. All the men were suffering from an advanced state of scurvy and the Inuit were convinced of signs of cannibalism.  The Inuit testimony, vilified and denounced for generations, has subsequently been confirmed by the overwhelming physical evidence not least from the skeletal remains of the men found scattered along the coast or mainland.  Though the evidence indicates all 129 were dead by the winter of 1848, American search expeditions of the 1850 and 60s caused a stir in Britain with ‘hobgoblin tales’ of a survivor, a great officer and excellent hunter so skilled that he shared food with the Inuit, thought to be Crozier.

 

 

Jane and Sophia first heard the rumours in October 1865. Since 1860 the two women had travelled all over the world, visiting Alaska, the United States, Hawaii, Canada, South America, China, Japan, India and Europe; with a royal welcome in America and the Canadas, In 1869 they returned to the United States to investigate the rumours and inspect the most recently recovered relics. It was only after these interviews that Jane and Sophia finally accepted the evidence of cannibalism. Sophia Cracroft never married, her journals, correspondence and papers are held by the Scott Polar Research Institute Archives, located just above the Polar Museum. Through her role as daughter to the childless Jane, Cracroft became heir to a polar reliquary, much of which passed to the Polar Museum through her nieces, the Misses Lefroy.

 

 

Search parties, the badge and the Fox Blog 7:

Monday, April 9th, 2018

 

The Arctic Expedition at Whale Fish Island, near Disko, 8 July 1845. Pencil sketch by Captain James Fitzjames, showing HMS Erebus and HMS Terror at anchor. Note, on scrap of paper: ‘This sketch, by Captain James Fitzjames, HMS Erebus, was sent home from Greenland, with his last letters, to Lady Franklin’. Polar Museum N: 1995

Newly fitted with screw propellers powered by steam engines taken from railway locomotives, Erebus and Terror made good time across the Atlantic, sighting Greenland on 25 June, crossing the Arctic Circle on the 30th and reaching the Whale Fish Islands on 4 July.  Eight days later, on 12 July 1845, Franklin sent a final report to the Admiralty together with a sixteen pages for Jane; a cumulative letter he had started the day after the expedition crossed the Arctic Circle. This was the last communication Jane and the Admiralty ever received from Franklin.  He died one year eleven months later, on 11 June 1847.

 

Between 1847 and 1859 some thirty expeditions were sent to discover the fate of Franklin. Most were sponsored by the Admiralty but some by Lady Franklin herself, (see Y:2011/49/1 and Y:2011/49/2) or by the wealthy American merchant Henry Grinnell (see Y:57/1), after Lady Franklin appealed to the president of the United States. Over the twelve years of hunting, with terrible costs in human life, as well as ships and investment, the search parties would recover only discarded fragments of the Franklin expedition. This personal detritus, gathered, bought, and bartered by the search parties, was publicly displayed in government and military exhibitions and widely reproduced in the periodicals, newspapers and catalogues of the day. These fragments, known as the Franklin relics, became the stuff of national worship. For generations then and since the stories of the Franklin expedition – heroism and horror – have been pieced together through these relics.

 

The Polar Museum’s collection spans the full twelve years of searches, with a substantial number associated with the British Franklin search expedition 1857-59 (Fox), commanded by Francis Leopold McClintock. Even part of the search expedition itself remains in the collection, a piece of the screw turnail from the outer sheathing of the ‘Fox’, McClintock’s search ship, taken from the remains of the hulk at Godhaven, Disco Island, West Greenland on July 7th, 1931, by the donor. The Fox was a screw, 3-masted schooner-yacht with one funnel, 177 tons gross. She was originally built for Sir Richard Sutton, at a cost of about £5000, the ship’s hull diagonally planked with Scotch larch on the inside and East India teak on the outside, and the two-cylinder auxiliary steam engine of 16 n.h.p. gave a speed of about seven knots. After Sutton’s death, in 1855, the Fox was sold to Lady Franklin in a partly dismantled state for £2000.

 

In 1857 the ‘Fox’ was strengthened to resist polar ice largely at the expense of Lady Franklin, before setting out on the privately funded expedition in search of Lady Franklin’s husband Sir John Franklin. He had been missing for twelve years since his attempt to discover a sea route north of the American mainland. Following reports that the Inuit had seen Europeans on King William Island and the nearby mainland, the expedition aimed to rescue any survivors, retrieve relics, and establish if Sir John’s expedition had achieved its mission. It carried with it a number of copies of Sir John Franklin’s Star of the Guelphic Order made for distribution amongst the Inuit. The Polar Museum holds two such copies, one in full colour (N: 988) and the other plain (Y: 54/20/5).

 

The badge of Knight Commander of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order was awarded to Sir John Franklin on 25 January 1836. The original was made that year, 1836, from enamel and gold, and is now held by Greenwich National Maritime Museum (AAA2079). In 1854 Dr John Rae, Captain of the British Hudson Bay Company exploring and Franklin search expedition 1853-54, encountered Inuit from Pelly Bay with oral accounts and artefacts from Franklin’s lost expedition, which he purchased. Franklin’s original badge was among their number. The Inuit told Rae that they had heard accounts of multiple bodies discovered near the Great Fish (Back) River as well as evidence of widespread British survivor cannibalism, which Rae reported to the Admiralty and The Times upon his return. Full-page engravings of the relics brought back by Rae, together with the inscription “Repulse Bay, 8th July, 1854”, were printed in the November 1854 Illustrated London News, authorized by the Admiralty and Jane Franklin, to whom Rae had given the objects he collected. The badge was subsequently presented to Greenwich Hospital by the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty, on 2 December 1854.

Left, colour copy of Franklin’s Star of the Guelphic Order, made for distribution among the Inuit. Polar Museum, N: 988. Right, the original, Franklin’s Star of the Guelphic Order, obtained from Inuit at Repulse Bay by the Rae Expedition in 1854. Now held in the National Maritime Museum (AAA2079)

Lady Franklin appointed McClintock to command the ‘Fox’, which crossed the Atlantic and entered the Arctic Archipelago from Baffin Bay in 1857. Finding Peel Sound blocked by ice, McClintock sailed down Prince Regent Inlet and wintered at the eastern end of the Bellot Strait. In March 1858, a small sledge party led by McClintock and Allen Young met a party of Inuit near the North Magnetic Pole on the Boothia Peninsula. McClintock purchased a number of items that had belonged to the missing expedition. A larger sledge party also set out and found traces of the missing expedition at Cape Felix. Further south they came across the place where the expedition had reached the shore after abandoning ship.

 

Scenic model of the Fox entering the Arctic. National Maritime museum, SLR0242

 

Recovered record, Polar Museum

 

Nearby were found two records, each deposited in a cairn, that provide the only written evidence of Franklin and Crozier’s decisions and the expedition’s route.

 

McClintock described the discovery in print in 1860, his account will be reproduced for the following blog post. Further down the coast at Erebus Bay, Hobson found a boat containing a large quantity of equipment and facing in the direction of the abandoned ships. He also found the remains of two men who had been armed with a couple of loaded shotguns at this site. When they crossed to King William Island they found a skeleton in the remains of steward’s uniform. The ‘Fox’ returned to London on 23 September 1859. Of all the voyages sent in search of Franklin, McClintock’s men provided the most information about the fate of the missing expedition. Later, the Fox was engaged in survey work off the coast of Norway in conjunction with laying a North Atlantic telegraph cable in 1860-61 before being sold to the Danish Royal Greenland Company. By the late 1880s Fox was owned by Atkies. Kryolith Mine-og Handels Selskabet of Copenhagen, and was refitted with a 17 n.h.p compound steam engine made by Burmeister & Wain. After a long and useful career Fox was wrecked on the coast of Greenland in 1912.

 

The daguerreotype portraits Blog 6:

Monday, March 26th, 2018

Pre-1851 copies made for Sophia Cracroft on high quality salted paper, Derbyshire County Archives.

 

Among the most famous images of the Franklin expedition are the daguerreotype portraits taken of the twelve officers of Erebus in the run up to departure, together with Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames of the Terror. From a particular feature of the daguerreian apparatus (described below), we know the images were taken in pairs, making a total of twenty-eight images. Of the thirteen known originals still in existence, almost all are in the Polar Museum, which holds the glass plate image of Fitzjames and eleven of the officers of Erebus, missing only original portraits of Robert Sargent, (Erebus), and Francis Crozier, (Terror). The only other extant known original is nearly identical to the Polar Museum’s daguerreotype of Henry Le Vesconte, Lieutenant HMS Erebus and in the hands of Le Vesconte’s descendants. However, pre-1851 copies made for Sophia Cracroft on high quality salted paper (shown above) as well as other images distributed across collections and private ownership, have made it possible to glean some idea of the full set of twin images.

 

Left, James Fitzjames daguerreotype portrait by Richard Beard, taken spring 1845 on the dockside at Greenhithe near HMS Erebus and Terror Polar Museum: N: 589/3. Right, a photograph of the original daguerreotype twin of the N: 589/3.

 

In nearly every case, the sitter – for whom photography was new – held the same static position for both twin images. For James Fitzjames, Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte, Charles Frederick Des Voeux, James Walter Fairholme however there are identifiable differences. In the case of the James Fitzjames portrait held by the Polar Museum he is stern-looking; while in the other, for which the original dagguerotype is lost and only copies are known to exist – he has picked up a brass telescope, and there is a hint of a smile. Fairholme described the sitting to his father, saying

‘I hope Elizabeth got my photograph. Lady Franklin said she thought it made me look too old, but as I had Fitzjames’ coat on at the time, to save myself the trouble of getting my own, you will perceive that I am a Commander! and have anchors on the epaulettes so it will do capitally when that really is the case.’

Thanks to Dr Huw Lewis-Jones of the Scott Polar Research Institute who was first to notice the phenomena, scholars of the Franklin daguerreotypes have been able to glean information about where the images were taken from the reflections in the peaks of the caps carried by Fitzjames and Lieutenant Graham Gore. Most of the portraits, including that of Sir John Franklin himself who was recovering from the flu, looking ill, and uncomfortably stuffed into his uniform, were taken in front of a cloth backdrop. However, the caps reveal this to be a temporary dockside studio rather than Richard Beard’s professional premises, illustrated by the infamous satirist George Cruikshank in 1841.

Richard Beard’s daguerreotype studio, illustrated by George Cruikshank, 1841.

Franklin’s portrait, taken while he was stuffed and unwell with flu. Polar Museum N: 589/1

 

Franklin had taken a strong interest in the invention of the daguerrotype as early as 1840, while in Tasmania, and daguerrian apparatus was included among the instruments brought aboard “Erebus” and “Terror”. While the interest originated with John Franklin, the commission for the portraits of the officers to be taken in the days before the expedition departed appears to have come from Jane, with ice master James Reid writing to his family ‘Lady Franklin has ordered all the officers’ likenesses to be taken, and mine among the rest, with my uniform on. She keeps them all by herself.’

The photographer, Richard Beard, was a coal merchant who had taken to speculating in patents and one of only two men (the other being Antoine Claudet) with any kind of licence to make daguerrotypes. The twin images were a product of Beard’s mirror camera which had a singular feature: the mirror had a pivot something like a modern SLR camera, and by turning it the photographer could record two images on a single oblong plate. This gave Beard the opportunity to choose the better of the exposures, or – if both were satisfactory – provide two daguerreotypes and double his profit. This he did with the Franklin images, one set, now in the Polar Museum were given to Lady Franklin; the other once thought to have been given to the Admiralty, may have been purchased or distributed by relatives of officers. After the images were made the apparatus was stowed on Erebus. The challenges of sensitizing and exposing a plate, which required (at different stages) vaporizing both iodine and mercury, would have been considerable in the Arctic climate and there are no known Daguerreotypes of the frozen regions from this era.

This blog post on the Franklin daguerreotypes draws heavily on the blogs and publications of Russell Potter (visionsnorth.blogspot.co.uk), William Battersby, (http://hidden-tracks-book.blogspot.co.uk) and William Schultz (The Daguerrian Annual, Pittsburgh: The Daguerreian Society, 2005). For biographical detail on Beard and his rise as one of the most influential figures nineteenth-century photography in England, see Hannavay, John, ‘Beard, Richard (1801-1885),’ Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, London: Routledge, Vol. 1. 126-7.