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SPRI Museum tour

SPRI Museum tour

A glimpse of the old museum ...

For information on our exciting redevelopment project, please see our Transforming the Polar Museum pages.


The Antarctic gallery displayed permanent exhibits of material from several of the 'Heroic Age' Antarctic expeditions from Britain (in particular Captain Scott's expeditions, with other material from Ernest Shackleton, William Speirs Bruce and John Rymill). Roald Amundsen's flag from the South Pole is an item of particular interest. Antarctic Treaty details, basic Antarctic geology, philatelic items and polar medals were also displayed, alongside models of several expeditionary ships, and a selection of other polar material. Also on display were examples of polar transport equipment: sledges, skis, snow shoes, and clothing, both ancient and modern.


The Arctic gallery exhibited mainly British Arctic exploration during the 19th century, especially material from the voyages that discovered the North-west Passage. Amongst this was a functioning barrel organ, which made four Arctic voyages during the 1820s. The loss of Sir John Franklin's expedition with 129 men aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and the attempts to ascertain their fate was an important theme. A section near the entrance displayed ivory items from walrus, sperm whales, narwhal, and even mammoth. Inuit artefacts and a display of scrimshaw were some of its specialties. The grandfather of the modern snow-scooter, now a widely used transport device in both polar regions, was also exhibited.

Museum tour: The Arctic

Inuit and Eskimo carving


The first glass case as you come into the museum contains carvings made by the native peoples of the Canadian and Alaskan Arctic. Some are made of stone and others of ivory. The smaller carvings were toys for children to play with and are shaped like the animals which are hunted for food and clothing. The dog whip is several metres long and was used to steer the dogs which pulled a sledge. There are more toys and some beautifully beaded items here too.


On the wall to the left is a case full of scrimshaw. This is a type of drawing done on whale bones or teeth. A sharp tool is used to scratch the surface and an ink or dye is then used to show the scratches. Much scrimshaw was made by sailors to pass the time on long voyages.

The North-West Passage

Many British explorers tried to find a way from Europe to the far-east by going across the Arctic seas of Canada. John Ross tried first in 1818, and again in 1829; the routes he, Back and Buchan tried and some of the letters which were written from their expeditions are on display.

Sir John Franklin

Franklin was an officer in the Royal Navy and an Arctic explorer. He was born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire and joined the navy at the age of 15. Although he took part in the great sea battle of Trafalgar, he is best remembered for his surveys of the Arctic. He made maps of over 3000 miles of the coastline of northern Canada. He died in 1847, on his last Arctic expedition to find the North-West Passage. The case showing his expeditions contains maps of his routes, some of the silver spoons which were found, and some early photographs of expedition members. These photographs are known as Daguerreotypes after the man who invented them. There is also a small case about the search for Franklin. When his last expedition did not return, his wife, Lady Jane, organised a massive search effort for him. Here you can see a few of the methods which were used to try to find him, including a collar from a fox, a paper balloon, and brass buttons with instructions written on them. The buttons were given to Inuit people in the hope that survivors would spot a button and know that rescue was coming.

The Polar Rosses

Born in 1800, James Clark Ross entered the Navy at 11 years of age. During his first years of service he was tutored and watched over by his uncle, Sir John Ross. In 1818 he joined his uncle on his voyage in search of the Northwest Passage. Between 1819 and 1827 he joined Edward Parry in four more expeditions to the Arctic. Between 1829 and 1833 James Clark Ross spent another four and a half years exploring the Arctic, achieving the rank of commander. On May 31, 1831, Ross located the position of the north magnetic pole on Boothia Peninsula in northern Canada.

Before you enter the Antarctic section will see a wooden case with a Union Flag in it. This flag was flown by James Clark Ross at the North Magnetic Pole when he became the first man to locate it. Several years later James searched for the South Magnetic Pole. Here you can also see the long triangular pennant which was flown from the mast of James Clark Ross' ship, Erebus.

Oil lamp

The British Arctic Expedition

One case is devoted to George Nares' 1875 expedition to find the North Pole. As well as polar clothing you can see a small oil lamp (with the strange lens on the front), a telescope, and the special porcelain that was made for the expedition.

William Parry

The Museum holds a number of items associated with William Edward Parry. perhaps the most unusual of these is a barrel organ, which Parry took with him on his expedition to the North Pole. The flag which Parry flew at his farthest North point is also in the collection, as are some of the first drawings made by Eskimo with pencils and paper. Many of these items are too fragile to be on permanent display, but they are often included in temporary exhibits.

Snow scooter

The snow scooter was used by the Americans in the Antarctic. It has a pair of skis at the front to steer and a track which drives it with teeth to bite into the snow and ice.

Museum tour: The Antarctic

Antarctic Geology

The geology of the Antarctic is extremely important, telling us about the way that the earth's surface has changed since it formed. A glass case contains coal, dinosaur bones and fossilised leaves which were all found in the Antarctic. Some coal was found by Scott on his return from the South Pole. His expeditions occupy the cases on the right in the main part of the museum.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

The Scott Polar Research Institute was established as a memorial to Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his companions. Captain Scott made two expeditions to the Antarctic, in 1901 and 1910. They are often called the Discovery expedition and the Terra Nova expedition after the ships. The first case shows some of the scientific instruments and camping equipment used, including a Primus stove, a dog shoe, one of Scott's special biscuits and a home made candlestick. If you look at the paintings and drawings from Scott's expeditions you will see that they are all by the same artist: Edward Wilson. Wilson was the doctor and naturalist on the expeditions, but also made many fine paintings.

Emperor Penguins

Emperor Penguins

The emperor is the largest penguin. It breeds on ice during the winter. The glass case in the museum contains a real penguin skin. Scott would have seen penguins like this at the coast during his expeditions.

Last Messages

To the right of the penguin are a few of the letters and diaries written by Scott and his polar party to mothers, wives and friends. (Scott's personal diary is in the British Library in London). There is a picture of the cairn built over Scott's tent in the next case, to the right of the door, which contains Captain Oates' reindeer skin sleeping bag and a map of the route to the pole, made by Wilson.


William Bruce and Ernest Shackleton

Between Scott's first and second expeditions, William Bruce explored the South Orkney Islands and established one of the earliest scientific stations in the Antarctic. Ernest Shackleton tried to get to the South Pole in 1907, but had to stop with 155 km to go. Like many explorers, he returned to the Antarctic, and overcame tragedy when his ship, Endurance (pictured on the left), was destroyed by ice. In the glass case you can see a chronometer which was vital to his navigation.

British Graham Land Expedition

The British Graham Land Expedition was one of the last 'private' scientific expeditions to visit the Antarctic. It made the first accurate maps of much of the Antarctic Peninsula during the two winters spent in the Antarctic. Much of the work done was on seals and penguins and in the museum you can see some of the biological instruments used. The huge nails in the boots at the back were to grip the ice and stop people from skidding around. Because many of the team had previously worked in the Arctic, some had wolf-skin mittens.


Above the entrance to the Northwest Gallery is one of the Graham Land sledges, which was pulled by a team of about ten dogs. Here, too, are more modern sledges, one from British Trans-Arctic Expedition which reached the North Pole in 1969 and the other from the International Trans-Antarctica Expedition, 1989-90. There are three sledges on the wall of the museum. The one on the left belonged to Carsten Borchgrevink, and was pulled by men. Scott owned the other two sledges, using dogs to pull one and men the other.