skip to primary navigation skip to content


Transforming the Polar Museum

A new museum for Britain's polar heritage

Museum logo

New displays

The Vision for the Museum

The Museum is at a critical period in its development. The Institute celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2009 and the Museum reopens to the public after refurbishment in 2010 in time for the centenary of Scott's 1910-13 British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition. The Museum attracts around 15,500 visitors a year, including many educational parties. A flourishing Friends of SPRI group provides substantial voluntary and financial support and there is a close working partnership with the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust and the British Antarctic Survey. Building on this success, the Institute is planning a major development programme enabled by a Stage Two Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The Polar Museum is the country's leading resource for polar history and science. Exhibitions in the Museum will continue to make creative use of art, technology and interpretation to tell the story of the polar regions, and their scientific, social and environmental role. The galleries have been redesigned and the next phase will be to incorporate an education space, also available as a Family Activity Centre, designed to meet the needs of organised education groups and families. Research access has been enhanced by provision of a dedicated search room within the redesigned museum store.

The galleries house permanent exhibits that examine the role of key figures and events in the following areas:

  • Arctic exploration
    • Indigenous life and technology
    • Contact and impact
  • Antarctic exploration
    • History (including the "Heroic Age")
    • Technology
    • Science
  • Modern polar science and glaciology

Space has also been provided for temporary exhibitions, with the flexibility to accommodate a range of objects and artworks, both from the Museum's own resources and on loan from other collections and artists.

The galleries

The refurbished Museum has innovative and changing exhibitions that bring audiences closer to the most remote areas of our planet – the Polar Regions – and interpret the way in which exploration, scientific investigation and indigenous knowledge contribute to our current understanding of the relationships between the Arctic and Antarctic and the rest of the world.

The redevelopment provides facilities to access the Institute's nationally important museum, archival and photographic resources and incorporate improved teaching facilities for schools and other groups. The Museum is interpreting its extensive collections in a way that is designed to appeal to families and schools, and to attract visitors from further afield. The exhibitions make use of interactive and hands-on displays designed to appeal to a wide range of audiences.

The following spaces have been comprehensively redesigned, enabling a much greater proportion of our holdings to be on view. The displays, with enhanced interpretation and labelling, are based around the themes of Arctic and Antarctic heritage. They exploit the full range and depth of our collections, covering the era of British polar exploration, which spans over 200 years, and which are unrivalled both nationally and internationally.

  • An Entrance Hall with an Orientation Space, providing an introduction to the geography of the Arctic and Antarctic and to the organisation and structure of the galleries and their displays.
  • Arctic displays, organised chronologically with displays of key personalities and expeditions, their aims, trials and achievements, linked to the evolving understanding of the geography of the Arctic, and the interactions between explorers and the native Inuit hunters and Eurasian reindeer herders, using documents, artworks and artefacts from both groups. There is space in the gallery for dynamic projected images of, for example, the Arctic ice, the animal life of the pack ice and indigenous peoples in their own environment.
  • Antarctic displays, showing the discovery and exploration of the Antarctic from the first voyages, through the expeditions of Scott, Shackleton and others, including the race to the pole and the epic Endurance expedition and subsequent small-boat journey across the Roaring Forties. Our material is both comprehensive and powerful; for example, the Pole Party's last messages from the final camp, the sleeping bag used by Captain Oates before he made his last, sacrificial walk into the Antarctic blizzard, and Hurley's iconic photographs of the Endurance crushed by the pack ice.
  • The Ice and Climate gallery shows how the early polar expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic began the scientific mapping and understanding of the ice and biota of the poles, and how this translated through Scott's Discovery expedition, co-sponsored by the Royal Society, through the mapping expeditions of the 1930s to 1950s and the International Geophysical Year (1957), culminating with the current International Polar Year, 2007-09. In this gallery, historical material will be blended with contemporary scientific achievements and the significance of the poles in a rapidly changing and warming world. This space also houses an attractive Museum Shop.
  • A Polar Cinema, based in the existing Lecture Theatre, showing films about the Arctic and Antarctic, including both copies of historic films from our collections (e.g. 'Nanook of the North', 'South with Scott') and films of the geography of the polar regions and the art and ethnography of the native peoples.
  • A Polar Art Gallery, with flexible hanging systems and well-designed lighting, to show temporary exhibitions of both our own extensive polar art and artefact collections and the works of other contemporary and earlier artists. We have a series of art exhibitions planned, aimed at encouraging new audiences to visit the polar museum, building on the successful series of temporary exhibitions over the past few years.
  • Institute Main Reception, adjacent to the Art Gallery is used as a reception for official visitors to the Institute, and is the link space between the Museum and the Art Gallery, with views through glazed cases into the Museum proper.

Overview of the new layout/design

New entrance

We have re-opened the original entrance from Lensfield Road as part of the redevelopment of the Museum. This entrance was changed in the development of the Institute that took place in the late 1960s. The main doorway was closed off and a new entrance created on the west side of the new building erected in 1968. Removing an existing internal partition and resiting the existing entrance to the Institute has created a very distinct Museum display space, separate from the Institute. This has several benefits:

  • Creating a separate and distinct environment for the Museum
  • Providing an increased floor space for the Museum displays – from 260 square metres to 317 square metres – an increase of 20%.
  • Enabling the design for the Museum to be developed separately from the Institute
  • Ensuring greater security for the Museum

Memorial Hall/EntranceCeing dome, Antarctic, by Macdonald Gill

Ceiling dome, Arctic, by Macdonald GillThe opening up of the original entrance enables museum visitors first to encounter the decorative and architecturally dramatic Memorial Hall with its mosaic floor and painted ceiling domes – a memorable experience. Very little has been done to alter this area structurally and it will be left to serve as an orientation space where the visitor will be given basic information about the museum and the Polar Regions.

Main Museum gallery

New glass screens and sliding doors divide the Memorial Hall from the main space of the museum, providing a means to separate the external environment from that of the exhibition space.

A single, more uniform museum space has been created for the displays. The nature of the building and its Grade II listed status makes installation of active environmental control systems prohibitively expensive. In consequence, the displays are installed in conditioned showcases, providing the environmental stability required.

Volunteer staff welcome visitors and provide information from our new reception desk. This area also serves as the shop counter. The main display area is subdivided into a number of themes, covering the history and science of the polar regions and their environmental and geopolitical importance today.

Temporary exhibition gallery

The area for temporary displays has been redecorated and the space rationalised, creating an attractive gallery with demountable showcases, which can be adapted as required.

Statue in the Institute garden by Kathleen Scott, 'Lux perpetua luceat eis'Garden spaces

The exterior of the Museum has also been redesigned, to ensure that the Museum gains maximum benefit from its position on Lensfield Road. The plans have included repositioning and lighting the steps and access lifts; relocating and interpreting large objects within the garden space, and provision of a more welcoming and better signposted entrance to the Museum.