Recently redesigned and peppered with fascinating temporary exhibits, the Scott Polar Research Institute captures the high drama of polar exploration with an emotive urgency that makes it one of Cambridge’s most powerful cultural gems. The delicate duckbill-head dolls and vodka cups carved from lumps of bark and reindeer bone give a rare view into some of the world’s most isolated people, including the Sámi of northernmost Europe and the Nenets, Kharti and Mansi of Sibera. These are the arctic nomads whose ways of life, preserved for millennia, are now under threat by Russian oil exploration.
But colonialism, on the whole, has failed to yoke the globe’s icy extremes.
In 1577, Martin Frobisher persuaded Elizabeth I that he had discovered gold ore whilst searching for the Northwest Passage, only to find himself in a tricky predicament when the 1200 tonnes he brought back at her expense turned out to be useless lumps of rock. Other English explorers sent by the queen to explore the region fell victim to scurvy after refusing to join the Inuits in eating raw fish and meat.
By the end of the Victorian era, the Arctic and Antarctic were the last great terra incognita.
All this this proved too tempting for the new breed of daredevil explorers at the turn of the century, and the museum’s main exhibition captures the spectacular struggle of those that ventured, at last, into the most hostile places on Earth.
Shackleton and Worsley’s journey south is told with cinematic high drama: their ship, the Endurance, was trapped in ice for 10 months before sinking, forcing them to head towards South Georgia on a tiny boat to look for help – knowing that if they misjudged the route, they would quickly die.
Terrible weather meant that Worsley, the navigator, only glimpsed the sun four times during the voyage, making accuracy all but impossible, and the crew’s luck took a lurch for the worse when they were almost drowned by what Shackleton realised at the last moment to be “not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave”. Incredibly, Worsley succeeded in steering them to land.
Others were less fortunate. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole, made it back alive but later disappeared on a rescue mission to find missing pilot Umberto Nobile.
Scott, after whom the Scott Polar Research Institute is named, fared even worse. A series of diary entries, photographs and unsent letters, discovered by those that followed his team, chronicle the unravelling of their polar expedition.
First, the famous last words of Lawrence Oates who, crippled with frostbite, disappeared on his 32nd birthday after telling the crew, “I am just going out and may be some time.” Then, days after posing for an exhausted photograph with the Union Jack at the South Pole, the three remaining explorers wrote final letters to loved ones (Scott addressing his: to my widow), and froze to death in their tents, just 13 miles from the next food and fuel stop. If you can finish the exhibition without a tear in your eye, your heart must be colder than a penguin’s toes.
Set against this backdrop of bleakness and despair, the museum’s largest temporary exhibition, Delivery by design: Stamps in Antarctica is oddly compelling and so incongruous that it feels almost like black comedy.
Here, an assortment of stamps and proofs from the “British Antarctic Territory” (claimed in 1908) are accompanied by dry “approvals subject to changes” such as “ensure black text is even” and “snow in foreground slightly too mauve”. From each square, the current queen’s head gazes serenely ahead, while the cheerful formality of the 1960s and 1970s paintbox hues bely the brutality of the landscape they depict.
As Scott, Shackleton and countless others learned to their peril, no amount of stiff upper lip could tame the treachery of this harsh white world – but it is fascinating to see these small hallmarks of civilisation try.
The Polar Museum, at the Scott Polar Research Institute, is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-4pm. It is closed on Saturday 23rd August but will open instead on Bank Holiday Monday (25th August). Delivery by design: Stamps in Antarctica runs until 6th September.