mon 24/06/2019

Scott’s Last Expedition, Natural History Museum | reviews, news & interviews

Scott’s Last Expedition, Natural History Museum

Scott’s Last Expedition, Natural History Museum

Scott and his men were at the South Pole 100 years ago to the day. This exhibition celebrates their scientific achievements

Holey relics: ski boots said to have belonged to Captain Scott © Canterbury Museum New Zealand

It’s safe to say that the diary of Tryggve Gran does not capture the mood of this centenary exhibition. “This life is of little interest," he wrote; "one day is just as monotonous as the next.” Gran was the Norwegian hired by Captain Scott to teach his men to ski and was in the party which discovered the frozen bodies of Scott, Edward Wilson and "Birdie" Bowers. On the sledge which Scott and his exhausted men had hauled through nearly 1,000 miles, they found 30 pounds of geological specimens. Gran hazarded a sceptical note: “I think they might have saved themselves the weight.”

Some of those specimens are on display here. Carefully collected on the way back from the Pole from the mountains which flank the treacherous Beardmore Glacier, they include coal, oolitic limestone and a piece of Beacon sandstone with a fossilised stem of the extinct plant glossopteris indica (pictured below) which supplied crucial evidence that Antarctica was once part of the southern super-continent Gondwana. It helps to answer the question of whether this narrative, so barnacled by legend, still has anything to say to us after all this time.

It is 100 years ago to the very day that Scott and his four companions had a gloomy time of it fixing the precise location of 90 degrees south. They weren't in a good mood, having the day before found Amundsen’s tent. The story of their highly Edwardian brand of heroism doesn’t need retelling here. The artefacts say it all. The very sledge, ski poles, goggles and sleeping bags which were once used by these men as they sledged off into English myth are all on display. (Curatorial diligence is not what one encounters at warmer latitudes: are those cracked leather brogues Scott's actual boots? No one is sure.) Herbert Ponting’s bulky 35mm Prestwich cine camera is here, and his skis with his initials carved in the tips.

But for once this is not just another visit to the debatable land of Scott’s leadership. “The main objective of this Expedition is to reach the South Pole," he grandly announced when appealing for funds in 1909. And yet a year later he was boasting to The Geographical Journal of “a scientific staff larger than that which has been carried by any previous expeditions”.

Once it became apparent that the perfidious Amundsen had secretly given up on his stated aim of reaching the North Pole and had turned his ship south, Scott embarked on a damage-limiting campaign to talk up the Terra Nova expedition as a invaluable voyage of discovery for science as much as a flag-planting jaunt. The proof is in the Natural History Museum. It has mounted this exhibition with support from the Antarctic Heritage Trust and generous loans from the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand. To the mix it adds bits and pieces from its own collection, which contains 40,000 specimens brought back on the Terra Nova, including a beautifully curlicued brittle star (pictured above). Of the 2,000-plus species of animals and plants shipped home, a fifth were new to science.

The key figure in this rewritten narrative thus becomes Edward Wilson, Scott’s close friend and chief scientist. Devoutly religious, with an ascetic cast of mind and a restless curiosity in the fields of biology and geology, he was also a delightful water colourist. Wilson is the presiding genius of this exhibition. Alongside his wooden box of paints (from Ackerman and Co, with little porcelain mixing trays), there are his tidy daubs - of an Emperor penguin’s dissected intestine, of a great frigatebird (fregata minor nicolli), of dusky dolphins. An atmospheric photograph shows Wilson sketching at the mouth of a tent, the mountains rising behind. Among his specimens, including preserved skuas and penguins which didn’t make it into the cook’s pot, the most remarkable are of course those brought back from the so-called Winter Journey, better known after Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s peerless masterpiece as "the worst journey in the world".

This story – of how three men sledged for sixty miles there and back through the wintry polar night to retrieve some Emperor penguin's eggs for science - was most recently retold in Frozen Planet. But there is no substitute for seeing with your own eyes perhaps the most notable egg in history (pictured right). It was hoped that the embryo of aptenodytes forsteri might supply evidence of the missing genetic link between birds and dinosaurs. In all they brought back three from the penguin rookery at Cape Crozier. The one one on display has an uneven aperture in its flank, presumably fashioned by a scientist at the Natural History Museum to whom Cherry-Garrard handed them on behalf of his two dead friends. A century on, the museum is reticent about the snotty reception Cherry received.

Alongside them it’s astonishing to see the pipettes, tubes and bottles which he, Wilson and Bowers dragged on their sledges, and the cumbersome bat lamp with a huge bat shaped into the waist of the glass. Cherry’s balaclava must have offered flimsy protection against the biting katabitic winds. When they got back to base at Cape Evans the three of them were snapped by Ponting at table. Wilson’s eyes alone address the lens. They have a haunted look that hints at hard-won knowledge, which he later detailed in his Winter Journey journal. Even page one makes harrowing reading.

The exhibition tells the story of the expedition's three dramatic years as efficiently as the Queen’s Gallery show currently showcasing the photographs of Ponting and Frank Hurley. Its overarching trope is to turn the space into an exact reconstruction of the hut at Cape Evans. White lines on the floor mark where the bunks would have stood. A CGI display shows where all the men sat in the famous photograph of the midwinter's day dinner in June 1911 - one of several iconic images by Ponting blown up to life size.

The hut, erected in nine days, feels more spacious than expected. But it must have been horribly cramped. It housed a dark room, a laboratory, a kitchen, Scott's quarters and within its confines more than 20 officers and ratings lived, worked, studied and listened to music on the Monarch Senior gramophone which still works. (There is no mention of where they defecated). Everyone dined off enamel plates, though on high days out came the monogrammed china dinner service for the officers, with crockery from Walker & Hall silversmiths in Sheffield. There are copious examples of the food stuffs supplied for free by eager sponsors that lined the shelves: now corroded tins of syrup, oatmeal, biscuits, cocoa (pictured left) etc. A hollow red orb is all that remains of a finest Dutch cheese from Rotterdam. They had a printing press with which to bring out copies of The South Polar Times, and also create a handmade menu card in the shape of a penguin for midwinter 1912. Those who ate CROUTE EREBUS and CHARLOTTE RUSSE GLACE A LA BEARDMORE knew that the five men of the polar party were dead.

This is an engrossing eye-opener of an exhibition for Antarcticaholics and those new to the story alike. The men who used all these items long before they became evocative exhibits may not be not be with us, but their spirit is, most directly in their (sometimes poorly lit) diaries and journals. The biggest surprise is a letter from poor Edgar Evans, the hulking Welsh petty officer who died first on the way back from the Pole, and rather less nobly than Oates. Not being much of a writer, his voice is rarely heard in polar literature. “I should not be surprised to be here 2 years,” he wrote in a letter to a friend called Charlie. “Sincerely Yours, Taff.” He’s been gone rather longer than he expected.

  • Jasper Rees is the author of Blizzard: Race to the Pole (BBC Books)

Unless otherwise stated, all images © Natural History Museum

Devoutly religious, with an ascetic cast of mind and a scientist’s restless curiosity, Edward Wilson is the presiding genius of this exhibition

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