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The life and death story of polar exploration
display, Polar Museum Cambridge
One of the new displays at the Polar Museum on Lensfield Road Cambridge

The miserable deaths suffered by Scott and his companions on their way back from the South Pole is one of the most terrible stories in British history.

It is told at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, which reopened in June, 2010, after an extensive refurbishment.

The museum tells the story of polar exploration and reveals how the data gathered 100 years ago is used to help explain climate change today.

It packs a lot of story-telling into a small, light and airy space.

Polar exploration

During the 19th century most European people were more interested in Arctic exploration.

British explorers first headed to the North Pole after the Napoleonic Wars ended. The Royal Navy had a surfeit of ships when the conflict ended and decided to send them north to find a route through the fabled North West Passage.

The museum explains the route was not to be fully traversed until 1903, when the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made it along the route. He was also the man who beat Captain Scott's party to the South Pole.

Polar life

But for some people the Arctic had always been home. Early explorers from the USA or Britain struggled with health problem like scurvy, due to a lack of vitamin C. Indigenous people had developed ways of overcoming this.

Bob Smith was responsible for the redevelopment of the museum. He explained: "Most vitamin C comes from fresh produce and early explorers brought food with them that was cooked and boiled and all the vitamin C destroyed.

fur suit, Inuit
Fur clothes used by Inuit people to survive the Arctic extremes

"The Inuit people actually ate raw fish, raw meat and whilst that sounds horrible it actually preserved the vitamin C and kept them healthy."

So their way of life is also explored at the museum, to show they knew how to survive while living in one of the most extreme environments in the world, whereas Europeans in the 19th century struggled.

Displays include beautiful carvings, a suit of fur and a kayak.

Amundsen took the time to learn Arctic survival tips from indigenous people and he believed this gave him the edge during his explorations. He learnt to use dog sleds and swapped his heavy woollen clothes for furs.

Polar Museum

The Polar Museum is part of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University. Neither would exist were it not for Captain Robert Scott's doomed expedition.

Scott had already led a successful Antarctic tour, which combined exploration with the gathering of important scientific data, when he set out to conquer the South Pole.

But Antarctica is one of the harshest and most deadly environments in the world.

His team arrived at the South Pole in January 1912, only to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it by five weeks.

The bodies of Captain Scott, Edward Wilson and Henry 'Birdie' Bowers were found in their tent in November 1912. Their South Pole companions Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates had died before them - Evans following a fall while Oates walked out of the tent rather than hold his team back.

Visitors to the museum can see objects found with the explorers' bodies and donated by family members in the years since their deaths. They include their last letters and, of course, Captain Scott's diary, which details their harrowing last few weeks.

National reaction

clothes, Polar Museum, Cambridge
These clothes were worn during Scott's doomed Terra Nova expedition

The news of their death electrified the nation. There was an outpouring of grief, great pride taken in their sacrifice and donations poured into a fund set up to support the men's families.

The residue of this was used to fund a museum of polar exploration at the Scott Polar Research Institute, which was itself set up in 1920 and is the oldest international centre for polar research within a university.

The purpose-built Institute on Lensfield Road was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and opened in 1934. During the 1930s it became the centre for valuable scientific expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic and this role has continued ever since.

Big investment

The museum was closed for around 18 months while it was completely refurbished. Previously visitors only saw around 10 per cent of its collections; thanks to a clever use of the space 30 per cent is now on view.

It holds some of the most stunning photographs in the world, including those by Herbert Ponting, and thanks to interactive screens more of these images can be enjoyed. There is also a new art gallery to display polar art from Inuit people or from the museum's own collections.

The £1.7 million refurbishment was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and has increased the display space by around 20 per cent.

Scientific research

Finally the museum ties the stories of the Arctic and Antarctic explorers with their scientific legacy.

statue of boy outside Polar Museum Cambridge
The statue outside the Polar Museum was sculpted by Scott's widow Kathleen

"It's very interesting to talk about the historical perspectives of exploration, but what use is that today?" asked Bob Smith. "We now talk about climate change but how do you know that the world is warming up unless you know what temperature the world used to be?

"Scott and his team were taking temperature readings every two hours every day of the year. It's these fantastic records that enable us to see what's happening in the world over the last century."

Experts at the Scott Polar Research Institute continue to study the changing data coming from the Arctic and Antarctic but they do so out of the historical context which the museum can give.

Of course, Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton and the others had mixed motives for their explorations.

They were lauded for their achievements, but what drove them? To be there first or increase scientific knowledge?

"It's a complex question," Bob Smith admitted. "I think if you ask three people you'd get three different answers.

"I think the answer probably lies in of course they wanted to be there first, like you want to climb Everest first. But they were also keen to leave a legacy of scientific research and knowledge behind them."

The Polar Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.00pm.

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