Thursday, 8 March 2012

Scott's Last Expedition, Natural History Museum, London

Perpetual darkness, blizzards, ice, and cold; cold so intense your body shakes uncontrollably shattering the teeth in your mouth. Harnessed to the heavy sledge you strain against the weight and into the onslaught of the wind as the runners freeze to the ground; yet you know for every mile you drag this one forward there are two more to return to collect your second sled. Tonight there will be little or no rest with hours spent thawing your way into your sleeping bag frozen ridged like a sheet of metal.

It's one of the truly horrific stories of exploration, three men spending five weeks in the darkness of the Antarctic winter sledging 65 miles from Hut Point to Cape Crozier. The journey vividly described by Apsley Cherry-Gerard in his book "The Worst Journey in the World" was to collect the eggs of the Emperor Penguin in the hope of proving a missing link in evolution.

These events, the superhuman endurance of Cherry-Gerard, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers to collect what must be the most hard won samples in scientific history form part of a much larger story, a story which is the main focus of the excellent "Scott's Last Exhibition" currently underway at the Natural History Museum in London. 


Edward Wilson sketching an unknown mountain range. (Ponting)


The legend of Scott is etched onto the national consciousness even one hundred years after his death; vanquished in his race for the pole, succuming to exhaustion and starvation a mere 11 miles from the saftey of "One Tonne Depot". Scott's tale dominates the story, such is the drama and tragedy of his death; the race with Amundsen, the defeat, the suffering and heroism, all at the limit of human endurance and the edge of the known world. It was seared into our national tale at a time when nation and empire appeared at the hight of it's powers,  a last glorious hurrah before the Great War changed everything.


"The ... public will gauge the result of the scientific work of the expedition largely in accordance with the success or failure of the main object" Scott


True to Scott's words his story has tended to overshadow the other men of the expedition,  their stories are less well known and their contribution less celebrated. The expedition is also a tale of observation, and experiment; dedicated men spending hours recording weather, currents and tides, cataloguing species, studying rocks and glaciation; these men were not just explorers they were meteorologists, physicists, geologists and zoologists expanding the thin slivers of knowledge mankind had about this strange unknown continent.

I've previously written of Scott and why I feel his failure is infinitely more valuable than Nansen's success. Nansen brought back nothing from the pole, took virtually no  photos, and charted little new land. Scott's polar party included Wilson and Bowers men who had distinguished themselves on that winter journey pushing on in the face of seemingly impossible hardship. Wilson especially was an extraordinary polar scientist, and the party stopped to survey new land and collect rock samples on the journey, samples and records they felt were important enough not to abandon in the desperate last few days trying to reach the supply depot.


The fruit of five weeks of hell, one of the first eggs of the Emperor Penguins know to science (NH Museum)

These samples, along with the journals and photographs of the polar party were discovered by the rescue party the following year. One of these small fragments of rock taken from the heart of the frozen continent would yield the fossilised remains of a tropical plant also found in similar age rocks in modern day India. A small piece to the puzzle that would eventually lead to the idea of plate tectonics. The sample stares back at you from the display case a link with the not only the human story of the expedition but the great scientific arc of discovery.


Scott's tale plays a part in the exhibition but it does not dominate, here his friend and colleges come out from his shadow Simpson the meteorologist, Priestly the geologist, and Wilson the scientist not the doomed explorer. The device used to tell their story is simple but effective; laid out on the floor of the hall is a full scale plan of the hut, the bunks of the men white lines anainst the black floor. The walls of the hut become the display space, the stories of the different men, scientists, cook, sledge teams are detailed in the faded pages of journals, drawings and sample tubes. 


History is fortunate that Scott chose one of the all time great expedition photographers to accompany him to the Antarctic recording the day to day activities in the hut and on the ice. The monochrome photos of Herbert Ponting feature strongly throughout the displays and carry over the industry and activity of the expedition from the mundane to the magnificent; Clissold preparing dinner, others mending broken kit or tending to the ponies, coupled with an image of Wilson sketching an undiscovered mountain range . There is even some really early moving footage of the expedition ship, the Terra Nova leaving New Zealand and later landing the expedition ponies on the sea ice


At work in the lab (Ponting)



The stories; human, scientific, glorious and tragic blend together to complement and reinforce each other, i've got all the way through this blog and not even mentioned the extraordinary survival story of the Northern Party. If you know little of these event the tale will thrill, inspire, sadden and move; for those that have lived these events through the pages of books the exhibition brings  you face to face with the pieces of the story themselves, the men of the Terra Nova telling their story from across the century; it's brilliant.

 Scott's Last Expedition is on at the Natural History Museum until 2nd September.



Watercolour painted by Wilson during the scientific programme (NH Museum)





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