Even if you think you know about Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s last expedition to Antarctica, it’s quite different to see the artefacts – the letters and journal entries, the boots, aluminium slitted sun goggles and specimens in jars, the extraordinary ghost-like footage of Herbert Ponting’s Great White Silence. Seeing them and reading through the fascinating and saddening anecdotal records is something else entirely. Displayed within a full scale model of the wooden hut at Cape Evans where the team stayed through the winter months, this show at the Natural History Museum in London is worth every second. If you can ignore school children.
It starts with the part of the story everyone knows – newspaper cuttings announce that Scott and his team perished whilst returning from the South Pole, a feat forestalled by a Norwegian team lead by Roald Amundsen. The tragedy of their disappointment and extraordinary struggle for survival branded Scott and the men national heroes of the day, aided by Scott’s own diaries that chronicled it all to the last.
But you come to grips with the letters and journals later in the show, first you are taken back to the beginning and the monumental effort that went into bringing the expedition to pass at all.
There are brilliant little insights and rare artefacts like the sponsored packs of food and woollen pants – their original packaging a joy in their own right – and a sort of day-to-day itinerary of objects that served in turn for entertainment, science and survival (I made particular note of the 10 cases of brandy and 120 bottles of fortified wine they took).
The space itself is very cleverly laid out, stories of the team, members where their bunks were, detail on the scientific endeavours in the makeshift labs together with quite beautiful illustrations of their findings (they brought back over 2,000 plant and animal species, 401 of which were new to science) and everywhere, photos.
Ponting was an artist, his films and images doing more to project the terrible beauty and hardy tale of perseverance directly into the nation’s imagination than written reports which, in the swing of public opinion, would later be raised as a point of contention with Scott’s heroism contradicted (only to return, 100 years later, to a more balanced view).
Personally, I’m into all the writing in an exhibition of this sort – I didn’t feel like I was being beaten over the head with a history book and the creative chronology in its curation made the whole thing play out like a film or documentary, with the weight of the show’s conclusion casting each piece of their expedition in an affecting and all the more remarkable light.