Polar Museum, Cambridge

The Scott Polar Research Institute

Just before Easter I went to Cambridge for work-related reasons. While I was there, I had some spare time so decided to visit the Polar Museum. This is located in the Scott Polar Research Institute, which is a centre for the study of the polar regions and is of international importance. The SPRI was founded in 1920 as a memorial to Scott and his men, who died on their return from the South Pole. It is the oldest international centre for Polar Research within a university.

I originally visited the SPRI several years ago when I was living in Cambridge. In fact, it originally inspired my interest in polar history, as I found the stories of exploration fascinating. I vividly remember viewing the original letters penned by Scott and his companions as they lay in their tent, surrounded by a blizzard, knowing they were going to die. Back then, I was on a work visit and we had a tour of the extensive library, but today I was here as a normal visitor, and stuck to the free Polar Museum.

The Museum contains information about both the Arctic and Antarctic. It encompasses the history of exploration in both regions, including the quests for the North and South Poles. My personal interests have always leaned towards Antarctica, and there is a great deal of interest here, including the history of Scott’s last expedition on the Terra Nova. However, I also enjoyed reading about the search for the North West Passage, including Franklin’s infamous expedition of the mid-nineteenth century in which he and all his crew disappeared; despite several search parties being dispatched to look for him, the mystery was never solved. The Museum also contains information about survival in these cold regions of the earth, and displays about the people who live in the Arctic (the Antarctic does not have an indigenous population).

By Endurance We Conquer

The current temporary exhibition is By Endurance We Conquer: Shackleton and His Men, and it is the major centenary exhibition commemorating Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17. I’ve written about this expedition on this blog before, including my post about the recent Royal Geographical Society exhibition, so I won’t repeat the same facts. This expedition makes use of diaries and artefacts in the SPRI’s collections, including navigation instruments used on the James Caird on the voyage to South Georgia, the cooking pot used by the three men on the overland crossing of South Georgia, and Ernest Shackleton’s pannikin marked with his initials. There are also archival materials including letters, diaries, and a memory map drawn by Frank Worsley showing the route taken during the South Georgia crossing. What I liked about the exhibition was its focus on the 28 individuals of the Weddell Sea Party (not to mention Mrs Chippy the cat), with written summaries describing each person, whether they went with Shackleton to South Georgia or remained behind awaiting rescue.

This free exhibition runs until 18 June, and will be followed by a display on the Ross Sea party, commemorating the centenary of Shackleton’s arrival at Cape Evans to rescue the survivors in January 1917. It’s well worth a visit, especially as it’s free, and the museum as a whole is a superb resource for the study of polar history.


Address: Lensfield Road, Cambridge, CB2 1EP

Website: spri.cam.ac.uk/museum

Opening Hours: 10-4 Tues-Sat

Prices: Free

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