Cambridge: The Polar Museum

Ever since learning of its existence through Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling, I have wanted to visit the Polar Museum, aka The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.  My love for doomed polar expeditions has been well-documented on this blog, and the thought of seeing artefacts that actually came from Scott’s failed Terra Nova Expedition was irresistible.  And there were lots of other museums in Cambridge that looked great too, but somehow I just never got around to going.  However, I just started a new job (I’ve been unemployed for over five years; basically the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, and then some. So this job is a really big deal for me, but it’s also totally not the type of thing I thought I would ever be doing, and I’m genuinely not sure how long I’ll be doing it for, because it is hard physical work!), so on my final week of freedom, I wanted to venture out of London, and because it was too late (and expensive!) to book anywhere abroad, I settled for a day trip to Cambridge.


Getting up there was actually a cinch…it took about as long (45 minutes) to get from our flat to King’s Cross (10 miles) as it does to get from King’s Cross to Cambridge (55 miles) on the direct train (getting around London is always the hardest part). Marcus and I had about six and a half hours in Cambridge before the museums shut, and a long list of museums to potentially visit, so I thought it would be best to start with the Polar Museum, both because it was closest to the station, and the museum I most wanted to see (we ended up making it to five museums in the end, as you’ll eventually see, which I think is really pretty good going. My feet were killing me by the end of the day, but it was worth it).


Happily, the Polar Museum is free, as are all the museums that are part of Cambridge University (there are a couple of museums in the city of Cambridge that do charge admission), so this was shaping up to be a very budget-friendly trip.  We were greeted by a couple of volunteers at the admissions desk, who instructed us to begin in the entrance hall (back out the doors we came in) and work our way clockwise around the museum. So we dutifully trooped back outside to admire the beautiful entrance hall ceiling that I had missed on the way in.  It had maps of the North and South Poles on it, with ships from all the major polar voyages painted in on them, which I loved, and strained my neck trying to read all the labels (you can see one of the maps in the first set of pictures). The museum proper began with a section on the native peoples of the Arctic (since obviously there is no native human population in the Antarctic), and displayed some of their traditional crafts (I want some traditional Greenlandic boots, or at least I would if they weren’t probably made from baby seals. Maybe they could use faux fur for mine?).


At the time of our visit, the museum was hosting a small exhibition of Dick Laws’ art (it looks like the exhibition ran slightly over, because the website says it was on until 25 March, and we were there on the 26th). Dick Laws was a marine mammal scientist who travelled to the Antarctic to study seals and whales, and he was also a keen artist who produced some very cool (literally) little paintings.


But it was the main room, containing artefacts from almost all the major polar expeditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I was most keen to see, and man, this did not disappoint.  This room was a veritable treasure trove for polar history nerds like myself.


It touched on a few of the earlier expeditions, but it really had loads of stuff relating to John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to find the Northwest Passage. I mean, a surprising amount, given that the Erebus and Terror just mysteriously vanished, along with all their crew. Most of it was admittedly from the search parties that went out looking for Franklin, but Inuit recovered items from one of Franklin’s ships before it sank (mostly made of metal, like the set of spoons bearing Franklin’s crest), and some of those items eventually made their way back into English hands. I thought the coolest thing was one of the actual letters left in a cache by Franklin’s men before the ships had been lost, explaining how they had spent their first winter in the Arctic (a letter was also left by Franklin’s men after Franklin died (of natural causes) and the ships had been abandoned, but the museum only had the facsimile of that, the real one apparently residing at the National Maritime Museum (but I’ve never actually seen it there. Hopefully it will make an appearance in the special Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum this summer, which is also meant to have artefacts recovered from the wreck of the Erebus! I can’t wait!)).


And then there was Scott, the museum’s eponym (well, the research centre’s eponym anyway. Does anyone else get namesake and eponym confused? I had to look it up for this post to make sure I was using it correctly). I thought the Franklin collection was impressive, but this was even better, probably because although Scott and the four men chosen to head for the South Pole with him all died, their other teammates (shipmates?) survived, and the tent Scott et al died in was discovered soon afterwards (they were only 11 miles from their nearest depot, which was full of supplies), so pretty much everything could be recovered.  One of the (many!) great tragedies of Terra Nova is of course that Scott was just pipped to the Pole by Roald Amundson, as Scott discovered upon reaching the Pole himself, and he was then stranded in a tent on the return trip by a bad storm and frostbitten feet. So he died knowing that he failed to accomplish his goal of being the first man at the South Pole.


But out of tragedy comes a hell of an interesting story, and some amazing artefacts.  The most poignant things by far were the actual letters and diary entries written by Scott and the men who accompanied him on the doomed dash for the Pole when they realised they were going to die. Lawrence Oates, who I wrote about in my very first post, developed bad frostbite early on, and felt he was holding the others back, so essentially sacrificed himself by wandering outside during a storm, where he froze to death (he died on his 32nd birthday, if you needed it to be even sadder). The museum had a letter from Edward Wilson (one of the other men who would die) describing Oates’s heroic death to his family. There was also a letter from Scott to his own family, bidding them all farewell, which was terribly sad.


Speaking of Oates, the museum had his actual sleeping bag, which was slit so he could get his damaged frostbitten feet in and out of it, a pair of Scott’s polar goggles, and actual food from the expedition, including a massive tin of Colman’s mustard powder, and a product made by Bovril specifically for the voyage that contained pemmican on one side, and cocoa on the other (the staples of the explorers’ diets were basically ship’s biscuit, pemmican, and cocoa, and they usually combined the pemmican and biscuit with water to make a stew called hoosh. It’s a shame that the European-made pemmican, unlike the native stuff, was simply dried meat and fat, with none of the traditional dried berries that might have at least helped to stave off scurvy (one of the missions to find Scott was aborted because they were trying to save another man who had developed scurvy. Vitamin C was actually discovered in 1912, just slightly too late to have done Scott’s expedition any good)).  I think it’s fascinating how many special products were produced especially for various polar expeditions (and I think they should bring back a special “polar edition” Colman’s mustard powder tin. I’d buy the hell out of that (another of my weird food quirks is that I hate actual pre-mixed mustard, but I love Colman’s mustard powder. I dump an inappropriately large amount into my rarebit sauce)).


They also had a small case of stuff from Shackleton, but I’ve been kind of down on him since I learned he ordered Mrs. Chippy shot (I know explorers killing their animals to survive is par for the course (Scott even took ponies with him with the intention of killing them for meat once they’d reached a certain point, because ponies are meatier than dogs), but they weren’t at breaking point yet, and they didn’t even eat the poor cat. They just shot him. I don’t know, if you read Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition you’ll probably share my outrage), and anyway, Scott was really the main 20th century explorer they focused on in the museum. All they had from Mawson’s expedition was his theodolite (but I think most of the Mawson stuff is in Adelaide, which makes sense, since he was Australian. I wonder if he saved the soles of his feet after they peeled off and he had to stick them back in his boots to be able to go on walking. Now that’s a gross artefact I would LOVE to see!)


The museum concluded with a small display about modern scientists in Antarctica, but it was kind of an afterthought, because clearly everyone is coming to see the actual artefacts.  And rightly so, they are awesome!  I was incredibly pleased with this museum, and when I left, I talked about how it was a 4.5/5 museum (I think it was a bit too small to be 5/5, but they did a great job with the space they had, I’m just always hungry for more!), and that’s what I’m sticking with; even after seeing the other Cambridge museums (some of which were excellent) it was still my favourite, simply because I’d read so much about the things here, and it was amazing to be able to see them in person. And they had an adorable husky statue outside, which didn’t hurt either.  This museum is a must-see for any polar exploration fan!





  1. So wonderful! Just looking at your photos, I get a nice spooky chill. It’s amazing how much was recovered. But gah! The deaths and farewell letters are brutally sad – the Lawrence Oates story is particularly terrible. I actually just finished reading an account of John Hornby’s ill-fated trip in the Northwest Territories in 1926 – a much smaller venture, but with all the same horrors of isolation and starvation – so your post (again!) feels very timely.
    Also funny, I just finished The Road To Little Dribbling. Is it me or is he getting even grousier? He seems to be wishing people dead a lot more frequently. Just the same, or maybe because of it, I always enjoy Bill Bryson. It really made me want to plan a trip to England soon.

    1. I’ve never heard of John Hornby’s trip; I thought they’d sort of given up on the Arctic by the turn of the century, although if he was just exploring rather than searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, then that makes sense! I’ll have to look into it. It sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would enjoy.
      And Bill Bryson is definitely getting crankier. I enjoy his books on England, because I have a lot of the same complaints that he does, but his writings on America usually annoy me, because he seems to think that everywhere but Iowa is terrible, and I’m quite sure Iowa isn’t that great.

      1. Yeah, I had the same thought – I didn’t think people still felt the push to conquer the north in the 1920s. You’d also think they’d have gotten smarter about it. Hornby’s interest (extreme obsession) was overwintering near the remote Thelon River. I think you’d definitely enjoy it – it’s called The Legend of John Hornby. There’s also apparently a famous radio drama from the ‘50s about it called Death in the Barren Ground.
        Ha! I feel the same about Bryson’s American stuff.

  2. Soles of the feet peeling off, eurgh! I’ve been to Cambridge a couple of times but not visited here.

    That’s a lovely picture if the two of you in your VERY colourful jumpers / sweaters. I’ve not noticed that before, but it pops up in the article thumbnail now so I’m guessing it’s new?

    Congrats on the job, even if it’s not ideal.

    1. Thanks! The thumbnail in the sidebar is actually from my Instagram feed. It’s a picture of me and my brother that I posted for Siblings Day on Monday. The ugly jumpers are because it was taken around Christmas, since that’s the last time I saw my brother.
      And it’s not a bad job or anything, it’s just a lot of manual labour (I’m an assistant brewer in a meadery) and I’m worried about injuring myself, since I’m not as young as I used to be! It’s also somewhat of an unlikely job for me, because I’m the kind of person who can happily go for months without drinking, although probably not anymore…

      1. Yeah, it’s a small team, and I’m the only woman, so I suspect I may have the equal opportunities hire. I was pretty much applying for anything that sounded remotely interesting when I got it, but I’m enjoying it so far, and have many, many bruises to show for my hard work!

  3. That sounds like an amazingly cool place. I’ve always been fascinated by the explorers of any region, but especially the Arctic. It’s so incredibly unforgiving there.
    Personally, I kind of hope that Mawson not only kept his soles, but put them on prominent display in his home, where his family still delights in sharing them with visitors. “What on earth is that in the box, Mr Mawson?” “Why, that’s the soles of my great-grandfathers feet!” And if you tell them, “That’s awesome!” that’s it – best friends forever.
    Anyway, loved the post! And congratulations on your new job!

    1. Just like Walter Raleigh’s wife did with his head (only slightly less grisly)! Yep, that would be awesome. I like the way you think! I’ve always said that if I ever have to have something removed from my body, I would demand to keep it. Fortunately, all I have so far is my wisdom teeth (since obviously having to have body parts removed is not ideal).
      And thanks!

  4. Personally, i think they were all insane. Did you know they discovered the Terror in pristine condition on the ocean floor? i guess they never really asked the locals where it went down, since it was in a place known as Terror bay and the Inuit had lots of stories about the mast sticking up out of the water. . . . I’ll try attaching a link, but your comment system might block it.

    1. Yes, I did hear about it, but thanks for the link! John Rae, one of the explorers who went searching for Franklin’s party, did speak to the Inuit, and more importantly, believed them (because most Europeans had no respect for them), and was consequently the person who came closest to discovering what actually happened. However, he also reported that the survivors resorted to cannibalism, so Franklin’s widow wrote him off as a liar, and it ruined his reputation (even though they totally did eat their dead companions).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.