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Race to the end

AMNH showcases famous competition between Scott and Amundsen

It was one of the great rivalries of the 20th century — a sort of heavyweight matchup of the day’s great polar explorers.

In one corner you had Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian adventurer who led the first expedition to successfully traverse Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the other corner, Capt. Robert F. Scott, a British Royal Navy officer whose early exploits in the Antarctic made him a national hero.

In 1910, Amundsen threw down the gauntlet to Scott, sending his rival a telegram out of the blue that read simply: “Beg to inform you Fram proceeding to Antarctic — Amundsen.”

The race to be the first at the geographic South Pole, the last great prize in the Heroic Age of Exploration, was on. The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York is celebrating the centenary anniversary of the spirited but tragic competition with a special exhibit called Race to the End of the Earth.

Ross MacPhee, curator of the exhibit, said the story of Amundsen and Scott remains compelling a hundred years later because it tugs at basic values that resonate through time. 

“It has all the elements: Competition between two very capable, yet very different, leaders. It has the element of a place still untrodden by human feet,” MacPhee said.

An expert in paleomammology — a fossil hunter interested in the evolution and distribution of mammals through time — MacPhee has a special interest in polar history even though he’s not a card-carrying historian. 

“I’ve always been interested in the history of exploration, even when I was working in the tropics … because you can’t help but be fascinated and impressed by these guys, especially in the 19th century when geographical discovery was a significant component of scientific inquiry,” MacPhee explained.

The paleontologist himself has led three expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula since 2007 with funding from the National Science Foundation. MacPhee is in search of evidence that mammals once used that region as a sort of highway between South America and Australia when the continents were still joined as part of the larger landmass called Gondwanaland.

He can also empathize with explorers like Scott and Amundsen. His attempts to prospect for fossils so far have largely been stymied by freak storms and plentiful sea ice in the region. He and his team will make a fourth try for the islands off the western tip of the peninsula in February 2011.

Still, MacPhee shrugs off comparisons between expeditions of today and yesteryear, when today’s scientist-explorers stream through the Southern Ocean on modern icebreakers versus the leaky, crowded wooden ships of their forbearers.

“We have it so good by contrast. You can’t help but be impressed by the things those men accomplished,” he said.

The AMNH exhibit is intended to do just that — impress upon a new generation the sort of technological and environmental challenges the Norwegian and British teams faced at the turn of the 20th century.

Combining artifacts and photographs from the expeditions, highly detailed and artistic dioramas, and even life-size recreations of the living conditions, the exhibit offers the public a unique window into the history of the age.

A short introductory video sets the stage for the race — revealing nothing of how it all ends — before sending the visitor through a series of displays that build the narrative while providing context for the story.

For example, visitors encounter a partial reproduction of Scott’s expedition hut, from where he launched his bid for the Pole, based on photographs by Herbert Ponting. Some 25 men lived together in cramped conditions. The realism of the display is a bit unnerving — rough-looking socks hang from bed railings, as if the men had just stepped away for a moment.

MacPhee said a survey conducted by the museum before the exhibit was created found many Americans weren’t familiar with the Amundsen and Scott tale — a challenge and opportunity.  

“If most people don’t know the story, then they don’t know how it ends,” he said. “The way we presented it was as though it really were a race. You don’t know the outcome until three quarters of the way through.”

Spoiler alert: “People are shocked that Amundsen wins and Scott dies,” MacPhee added. Amundsen attained the Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. Scott and his crew arrived about five weeks later, on Jan. 17, 1912, and were completely demoralized by their second-place finish.

The exhibition adopts a sort of journalistic objectivity, taking neither side. Historically, fans of Scott often criticize Amundsen’s single-minded pursuit of the Pole, going so far as to slaughter and eat the sled dogs that carried the Norwegians across the polar plateau.

Scott’s detractors are similarly dismissive of the Englishman’s methods, which tried to adapt Arctic techniques and equipment used by 19th century naval expeditions to the colder, harsher Antarctic climate.

“We’re very even-handed. It’s not just about Scott. It’s not just about Amundsen. It’s about both of them, and it’s about comparing and contrasting their knowledge and preparation,” MacPhee said, though one senses the American scientist sympathizes most with Scott, who famously man-hauled heavy scientific rock samples back from the Transantarctic Mountains.

The rocks, which contained fossils, were found with the remains of Scott and his companions.

Indeed, Amundsen won the race, but Scott captured the hearts and minds of the world. It’s not his tragic ending, however, that endeared him, MacPhee argued.

“What distinguishes Scott … as compared to any other person from the Heroic Age that you’d want to talk about is how he wrote about being in the Antarctic. His style and ability to evoke a sense of place is matchless; it’s not what anybody else was seemingly able to do, or do as well,” he explained.

“You have insight into his personality in a way that you don’t have with Amundsen. Amundsen is basically a closed book. He was an emotionally remote person,” MacPhee added.

Scott continued to write in his journal until the very end, when exhaustion and lack of food finally overcame him.

Scott’s famous final words from his journal:

We took risks, we knew we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last [...] Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.

“That’s what affected me about the whole chronicle. It wasn’t just a tragedy. There were aspects of it that transcended death and loss,” MacPhee said. “This was a different world. People viewed things differently. This was before the First World War changed our attitude about dying nobly for king and country.”

The bodies of Scott and his two remaining companions were discovered by a search party later that year, along with their records and journals. A large wooden cross was made by the ship’s carpenters. They inscribed the names of the lost party along with a line from Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” It was erected on Observation Hill, which overlooks modern-day McMurdo Station.

“Amundsen became the forgotten man. He wasn’t happy about it,” MacPhee observed. “It was as if the victory had been snatched from him. He only won the Pole. He didn’t win a place in the world’s memory.”

In addition to the exhibit, MacPhee penned a richly illustrated book to accompany the show, which took about two years to produce. He and a photographer traveled to the Scott Polar Research Institute in the United Kingdom to capture images of rare artifacts from the expedition that didn’t make it into the exhibition.

“You’ll see imagery here that you won’t see anywhere else,” MacPhee said.

But visitors to the exhibit itself, which runs through Jan. 2, 2011, before hitting the road to venues in the United States, Canada, and Europe, will still see plenty of original artifacts, many from the museum’s own collection from benefactor Lincoln Ellsworth, himself an accomplished polar adventurer.

Among the items is a simple-looking enamel cup that reads “FRAM,” the name of Amundsen’s vessel. Below that is etched the date 14-12 (day and month reversed in the European way) — the day the Norwegian team reached the Pole. A pair of brass binoculars that belonged to Amundsen carries inscriptions concerning his major accomplishments: first transit of the Northwest Passage, second transit of the Northeast Passage and first to the South Pole.

“These binoculars had never been on display,” MacPhee said. “They were just hidden away in our museum’s special collections.. I saw what had been inscribed on the fittings and knew we had to have this piece in the show. What an amazing artifact.”

And what an amazing story, as told by the American Museum of Natural History.

NSF-funded research in this story: Ross MacPhee, American Museum of Natural History, Award No. 0636639.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs