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Museum Displays
Photo Credit: Denis Finnin/AMNH
A timeline of the race to the South Pole takes the viewer to a recreation of the Norwegian tent. Amundsen beat Scott to the Pole by about five weeks and didn't learn of his rival's death until months later.

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.

Peole in a shop.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Museum patrons shop for memorablia of their visit.
Display case holds skis and sled.
Photo Credit: Denis Finnin/AMNH
A sledge and skis that would have been used by the Norwegians.
Red shelter with various tools inside.
Photo Credit: Denis Finnin/AMNH
A modern-day shelter used in Antarctica.

“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 External U.S. government site.

“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.”

Book Cover
Cover of MacPhee's book, Race to the End.

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 External Non-U.S. government site 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 External U.S. government site.Back   1 2