Geology and Arctic Exploration in Cambridge

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge

I recently had my first introduction to two of Cambridge’s many museums. An experience that took me through over a century of museology not to mention millions of years of history. The two museums were the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, and The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute.

The Sedgwick was nestled in one of the colleges, and had all you could hope for from an Earth Science Museums. Rocks a plenty and more fossils and prehistoric animals than you could shake an animal bone at. Using 19th century cabinets filled to the brim with carefully catalogued artefacts, with names I couldn’t pronounce and handwriting I couldn’t always read, the wonderful world of the 18th and 19th century scientists and collectors, such as the collections founder, Dr John Woodward, and developer, Prof Adam Sedgewick, lives on. Alongside displays that don’t appear to have been changed since the museum opened its doors in 1904 there are modern interpretation panels to guide you chronologically through the creation of the Earth we know today. What I also enjoyed were the very local discoveries, I was fascinated by the skeleton of a hippopotamus uncovered from a town just outside Cambridge. Can you imagine a hippo in East Anglia?!

With the names associated with Cambridge University it is unsurprising to find a plethora of exhibits and displays the NHM could be envious of, including artefacts discovered by Mary Anning and Charles Darwin, and I was constantly amazed at how big the museum was and how much of their collection was on display. I feel like there was plenty I didn’t see and even more I didn’t fully understand.

These rough notes: Capt. Scott's last expedition (7th December – 5th May), The Polar Museum, Scott Polar Research Institute

The Polar Museum was a complete contrast in terms of atmosphere, with a very modern and sleek design. Methods of display also followed more modern habits of interpretation panels above a number of objects alongside a list detailing what the objects actually are, with some more detailed interpretation for some objects. I find the stories of Polar exploration fascinating, particularly because of the intrigued it encouraged among the Victorian public. This public curiosity was first underlined for me when reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but most recently by Prof. Adriana Craciu, in her paper on the Franklin relics given recently at a conference at the National Maritime Museum.

Franklin and other early explorers, as well as the communities that have lived in the Polar regions, are well represented in the Museum, but what I was there for was their exhibition, ‘These Rough Notes: Captain Scott’s Last Expedition’. Being the Scott Polar Research Institute this felt like a very personal exhibition, it was very text heavy; the series of panels (thankfully numbered) were fairly long and most of the exhibits were from diaries, log books, or other paper material from the expedition including the magazine created by the team and a penguin shaped menu. However photographs were able to break this up and following the numbered panels I was able to be absorbed into the detail and felt like I was on this last expedition myself. I found the last few panels about the harrowing experiences of the other sub-teams as well as Scott’s own team quite emotional.

It can be quite difficult to display text-based objects, especially as you probably need a lot of text to interpret the objects and the story within the paper, but the exhibition did manage to translate the relationship between the people and these bits of paper. In such a desolate place writing your thoughts, or creating a magazine, can be one of the few emotional outlets. However the stunning photography from the expedition was able to translate the emotional journey of these men more than any written document and the solemn image of the team at the South Pole was just heartbreaking.

After making the journey with Captain Scott and his team, you’re then able to go back into the main Museum display and I was pleasantly surprised to find more objects associated with the Scott expedition, as well as the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who beat Scott to the South Pole. I was transfixed by Scott’s personal camera and snow shoes for the ill-fated horses on the expedition.

As you can probably tell I loved this museum, and I feel it is the best placed Institution to tell the Scott story. Not only is the Scott Polar Institute the direct result of the scientific findings of that expedition, carrying forward the legacy of the early polar explorers in progressing scientific discovery and understanding but by also telling their stories and the stories of the communities they encountered and affected, the museum is ensuring this legacy is preserved for future generations to investigate and understand.

Here are links to the two museums – you should go!
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences:
The Polar Museum:

One Response to Geology and Arctic Exploration in Cambridge

  1. Pingback: Giants’ Shoulders #44: The Grand Bazaar Edition. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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