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:


The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

NT Live! Frankenstein at King’s College Anatomy Theatre

Last night (17 March 2011) I had the pleasure of attending one of the NT Live events, and a live screening of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. There were several screenings in London, and indeed around the world, but I decided to go for one I felt would be the most suitable location, the Anatomy Theatre at King’s College.

This proved to be a wise decision as it turned out that the evening was not just going to include the screening of the production, but also a talk by Dr Colin Stolkin entitled ‘Neuroscience & the Gothic: Frankenstein Rising’ in the Anatomy Museum with drinks! As you can imagine I was beside myself with excitement!

As it turned out the talk was in more of an empty room than a museum, my imaginings of being surrounded by skeletons and organs in jars had obviously gone too far. Though the talk itself lived up to everything I could have hoped for, putting Mary Shelley’s novel in the context of science history. Dr Stolkin took us on a journey of the late eighteenth century experiments with electricity, introducing us to characters like Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Giovanni Aldini, Alexander von Humboldt and Benjamin Franklin.


Aldini's experiments. Wellcome Library, London

Aldini, it turned out, preformed the most gruesome of the these early experiments with electricity, and some say was the basis of Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein. These experiments included making the decapitated head of an oxen perform life-like responses, and led to experimenting with the remains of criminals who had been guillotined. In 1803 Aldini came to London and started to perform roadshows demonstrating the wonderous powers of electricity. It was at this time that he preformed his most notorious experiment on the remains of the convicted murder, George Forester, at the Royal College of Surgeons. He applied so much electricity that he was able to not only stimulate the muscles but also made the lungs inflate and simulate the act of breathing. The possibility of bringing the dead back to live seemed more real than ever before.

With tales like these the mood had been suitably set for what was to come. After the talk we refilled our wine and shuffled into the Anatomy Theatre taking our surprising comfortable seats to await the production. It was introduced by a women standing the National Theatre auditorium, and you could tell the free wine was starting to have an effect as, we audience, were far more amused by watching the general public in the background trying to find their seats than we probably should have been.


Image from the National Theatre's Frankenstein from the Frankensteinia Blog

We then watched a ‘Making of’ film, which I enjoyed though I can only recount a couple of pieces of information from it. What I took away was that the Bodleian Library in Oxford paid £3 million to acquire Mary Shelley’s original manuscript, and that influences used by Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller in creating their Creature were from recovering stroke patients, victims of war and car accidents, as well as Johnny’s two year old.

Apologies if you’re now hoping for a full review of the production, I’m not going to provide that here as there are many reviews out on the web. Instead I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and did feel it successfully brought out some key themes of the book (if I remember correctly from my English Literature A-Level). I was surprised by the absence of Frankenstein for the first half of the play, though I suppose that was useful in establishing our relationship with and sympathy for the Creature. The music used was very industrial and helped build atmosphere for us watching on a screen. Also I wonder how much Danny Boyle had a hand in the directing of the camera work, as we had the advantage of watching from all angles, seeing the Creature come to live from above as well as the side, and on the whole the camera work worked well. Though there were just a couple of occasions you felt someone had cut to a different camera a bit too soon, but that’s to be expect from live broadcasts.

Secret Cinema event in a Tunnel,

Inevitably watching on screen is not the same at being in the theatre, and I think we principally lost out in the use of lighting and the immersive quality of plays. There were a beautiful collection of bulbs that were used throughout the play, but watching from afar I felt it was impossible to feel the texture or fully appreciate the use of the lighting. It made me jealous, but didn’t prevent me from enjoying and feeling emotionally part of the action in front of me.

Overall I had a great time, and I think NT Live is a great way to bring together the two old enemies of theatre and cinema together, and with this and events like Secret Cinema it is clear there are ways theatre and cinema can work together and complement each other. Though being a history geek it was the offer of the talk before the play, putting the original story in context, that helped create the magical atmosphere that could be lost not sitting in a theatre, I hope I’ve managed to convey that here.

I believe there is another screening on 24 March 2011, and if you can get tickets I would definitely urge you to go.