March of the Big Macho Polar Explorers


Captain Robert F. Scott in his quarters during the British Antarctic Expedition. Image: American Museum of Natural History

In 1910, two teams of explorers set sail for Antarctica. Both had the same goal: to be the first to reach the South Pole. Which team would reach it first depended on many factors, not the least of which was technology. But the competition between the two team leaders may have made the journey even more dangerous than it would ordinarily be.

The British expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott, was state-of-the-art. Among their scientific gear were specially-designed cold-weather clothing and new-fangled motorized tractors with caterpillar treads. Roald Amundsen was a seasoned Arctic adventurer. He preferred traditional styles of clothing used by the Netsilik Inuit in northern Canada, and relied on time-tested means of transportation including cross-country skiing and dog sleds. The world waited with bated breath to see which would be the first to succeed.

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York called Race to the End of the Earth, uses video, dioramas and historical artifacts to show how Scott and Amundsen each planned and designed his expedition, and how well they fared. (Spoiler: One of them didn’t make it back.) We get to peek into the Scott’s well-stocked hut, which included all his scientific apparatus as well as his collections of Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare. A recreation of Amundsen’s camp lets us see a ski workroom, just part of his expedition’s underground warren of ice caves and tunnels. The exhibit includes lots of historical photographs from the two teams, as well as plenty of explanatory signs to tell you what you’re seeing.

Polar PodPolar Pod

A modern-day polar pod. Image: American Museum of Natural History

At the end of the exhibit is a section on Antarctica today, which shows the kind of extreme-weather equipment used by modern-day polar explorers. (A cute little pre-fab igloo looks a little like the pod from 2001: A Space Odyssey.) There’s also a look at the penguins, leopard seals and other wildlife that inhabits the continent, as well as fossils that prove Antarctica and Africa were once connected. Race to the End of the Earth is open now through January 2011. It’s just one of dozens of worthwhile exhibits at the museum, one of my family’s favorite places to visit when we’re down in New York.

By the way, children’s author Jennifer Armstrong has an excellent book for kids about Antarctic adventurers called Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World. It describes the ill-fated expedition a few years later by Ernest Shackleton to cross the continent by land. After being trapped by ice and bad for more than year, Shackleton was able to go for help and bring his entire crew home safely.

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