The Polar Muse

The Polar Muse aims to harness the power of poetry to do what conventional museum interpretation can’t do: to engage with objects imaginatively, going beyond the handful of facts you can fit on a caption. Eight of Cambridge’s most exciting and innovative poets have been commissioned to select an object from the collection as inspiration for a new poem, and given access to the full breadth of the Scott Polar Research Institute’s library and archive resources to conduct research. Their poems will be presented on the glass of the display cases, in front of the object about which they are written, as both an added layer of curation and interpretation, and a new creation in their own right.




The Polar Muse
- Poetry as curation at The Polar Museum

24th September - 28th February 2015

Opening Times:
Tuesday - Saturday, 10am - 4pm
open Bank Holiday Mondays

Admission is free

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Latest blog posts

Balloon Blog - November 2014 — by Rod Mengham (27th November 2014)

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A polar museum is a kind of compressor, it provides a dense assemblage of objects that stand for a history and environment with huge lacunae in which nothing ever happened or made the slightest bit of difference to the obdurate rock and ice that filled nearly all the available space. The Scott Polar is a very human, very busy place, intellectually, administratively and visually; the poles are not, despite the increase in commercial and scientific traffic, and they weren't even remotely busy until a hundred or so years ago. While the museum does a brilliant job of compression and condensation, crowding a huge amount of information into its library and displays, is does not easily evoke the feel of Arctic and Antarctic space and time. This is what a poem can try to do, and I think this is what drew me to work on, or with, the concept of the Arctic fire balloon.

The fire balloons were devised after the Franklin expedition went missing, as a means of trying to set up some sort of contact, however indirect, however tenuous, with the missing men. The balloons trailed lengths of twine with hundreds of slips of paper or silk attached; these would bear messages, with information about buried supplies and the whereabouts of rescue parties; the twine would be chemically treated to act as a slow burning fuse that would be ignited before the balloon was launched; once in the air, the twine would burn away, releasing the slips of paper at regular intervals. The chance of any of these messages fluttering down into the hands of Franklin or his men was almost nil. The whole project is testament to the inventiveness of naval engineers and the determination of the Admiralty but is also evidence of the genius for futility that seems to have been intrinsic to polar exploration during the reign of Victoria. My imagination was caught by the scale of unlikelihood with which the rescue operations were planned and put into operation, as well as the vast extent of the territory that their efforts were supposed to impinge on. Even supposing a single message should end up in the hands of the intended readers, the likelihood that the information it contained would be of any practical use was almost unthinkable. The subject of the poem is basically the size of the territory that divided lost persons from lost messages; the size of the gap between the sending and receiving of the message. The humble balloon was almost laughably, but also very poignantly, inadequate to this task.

Another thing that struck me was that, almost alone among the museum's exhibits, the balloon was unable to assume its proper three-dimensional shape. It was folded up—a Victorian Ikea flat-packed Arctic Fire Balloon. Its whole purpose was to be balloon-shaped, to be in the air, to be floating off over a frozen continent, to become a dot in the distance, to be finally lost to view; not lying asleep in a small glass case in a centrally heated museum. The job of the poem was to inflate the balloon.

We do know that one balloon came down and that its message was read; but this incident was part of a scam. On 3 September 1851, Mrs Russell of Wotton Lodge, Gloucester found an Arctic fire balloon tangled in her shrubbery. It carried a message that purported to come from Franklin himself. Imagine the excitement. Unfortunately, it soon became clear to Navy analysts that the whole thing was a hoax. The message used phrasing that did not conform to naval technical jargon; the coordinates were given in the wrong order and did not include readings in minutes and seconds in the manner used by every navy-trained navigator; and the coordinates placed the ship in the middle of Victoria Island, a sizeable land-mass. Who was the author of this deception? The most likely candidate was Lady Franklin, who was known to have been given two fire balloons, and who was more motivated than anyone else to revive flagging hopes of Franklin's survival so as to give the Navy a valid pretext to launch another rescue expedition. Unsurprisingly, the Admiralty did not pursue the most obvious course of investigation open to them. I have included a couple of phrases from the phoney message (I am not saying which) because they form part of the language of quixotic desperation that this whole enterprise is really about, and whose true measure is the unimaginable, vast stretching blankness of the canvas on which it tried to make a mark.

A further blog - ii) Whiteout Film for Snow-Goggles (Landscapes) — by Redell Olsen (6th November 2014)

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The one object, or substance that is convincingly absent from the Polar Museum is snow.

In Apsley Cherry-Garrard's, The Worst Journey in the World he describes how descriptions of the weather, and in particular of the snow itself, come to dominate the accounts made by Scott and his party of their ill fated final expedition.

Scott laid his One and a half Degree Depot (i.e. 1 ½ ˚ or 90 miles from the Pole on January 10. That day they started to go down, but for several days before that the plateau had been pretty flat. Time after time in the diaries you find crystals—crystals: crystals falling through the air, crystals bearding the sastrugi, crystals lying loose upon the snow. Sandy crystals, upon which the sun shines and which made pulling a terrible effort: when the sky clouds over they get along much better. The clouds form and disperse without visible reason. And generally the wind is in their faces.

(Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World p. 183).

In 'Whiteout Film for Snow-Goggles (Landscapes)' the elements of the poem are arranged in couplets; potentially crystallographic formations of small numbers of words that could be regarded as miniature landscapes; landscapes with a horizon line that separates the 'lower' vocabularies of snow and ice from the 'upper' words used to describe the weather phenomena in the sky.

The vocabulary of the poem is drawn from Silas: The Antarctic Diaries and Memoir of Charles. S. Wright (1993) and Field Guide to Snow Crystals by Edward R. La Chapelle (2001). Wright was the physicist and glaciologist on Scott's last expedition and in more recent years Chapelle pioneered the study and prediction of avalanches through his extensive taxonomy and readings of different types of snow. In both books what comes across is the dynamic metamorphic potential of snow that continues to change its structure even after it has fallen.


The destructive metamorphism of a stellar snow crystal. From: A Field Guide to Snow Crystals by Edward La Chapelle.

i. Whiteout Film for Snow-Goggles — by Redell Olsen (5th November 2014)

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(Keywords: entertainment domestic activity huts)

'Whiteout' is a term used by many of the explorers in their diaries to record a blizzard that literally whites out, or obliterates their view. The heroic age of Antarctic exploration is filled with accounts of the suffering caused by snowblindness. Snowblindness is caused by the effects of what Shackleton called, "the violet rays," and the intensity of the rays are increased by the reflection of the light from the white of the snow. The effects of snow-blindness are extreme: prickly sensations of grit in the eyes, watering of eyes, extreme pain in the eyes, which can lead to blindness. Many of the explorers experimented with extreme treatments such as tabloids of cocaine taken as eye-drops into their eyes.

As scientists and explorers have pointed out it is not only the sun that can make you snow-blind. Amundsen records in his diaries how he became snow-blind on a cloudy day. He also records the difficulty of being, "certain of one's surroundings," as the reflections of light from the snow disturb the usual perceptual expectations of distance and foreground in the landscape.

The Polar Institute has a Polaroid demonstration kit that has a pair of goggles that can be fitted with different lenses in order to show how the Polaroid lens works. In essence it is a piece of coloured or tinted film that filters the harmful UV lights before they hit the eyes.

Scott experimented with snow goggles with tinted glass but reverted to the Inuit type goggles that deflected the harmful UV rays by the narrowing of the gaze through long thin lines in order to protect himself from the effects of the glare. The invitation of the Polar Institute to write a poem that would be placed on glass between the viewer and the exhibit struck me as an interesting analogy to the workings of the Polaroid model. As did the potential to explore the relationships between the history of the design and use of snow-goggles, with their slitted deflective lines and the sense of a possible analogy to snow-blindness and to the 'white-out,' experienced in extreme situations in landscapes much closer to home.

The poem also makes reference to two photographs by Herbert Ponting who was Scott's Expedition Photographer on the Terra Nova Expedition. The first is 'Midwinter Day Tree. June 22nd 1911' (P2005/5/449). As you probably know, midwinter day is the day in the Arctic/Antarctic regions when the sun doesn't rise at all.

The catalogue description reads: "In the interior of the hut, expedition members sit and stand around the table. Flags and pieces of paper hang down from the ceiling to nearly touch the table.

Date: 6.1911

It is difficult not to notice with irony the key words attributed to the photograph by the cataloguer:

Keywords: entertainment domestic activity huts

It was the futility of so many of the possessions and equipment that really struck me. Hence, the intermittent lyric speaker in the poem is engaged in domestic activity, getting stuff ready for an expedition into a whiteout and doing useless things like embroidering the names of types of snow on hatbands, which should read Discovery.

And the second photograph is also by Herbert Ponting and shows him standing on his head in the snow (Reference: P2005/5/837). Even at this late stage in the expedition (February 1912), Ponting is still engaged in what to me appears to be a performative joke which, with the photograph flipped upside down stages his ability, like some snowbound Atlas, to carry the whole of the Antarctic on top of his head.

Keywords: entertainment domestic activity huts

The Art of Antarctic Photography — by Sarah Howe (9th October 2014)

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Through the Polar Museum's display glass, the century-old camera with its outstretched bat-leather body, its complex of metal knobs and runners, makes my mind wander through more familiar coordinates: I'm put in mind of accordions, ophthalmologists, hearses, in turn. This much is certain: you see it differently, this camera, after you read it went with Captain Scott on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition of 1910-1913. In the expedition's early weeks, its celebrated professional photographer, Herbert Ponting, had schooled Scott in how to coax the best results from these intricate contraptions. Ponting's own camera, a larger and more robust-seeming piece of kit – hardly the sort of thing you would want to have to drag in a sled – today sits in the glass case next to Scott's own. Before Scott set off from their main camp for the Pole, the final piece of instruction Ponting offered him was to show his pupil how to release the shutter by means of a long thread, so that all the men who reached that goal could appear in the photograph together.

The camera now in Cambridge might or might not be the same one Scott and his companions took on their final journey when they left for the South Pole in January 1912. A note found in its case at the time of its donation in 2006 suggests that it was indeed the camera in question. But David Wilson, in his wonderful book The Lost Photographs Of Captain Scott (2011), says the actual Pole camera was never found. If Wilson is right, that other camera (unlike its more fortunate twin) presumably still lies at the unknown spot where the Pole team finally abandoned it, compacting in the snows. Perhaps it yet holds the plate bearing their final group-shot, if they ever managed to negotiate the huddling and string.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes believed he saw in all photographs an intimation of death. I thought of Barthes when I read Scott's journal entry for Sunday 1 October 1911:

After noon on the 25th we made a direct course for C. Evans, and in the evening camped well out in the Sound. Bowers got angles from our lunch camp and I took a photographic panorama, which is a good deal over exposed.

Scott's white-tending panorama can be found among his surviving photographs. Despite its obvious flaw, the vista holds considerable geographical and even compositional interest. Unlike Ponting's polished and elaborately posed tableaux, it is in the improvised or imperfect nature of Scott's apprentice photographs that their value often rests, as snapshots of daily life on the Terra Nova Expedition. But the punctum in this passage has to be that word, 'exposed'. In the context of Scott's expedition, the seemingly inert photographic term cannot help becoming, with hindsight, a terrible pun – retrospectively ominous when seen in his hand. Prophetic even.

As I made my way through the Polar Museum's related holdings, I found myself intrigued by another piece of Scott's photographic apparatus, also tinged by deathly associations: a chromatic filter, made from yellow glass in a circular brass fitting, recovered in 1913 from the tent in which he and his companions died. Scott's Antarctica is so shaped for me by the photographs he and Ponting left behind that the ice-world summoned in my imagination is persistently black-and-white: grey human figures fading into blankness, cathedral caves and cliff faces in shades of white on white. I found that Scott's lens filter, with its honeyed tint, added an unexpected note of colour to my mental picturings, startling them out of monochrome. Did Scott forget to dump the disc of yellow glass along with the camera that gave it purpose? I found myself wondering, no doubt fancifully, if there was something comforting about its illusory warmth – like a miniature sun – in those dark last days.

It was the weight of all this apparatus – cameras, lenses, plates, filters, tripods – that dawned on me as I read about the early Antarctic photography experiments. Ponting wrote vividly about the practical difficulties of setting a shot in freezing conditions. Aside from being wearisome to lug about by sled, the photographer's kit could prove unexpectedly perilous at sub-zero temperatures:

Sometimes moisture, condensing into the finest particles of ice, will get inside the lens – then you are through. A grave danger anent the camera is the brass knobs. If by accident, you touch with your bare hand any part of the brass of the apparatus, it will burn you like a red hot iron. On one occasion I was focusing under my cloth when I happened to moisten my lips. The point of my tongue came in contact with the metal and instantly froze there; the shock was so great that I went over backward, and when I recovered, I found that I had lost the tip of my tongue, which remained frozen to the camera.

(Herbert Ponting, quoted in Wilson, Lost Photographs, p.33)

Ponting's tales of the minor frostbites inflicted on him by his own equipment give new meaning to the notion of the suffering artist.

In the course of my research, I felt especially fortunate to get the chance to see Scott's extraordinary 'lost' photographic negatives. (I should probably say 'handle' rather than 'see', since I found the experience was oddly more tactile than visual.) Recently rediscovered, the negatives were acquired by the Polar Museum earlier this year after a public appeal that saved them for the nation. I was lucky to catch the box of negatives during their brief stay in the museum's main archives, from which they were shortly due to head off for conservation. After being cleaned and scanned, they are destined to join the collection's hundreds of other negatives in the Polar Museum's preserving deep-freeze. This will extend their lifespan by ten times, but also put them beyond the access of casually interested viewers such as myself, making my timing truly serendipitous.

Housed in a wooden box with a sickle-shaped metal catch, each one still wrapped in its original greaseproof paper-like sleeve, Scott's negatives are of two types. Some are glass plates – goodness knows how they survived their travels – about a palm's width across and a couple of millimetres thick, whose resemblance to thin-set ice must have been even more striking in the Antarctic. One side of the glass is coated in an emulsion that, on some of the plates, tended to peel up slightly at the edge, making me feel a little panicky: where the film lifted from the glass support, black gave way to a multihued iridescence like a beetle's shell. The rest are cellulose acetate, a type of plastic: thinner, yellowing, pliable. Entirely black when laid flat on the desk, the cellulose negatives reveal their ghostly images – a balaclavaed man, a slatted metrological post, a fluffy pony dragging the skeleton of a sled – only when tilted. I did this gently, and with some trepidation, between my surgical-gloved fingers. The well-padded men set against black snows had the air of astronauts bobbing over lunar rock. It struck me that these negatives, in their fragility, were the end result of all those heavy, sled-borne crates of photographic equipment – the immaterial in the midst of the material, like the personification of light itself.

Arctic hazes and reindeer lichen: visibility poor — by Drew Milne (7th October 2014)

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Over the summer of 2014 SWERUS-C3 scientists revealed that they have observed vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor of the Laptev continental slope, with bubbles reaching the surface. This marks early notice of what could become a new catastrophic turn in the development of global warming. Thawing of the subsea permafrost in the Arctic ocean could release so much methane that it becomes simply impossible to stop global warming spiralling out of control.

The impact of human industrial activity on the Arctic is not a new phenomenon. Even as early as the middle of the eighteenth century, there were sightings of what has become known as 'arctic haze'. Arctic haze is visible as reddish-brown springtime haze high in the Arctic sky and reflects, in a literal sense, the build up of anthropogenic air pollutants. Early explorers and whalers could not see where the foggy layer was coming from, and, according to Wikipedia, 'poo-jok' was the term the Inuit used for the phenomenon. Joe Minden and I have tried tracing the evidence for this Inuit term, not least because it connotes rather effectively in English, but without being able to draw any firm conclusions. It seems indicative of a non-Inuit transcription haze, part of a culture of half-recognitions and misnomers as humans struggle to understand their differences and their seemingly disastrous impact on the planet.

It was not until the 1980s that scientists began to accumulate evidence and understanding of arctic haze, a process in which the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) has played a significant role. In 1985 SPRI hosted an important global conference, the papers from which appeared in Arctic Air Pollution, ed. Bernard Stonehouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). This book, while almost a generation out of date now, still contains important and collectively articulated discussions of pollution. I bought the book at a very reasonable price from The Polar Museum shop, and discovered, reading through the book, a series of overlaps with my ongoing research into the politics and poetics of lichens.

When the Polar Muse project was first suggested to me, I knew that I wanted to write about Arctic lichen and the glimpses of lichen in The Polar Museum's collection. Reindeer lichen play a significant part in the ecosystem of plants, animals and humans in the Arctic. Reindeer lichen is an essential food for reindeer, especially when there is precious little else for the reindeer to eat. Lichen have also long been known to environmentalists as sensitive monitors of air pollution, in ways that run much deeper into our world than most humans have any inkling of. To cite one minor example, litmus paper is made from lichens. To cite a more extended example, I knew from my own investigations into nuclear pollution – some of which informs the book Reactor Red Shoes (London: Veer, 2013) which I co-wrote with John Kinsella – that Arctic lichens have absorbed radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing from the 1950s and 1960s. The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 also saw widespread contamination of northern and Arctic lichens, with direct impact on the reindeer who eat such lichens, and on the peoples who live with, eat and depend on the reindeer, such as the Sámi people. Arctic people have for generations been living with high levels of nuclear contamination absorbed by lichens.

Appropriately, then, given my interests, I was delighted to find a small clump of reindeer lichen on display in The Polar Museum. There is no signage in the museum to explain what this clump is, nor is there any clear provenance for this modest clump, whether it is even from the Arctic, how it came to be in the museum, and so on. And I hope this little clump will remain without signage or caption to name its necessary presence in the museum. My poem 'reindeer lichen' nevertheless offers a series of perspectives on what it might be to see and understand reindeer lichen. Part of the history is that reindeer lichen are widely called 'reindeer moss', but lichens are not related to any moss or plant. There's a much longer story to be told of how lichens in general have been misnamed or misrecognised. Being a symbiosis of algae and fungi, lichens are a collective, mutually-interdependent life form. But recognition of the fascinating biology of lichens is relatively recent. It is not only folkish naming that misnames reindeer lichen a moss, even the scientists have struggled. Linnean classification made something of a mess of categorising lichens, and for a while they appear under the category of 'cryptogams'.

One aspect of my research involved trying to work out when Arctic explorers might first have been able to recognise reindeer lichen as lichen, using the available botanical guidebooks. There are doubtless other possible resources, but one relatively early book to name and represent reindeer lichen that Arctic explorers might plausibly have taken with them, is the New Cyclopaedia of Botany and complete Book of Herbs; forming a history and description of all plants, British or Foreign, published in London and Huddersfield in two volumes in the 1850s. This relatively inexpensive book could easily have been among the scientific resources taken on a voyage to the Arctic from the mid nineteenth century onwards. Having tracked down and bought the relevant page and illustration from a dealer in antique prints, I have offered it as a gift to The Polar Museum, and I'm delighted to see it installed in the exhibition, not least because of the early colouring techniques applied to the plates.

lichen plate
Illustrative plate from 'New Cyclopaedia of Botany and complete Book of Herbs; forming a history and description of all plants, British or Foreign' by Richard Brook, undated, but published, according to British Library date, by W. M. Clarke in Huddersfield (1854). Image courtesy of Drew Milne

My poem 'reindeer lichen' makes no reference to the New Cyclopaedia of Botany, but registers some of the layers of misrecognition involved in looking at reindeer lichen in a museum glass case. It has been suggested that early Arctic explorers might have had much better diets if they had recognised the value of reindeer lichen as a nutritious food, not least for reindeer, and seen its role in the lives of indigenous people. Although there were always scientific interests involved in non-indigenous expeditions, it seems clear that eyes were ultimately focused on less tangible ideals, such as trade routes, profits, the pole itself, even the unknown as such. Through the various types of arctic haze, lichen have scarcely been noticed, and the modest visibility of a clump of lichen amid the trophies and relics of the museum seems all too appropriate.

New adventurers, using advanced technologies, have recently discovered one of the lost ships of Sir John Franklin. Contemporary scientists are also at the centre of the environmental research necessary to address global warming. There have been some hints of progress. A recent UN report finds evidence that the ozone layer might be recovering. Now that methane has started bubbling up through the Arctic ocean, it will require collective adventures of human spirit to reverse processes which appear beyond the tipping point of environmental human self-destruction. Lichens will probably survive even the most disastrous climate change, but humans will not. The modest proposal emerges: let us see humans through lichen eyes.

Courting the Polar Muse — by Lucy Hamilton (2nd October 2014)

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I'm excited about the Polar Muse. I'm already immersed in reading and research for one of the three workshops ― a collaborative project between the Poetry School and SPRI ― entitled Behind the Scenes of the Scott Polar Museum. Along with Scott's Journal and The Last Letters, I've been reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. And while preparing my workshop, Exploring a Polar Prose Poem, had a privileged viewing of Dr Wilson's paintings, courtesy of Naomi Boneham, the Institute's archivist. Dr E.A. Wilson was Chief of Scientific Staff on the Antarctica Expedition 1910―13 ― and a gifted artist. I think I'll use his Paraselena for one of the writing activities.

Paraselena Jan 15. 1911. 9.30pm Cape Evans McMurdo Sound.
Edward Wilson (Image © SPRI N478)

I've bought Edward Wilson's Antarctic Notebooks (compiled by his two great-nephews). It arrived this morning (Saturday) and tore me away from Ponting's photographic masterpieces. You can find many of the paintings and photos on SPRI's website Freeze Frame http://www.freezeframe.ac.uk/.

Some of the photos are on general display in the museum ― such as this famous one:

Terra Nova from Grotto in Iceberg
Grotto in a berg. Terra Nova in the distance. Taylor and Wright (Interior). Jan. 5th 1911.
Herbert Ponting (Image © SPRI P2005/5/127)

Feeling overwhelmed by all the material. It's hard not to be taken over by the stories. I'm magnetised by the enthusiasm and ambition, and by the extreme exposure and risk Scott and his team endured over such a prolonged period of time. Impossible not to be moved by the humour, resilience and ― perhaps above all ― by the underlying sensitivity and affection these tough men frequently demonstrated towards one another, in spite of periods of extreme anxiety, physical pain and sleep deprivation.

Didn't sleep last night either. Plaster-cast too tight I'm sure. Typing painfully slow with left hand. Forced to look at the keyboard and when I glance up the entire text is in caps! So I sit here reading/writing about frost bite & snow blindness and it's salutary. Wilson is the man they all turn to for his calm sense of judgement and his lack of ego. I keep studying his face. He was deeply religious, a committed Christian. But he didn't proselytise. It was a profound personal conviction. He was witty too.

Today I visited SPRI again, hoping to get a poetic frisson from a specific object such as the slashed sleeping-bag, the case of letters & diaries, Ponting's camera or Wilson's satchel. The Arctic Inuit kayak resonates strongly and conjures up poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. The Emperor penguins, their eggs and babies are enchanting. But I'm not getting that poetic tingle. No, that's not true. How could I not be seduced by this?

Adelie Penguin
Adelie penguin.
George Murray Levick (Image © SPRI P48/14/178)

Especially when I remember what Cherry says about penguins and their babies: Now we found that these birds were so anxious to sit on something that some of those which had no eggs were sitting on ice!

And here's the man himself ― only 28 years old.

Cherry-Garrard working on south polar times
Mr Cherry-Garrard working on the "South Polar Times". August 30th 1911.
Herbert Ponting (Image © SPRI P2005/5/475)

So I'm getting the tingle alright. But I'm not getting the inner music that signals the stirring of a new poem. I love these objects and pictures and should be able to write a book on each one of them! But I'm stuck and I think I know why.

Off to London today and, as so often happens, a train journey is good for thinking. Or not thinking. Just letting your mind go free and the answer pops up if you're lucky. I'm stuck because I'm in the middle of my second collection of prose poems. I'm immersed in these poems and psychologically can't simply stop and put them on hold. So I need to think a way into a poem that will work with my collection-in-progress. My Polar Muse has to be versatile. Sssh. Something's happening ...

Slept on it last night. Didn't even make a note. This morning I know how to proceed. My collection features various 'characters', who are named according to their profession or occupation. One of these characters is the Diarist. Suddenly it's clear what I ― or rather she, the Diarist ― must do. My Diarist will turn her attention to the letters and diaries of the Antarctic Expedition 1910–1913. I will 'talk' to her and show her things. We will embark on a journey and work together. We will confer with those other diarists. My Diarist is nearly ninety years old. She's an adventurer. Now she and I will switch-on our laptops and set off …

Lucy Hamilton, May 2014

Penguins and Providence — by Rebecca Watts (30th September 2014)

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It was April, and my first walk around at The Polar Museum, when I realised that, apart from the existence of a north one and a south one, I knew nothing about the polar regions. I'd watched David Attenborough's Frozen Planet with amazement and delight, but what I'd taken from it were the animal images: the Great Grey Owl's moon face and teddy-bear legs looming out of the whiteness; the trepidatious narwhal traffic jam amid a perilously narrow channel in the pack ice; the general tragicomedy of penguinkind. Where all this incredible footage actually came from hadn't crossed my mind; such parts of the world seemed no more real to me than Narnia. Involvement in this project has meant my introduction to an entirely new area of knowledge, inspiration and imagination.

The Polar Museum is brilliant: small enough to get the measure of in an hour, but packed so full of fascinating information that you can go back again and again and learn something inspiring every time. Being partial to thinking about animals' perspectives, what stood out during that initial visit was the stuffed Emperor penguin with a chick between its feet. It looked so sad, and the chick so desperate to be alive, that I knew straight away I would be able to write something about them. This feeling was reassuring, as it coincided with my desperate effort to mask my ignorance of all things polar from Joe and Bridget, who were expertly and enthusiastically showing me and Andrea round the various displays.

When a poem starts with a feeling I don't like to do too much research before I get some first words down on paper, in case the sentences I read overlay the initial impression or sense of voice I have begun to grasp at. So I sketched out a few lines soon after leaving the museum, and established the basic dynamic that I wanted to capture in the poem, before I let myself enjoy some of the internet's offerings on penguin habits and lifestyles. Incidentally, while chatting with one of the museum volunteers on another occasion I was alerted to the British Antarctic Survey's Penguin of the Day feature – a gift which really does just keep on giving.

Joe recommended I read Cherry-Garrard's account of the 1910–1913 Terra Nova expedition, as it was during this that Edward Wilson (chief scientist), 'Birdie' Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard endured 'the worst journey in the world', to Cape Crozier and back, on a quest for Emperor penguin embryos. The story of that journey is astonishing, and the book as a whole presents a deeply affecting synthesis of the Terra Nova explorers' reactions to the Antarctic. What struck me most was what good writers they were – many of their descriptive accounts, written in situ, already sound like poetry – and I developed a strong sense of the intensely ambivalent relationship that these men formed with the commanding Antarctic landscape.

A few phrases and images cropped up repeatedly in these writings, and I became interested in their accounts of their sleeping patterns and dreams, which seemed closely linked to their thoughts about death and to their religious beliefs. 'Providence' and 'mercy' were more than concepts: they were a means of making sense of extreme suffering and events that no discernible logic could explain. I noted down numerous passages from Cherry-Garrard's book, and began to piece together a patchwork of words and phrases that I see as reaching towards a set of definitions for Antarctica – recognising that things we take for granted in normal situations (the ability to sleep, for example) mean something totally other in the context of that place. I wanted to convey a sense of simultaneous confusion and clear-headedness, and the combination of fighting spirit and calm resignation, that seemed to characterise many of the written records of that expedition. The meaning of faith, and the extent to which it can both empower and cheat individuals, emerged as an important question for my poem to explore, in attempting to understand and communicate even a vague impression of the mindset, suffering and achievements of those men.

Managing Ambiguity: Spatial Extrapolation and Poetic Composition — by Lucy Sheerman (25th September 2014)

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Gareth Rees analyses the impact of pollution on plants and trees by linking detailed descriptions of small sections of ground with satellite images, through a process he calls spatial extrapolation. He records the distribution and colour of specific types of land cover (snow, lichen, birch, etc) and then links that information to the data captured by satellite images. By studying consecutive satellite images he is able to describe the changes to particular plants and trees over time.

I am drawn to the field notebook he shows me. Its minute process of description captures the detail of the author's experience of a precise moment, place and experience. These notes are couched in a mode of scientific detachment and enquiry which has parallels with a poet's notebook. I am thinking, for example, of the rigour of Bernadette Mayer's attempt to give a precise and painstaking account of her experience of a single day in the book Midwinter Day. I am morbidly fascinated by the myriad mosquitoes trapped between the pages of Gareth's book. The streaks of mud and grass stains and the messy running repairs made with parcel tape all add to the sense of immediacy and authenticity.

This a document of lived experience and it is filled with the distractions shared by my own notebooks. Of course, mine don't include complex negotiations with helicopter pilots to transport me to remote parts of the arctic, records of delicate discussions with Russian officials to gain official sanction for my visit or in-depth conversations with reindeer herders about their migration patterns. As my typical day does not take me further than few hundred metres from Great St Mary's I also don't usually find it necessary to record my gps location or how far I am from Cambridge (Cambridge to London, 50 miles, London to Vienna, 763 miles, Vienna to St Petersburg, 980 miles). However, my notebooks are filled with parallel distractions, logistics and clutter which exist alongside notes and ideas for writing projects, as well as first attempts to capture an idea or thought process.

I am drawn to Gareth's meticulous and forensic style:

photo 20: view of this site

#44 4252017470601

birch tussock lichen tundra, quite trampled

bones here so perhaps herders used this area

As before, lichen is v. heavily trampled

Overall, lichens – 50%. Most of rest is bet nova

16/7 1819 20°c! 56/RH 1015 mts 50 kls

These are snapshots which will later be correlated with satellite images to inform a scientific paper.

I am intrigued by his description of the telescopic processing of these detailed observations. Somehow the minutely detailed information he amasses has to be connected to a satellite image of a vastly different scale. These pieces of ground he describes are only 1m square while each pixel in a satellite image represents 30m square of ground. We talk about how to make choices and how to decide on what pieces of information are important to hold on to. In making a map you are forced to generalise. Just as a poem cannot contain every detail you might first feel it has to. There is a process much like editing a poem which requires you to follow Quiller-Couch's frequently quoted advice to writers to 'murder your darlings'. Every class of interesting thing, Gareth tells me, has a unique colour; nevertheless, not every interesting thing can be taken into account. Sometimes, although we would like to, it is not possible to distinguish between two species of plants for the purposes of interpretation. Physicists are simple-minded, he tells me, they are content to describe an area of dense willow and birch scrub as simply green. Sometimes they have to disappoint the botanists.

This scaling up and down involves a process of managing ambiguity. Gareth and I devise a writing exercise together that we think can give a sense of the scaling up process. First, describe a 1cm patch of ground and then scale up and out tenfold continually until you are describing a 100km square. Each description should have a severe word limit. Gareth suggests only 10 but when I try it I have to give myself 25 and his field books also use about that number.

Apparently, the most difficult step to get to grips with occurs at the shift from 100m to 1km. This is also when the sense of human perspective disappears. Gareth tells me that the discipline of considering things at this enormous scale gives him a unique way of thinking about any question that presents itself. He has arrived at the ability to create the sense of perspective or scale only usually achieved in space flight. I'm curious about the links with poetic composition, which similarly negotiates between the minute description of the actual and abstract generalisations. How might I try to register this very complex sense of scale in a poem?

Finding the Story, Making it Present — by Andrea Porter (23rd September 2014)

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Museum: a building where objects of historical, scientific, or artistic interest are kept

Object: a thing that you can see or touch but that is not usually a living animal, plant, or person

Artefact: an object that is made by a person, such as a tool or a decoration, especially one that is of historical interest

So, looking at definitions is a good way to start; when desperate, many an exam answer has begun, "Let us define our terms, what exactly do we mean by …" You can provide your own example here, I'm sure.

Things, things that someone has made are something I can do. I am drawn to stuff, not necessarily practical stuff but the objects that you find in old junk shops, photographs of unknown people rescued from jumble sales, a strange spoon found in the middle of a road in Gloucester, Massachusetts, stones and pebbles all from fifty years of beaches, a biscuit tin full of buttons saved by my mother over years of mending, patching, repairing. All these are inanimate objects, stuff, yet to me they have a voice that tells me something, they all have a story. That's how I came to find my way into this commission.

I believe that to varying degrees and in different ways we humans are 'hard-wired' for a story, the narrative that threads things together, makes some sort of whole out of the random parts. People have been telling themselves stories since the first homo sapiens (and probably Neanderthals) moved through the world and tried to make sense of why the sun rose and set, why the seasons change, why the tide ebbs and flows, why we live and die. The stories they told themselves expanded, sometimes they tried to write themselves into a position of control in the story in situations where need, survival and fear ruled every aspect of their existence. The stories began to expand and become threaded through mankind's way of interacting with the world. The sacrifice, the votive artefacts, the paintings on the walls of caves are just examples of our need to make the story fit our needs.

I talked to a number of children and teenagers about what they thought a museum was for. The most memorable answer came from a ten year old boy, "It's a building where they keep dead stuff that dead people had and so they don't need it anymore so they put it in there." However, he added, "but sometimes they tell you stories about what they did with the stuff and it can be really cool, like someday someone might look at my stuff, like my Xbox and think about me doing things with it." So perhaps the story gives us another way of engaging with artefacts in a museum, a way of making an object animate. The story of Scott and his death at the South Pole is one of those real stories on an epic scale. A pair of mittens, goggles, the harness from a dog sledge are dead objects without that story, which in this case we call history. They may be of research interest, they may offer an insight into what explorers in Antarctica used, but it is how they sit in the story of Scott's expedition that gives them that intangible power to engage us.

After looking at all the artefacts in the museum I was drawn to the area that looked at the story of the explorers in the Arctic, in particular those men that set out to find the North West Passage. There was the swashbuckling Frobisher, the mystery of Franklin who along with his men appeared to disappear. However I saw William Edward Parry's barrel organ sitting in the corner of a display and was tantalized. What sort of mad man would take a barrel organ all the way to the Arctic, not just once but three times? I had never heard of Parry – he didn't seem to have a headline grabbing story, he mapped, he failed to find the North West Passage like many others, he was a meticulous note taker and scientific observer. He seemed at first glance a very 'worthy' naval officer and explorer but perhaps a tad boring to the casual visitor. I dug a little deeper and found his journals in the library and when I read the journal of his second expedition to the Arctic in 1821 to 1823, specifically the area round the Melville Peninsula in what is now Nunavut in North East Canada, I was hooked: a story had caste its line and it was embedded in my mind.

Parry was the first naval explorer who decided to remain in the area during the winter. This was a huge decision and a brave one – pack ice could crush wooden hulls. There would be months spent in darkness and in temperatures that could plummet to unbearable levels of cold. There would be storms, blizzards, sheer boredom, scurvy, dwindling food supplies and yet Parry went ahead and, in fact, came through that first overwintering amazingly well. Kudos to Captain Parry. He set up a school to teach his crew how to read and write, he kept them busy doing observations and the timeless delight of putting on regular comedy farces featuring men in drag was on hand to lift spirits. The organ was invaluable as part of concerts and church services; he even insisted all the men did regular exercises on deck accompanied by the sound of the various Scottish reels, hymns and songs it was capable of playing. It was also on board to 'amuse' any savages they may come across and come across them they did. This is where the story becomes even more interesting to me.

In that first winter they came across a small tribe of Inuit, all of whom would appear never to have met any Europeans or 'Kabloona' as they called them. Parry, Captain of Fury and Lyon, the Captain of Hecla, wrote extensively about all their encounters with the Inuit. Even today their observations and comments provide a rich source of material about the Inuit in that area of Canada in the early nineteenth century. Both were obviously men of their times and Parry in particular had strong Christian beliefs which coloured his observations. Despite this, what emerges are tiny vignettes about their interaction with the Inuit that open up a world and tell not just one story but many.

As I read on, I began to think about these Inuit and in particular the women. The Polar Museum tells the story of male explorers at the Poles, women enter their story tangentially only as mothers, wives or widows of those men that took themselves off to the furthest and coldest areas on the planet in order to not just discover but to achieve. Other artefacts show how women in the Arctic sewed, made, cut, sliced, diced, chewed and generally did what was necessary to enable the tribe or the family to survive in a hostile, sometimes hand to mouth existence. As the Kabloona became more and more present they carved, sewed and made objects to barter; they knew how to adapt and survive – this was what they did and did well.

This overwhelming sense of the 'male' was not simply my personal, feminist antennae twitching. Girls and women I talked to who were visiting the museum also mentioned the male perspective. I explained to a couple of teenage girls looking at the needles in one exhibit how the Inuit women in the past tattooed lines on their faces from the age of ten. When I told them how they did this; passing an ivory needle under the skin on which a thread of animal sinew dipped in blackened lamp oil was fastened whilst pressing down hard on the skin as the thread passed beneath, there was a distinct sense of admiration rather than disgust. As one girl said, "They must have been really tough, I would have just thrown up or passed out." I had to tell them I thought the Inuit girls would probably have done the same thing but they carried on doing it because that's what you did to be part of the tribe. Ear, nose piercings, belly rings, small discreet tattoos and the like are probably similar rites of passage, but maybe without the overlay of maternal expectations which might be the kiss of death to these acts today.

I looked at a great deal of material in the SPRI Library on Inuit culture. I received invaluable help from the librarians there and from Dr Michael Bravo, a Senior Lecturer in Geography with duties at the Scott Polar Research Institute, who helped answer some of my strange or left of field questions. I read a number of articles about the forced separation of Inuit children from their parents in the 50s and 60s and the subsequent formal apology the Canadian Government given to those hundreds of children who were physically and sexually abused as a result of that enforced residential education. I was horrified to read about the extremely high level of suicide among Inuit boys and young men at present, which is now sadly just beginning to be mirrored amongst Inuit girls. One mental health official wrote that, "If the same percentage of suicide per head of population amongst young Inuit was to be present in the rest of Canada or in America it would be regarded as being of epidemic proportions."

So I read a lot, scurried up paper trails, all to find a story to make those Inuit women Parry and Lyon met, not just come to life but to have a meaning now. You may feel this has little to do with poetry, but I'm a poet who needs that sense of human, that sound of a voice whispering in my ear. Then what I attempted to do was forget all that research and write the poem and just hope the tone, form and soul of the poem inhabits a space, which gives any knowledge I may have the room to breathe. Fingers crossed, it will not stuff snippets of information down the reader's throat just to show that I know stuff. And here we are back to the idea of stuff, dead stuff.

The poems are in the physical form of a triptych. I wanted to make the poem have the shape of an altar piece, make it have a sense of both the spiritual and an object. Often, the centre piece in a triptych is larger, so I have chosen to write a longer middle section, flanked by two smaller ones (both of which are sonnet length but not sonnets in themselves). I also wanted the observer looking at the objects I have chosen from Parry's second expedition (the small ivory bird, the barrel organ and the ivory comb) to perhaps have a slightly eerie experience.

Museums, when they close and when it becomes dark, are spooky places – all those artefacts are out there looking for a life. Some Inuit believe that objects can be imbued with the spirit of those that previously owned or made them. I played with tense and, in the end, that eeriness was best captured by mostly using the present tense, as it gives the reader some sense that what is happening in the poem is happening now, that historical objects at the precise moment of observation are brought into the now of the observer. In trying to give an imagined story to three Inuit women that Parry met in 1822 on the Melville Peninsula, the story is now not then, it is on-going, not history, every time someone looks at those objects. The only title I tried that seemed to work was Inua, the Inuit word for the human spirit, the soul.

This is what I have attempted, whether anyone reading it when it is installed in the museum feels even a glimmer of that demanding present sense of those women is still to be seen.

Andrea Porter, July 2014