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

pdfDownload exhibition flyer

Blog post by Andrea Porter

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

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