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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Redell Olsen

Redell Olsen's work combines printed text with live performance and film, coupling poetic with academic and curatorial practice. Her most recent publication is Film Poems (Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2014), which brings together a number of recent works for film and performance. Other books of poetry include Punk Faun: A Bar Rock Pastel (Oakland, CA: Subpress, 2012), Secure Portable Space (Hastings: Reality Street, 2004) and Book of the Fur (Cambridge: Rem Press, 2000).

Blog posts

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


Whiteout Film for Snow Goggles (i) and (ii) (Landscapes) — by Redell Olsen (24th September 2014)


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"When I became snow-blind it was cloudy so it is not only sunlight on the ice that can make you snow blind" Roald Amundsen.

Look through these —— ——
Possible vision remains. One can never be sure of surroundings,
of distinguishing sky from brash, sewing all day, fixing up
expedition gear, embroidering Rimed Needle Crystal on hatbands
of Discovery. There may be prickly sensations of grit to eyes.
Violet rays lurk in shadows and take on diffuse shapes. Remain
~alert in dull light. It is difficult to pick out unevenness of ice,
inequalities of the ground until he, as there is rarely a she
in this set-up, is right on them. No apologies for the discomfort.
No jokes in petticoats. The lens is filmic and laminated between
two pieces of glass. It is composed of countless flat crystals
arranged parallel to each other, lines slit to filter out vibrations.
Polarized at the edge of empty field myopia, tabloids to dissolve
tears. There is no focus for infinity or even for halo phenomena
recorded with more frequency than ever before. A Mid-Winter Day
Tree for June 21st 2014, from feathers, flags, anything else left
lying around; books, tins of food, post-it notes, biscuits, children's
clothes, plastic bags, junk mail. All that is broken and undone.
Explorers looking into the distance often struggled to focus
ahead and had to accommodate a near point. Dogs rather than
human endeavours are neatly caught on film. Sometimes things
slit open in a specular light to be reflected as if from a shiny
non-metallic surface, determined by the glare of closeness
beyond glass, or held as relics in a case. Letters preparatory
to a possible end, written with a lack of envelopes. Refocus
your camera, blacken your face. In case of frost, Scott chose
leather or wood. Glasses of light green or amber colour
abandoned in favour of a slit that restricts sight in all directions.
A photographic still taken cooling his head in the snow,
turned upside down shows, if it weren't for that curious sledge,
how arms might hold the earth up as a white but manageable
balloon, how feet might float in mid-air as mock heroic gest.

Ponting Handstand
Herbert Ponting: 'Herbert Ponting standing on his head' (2.1912)
SPRI Picture Library P: 2005/5/837 © SPRI

(ii) Landscapes

violet rays
stellar crystal
rimed particle
prismatic sunrise
ice pellet
frost smoke
capped column
fog bow
spatial dendrite
willy waas
earth shadows
rimed needle crystal
depth hoar


Goggles — by Redell Olsen (24th September 2014)

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Captain Scott's Goggles from Discovery
Captain Scott's personal goggles of Inuit design used on the Discovery expedition,
SPRI Museum: N: 1194 © SPRI/Willow Silvani

Polaroid goggles demonstrator kit
Demonstrator kit for polaroid goggles
SPRI Museum: N 154 a-f © SPRI