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 Redell Olsen

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

(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