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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Rod Mengham

Rod Mengham's most recent publications are Paris by Helen (Oystercatcher, 2014), the pamphlet The Understory (corrupt press, 2014) and STILL moving (Veer, 2014), which records, in the form of text and stills, film collaborations with Marc Atkins. Previous publications include Bell Book (Wide Range Chapbooks, 2012) and Unsung: New and Selected Poems (Salt, 2001). Mengham has also translated modern Polish poetry into English, most recently Speedometry by Andrzej Sosnowski (Contraband Books), as well as co-editing and introducing Altered State: the New Polish Poetry (Arc Publications, 2003).

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.


Occasional Inuit — by Rod Mengham (24th September 2014)


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Blocked in by ice, the crew of Erebus watch. A strange balloon, passing from east to west, climbs and falls on a high current of air. Even the sharpest eye does not detect the length of charred twine in its lee.

This burning fuse, having released a whole flight of slips of paper, carries on in aerial dumb show. The last slip given to the winds was lost to sight weeks before.

The balloon carried nothing but language: denoting provisions left on Beechey Island; or Spring parties, searching by sledge, directed to Jones's Sound and the north shore of Melville Island. The weight of each word in this English passage was heavier than Greenland gneiss.

It provisioned only ideas. Some are strewn in the Barren Grounds, in wastes not seen for a year, printed in reverse on fossil-bearing rocks, their message unvaried, to promise or threaten results that would alternate from reader to reader.

Each word led to a pinpoint in wilderness, to a pixel of time that shrinks in reading, then lengthens to say, 'come back'. But space and time are glacial now. And there is no trace to be found, no reading the caves and arches of ice.

The poetics of fire balloons are reversible. On the recto side, it is 'not one word is wasted'; on the verso, the terrible waste of its four word ballast: 'Read The Other Side'.

For years, they tried reading the Other Side. They fired off rockets, the balloons flocked over tundra, from Hudson Bay to Alaska. They dispersed their paper credit. But only occasional Inuit picked up the wind-fed rumours, and forwarded them; passing them round and round, turning them over and over.


Arctic fire balloon used in the search for Franklin — by Rod Mengham (23rd September 2014)

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franklin balloon
'Arctic Fire Balloon: For Distributing Messages in the Arctic Region'
SPRI Museum N: 1056 © SPRI/Janette Dutton