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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Blog post by Sarah Howe

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

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.