Scott’s Last Expedition @ the Natural History Musuem

In Exhibitions, Temporary Exhibitions on April 9, 2012 at 10:32 am

I took a turn around the Natural History Museum on Friday evening. Lates at the South Kensington Museums is de riguer at the moment, and I had heard good things. Quite apart from the building being awesome (in the truest sense of the word), I saw a rather fantastic temporary exhibition: Scott’s Last Expedition.

Spoiler alert: Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final expedition to reach the South Pole did not end well. It’s a story most people know snippets of, but few know the whole thing. I knew bits because Scott left the UK via Cardiff, and scattered through my hometown, there are oddments that hark back to the age of polar exploration. The lighthouse on Roath Park lake, for example, and the bar in the bay called Terra Nova.

My hazy knowledge of this ill-fated explorer (fuelled by a trip last year to see Sir Ranulph Fiennes give a lecture at Cardiff University – if you ever get the chance to hear him speak, drop what you’re doing and GO) was roused when I started to see the dramatic black-and-white images of the expedition lining the London Underground (must do a post about underground adverts one day). Even the images are well done – they grab your attention in the hopelessly busy world of the tube. They are so very plain, so very stark, and so very, very cold. But there is still a real sense of humanity – explorers doing handstands in the snow, or huddling together and smiling what must be the most painful smile of their lives.

This continues inside the exhibition itself. An awful lot of the objects on display are personal effects from the expedition party, some of whom made it home, and some of whom did not. They are well chosen objects too, such as ski masks with ad-hoc modifications, made in the bitter reality of an Antarctic Winter, or the food items donated to the expedition after the huge amounts of corporate ass-kissing Scott needed to do to fund this expedition. I took it as a given that as no one had ever reached the South Pole, Scott would have had no problems with finance. How very wrong I was – it nearly scuppered the trip several times. This was one of the things I loved about this exhibition – it gets into the nitty gritty details of everything, with things you would never have thought of coming to the fore. The research behind it is solid, and it shows.

One thing I must mention, for museum geeks if no one else, is the exhibition design. I often find temporary exhibitions to be lazy and thrown together – the Reading Room at the British Museum is by far the worst and most repeated culprit of not using space or design well, but it is not alone. The design of Scott’s Last Expedition, however, is absolutely immense. You’re basically in a hut, wandering along stark wooden panels. If you’re learning about Scott’s home life, there is a plush wallpaper on the walls, but it doesn’t last. The centre of the exhibition is a scale-replica of the space where Scott and his men lived at Cape Evans, with their bunk spaces marked out on the floor. Details like this make an exhibition, and there are details aplenty here.

My favourite touch however, was the sound. Sound in an exhibition is cocked up so often I’d be tempted to avoid it all together, but in this case it is spot on. Whistling above your heads, echoing around the tall barrel-vault of the NHM ceiling, is a quiet, but constant, polar wind. You will swear you can hear the ice outside.

I missed a Scott Vs. Amundsen exhibition in Washington last year, and have regretted it ever since. This is a great opportunity to put it right. I really do recommend it – it’s short, but not too short, and it is engaging from the start. I don’t know how suitable it would be for children (I don’t think it’s aimed below mid-teens) but it is excellent. If you work in the museums sector, go to see how an exhibition should be displayed. Simple and crisp, but full of style.

Scott’s Last Expedition is on at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington until 2nd September 2012, and an adult ticket costs £9. Its exhibition shop is also worth a mention – brilliant replicas and mementos available, most of which can also be bought online. Kudos to the NHM web team, who have also delivered a very good online companion to the expedition, which I also recommend you check out.

  1. […] a brilliant way of using museum space to convey meaning. Scott’s Last Expedition plotted a plan of Scott’s hut onto the exhibition floor (in an effect similar to Lars von Trier’s ‘Dogville‘). […]

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