London’s museums are doing themselves proud with their multitude of fascinating exhibitions at the moment. I really am spoilt for choice when it comes to opportunities to broaden my mind! However, the one that has most been calling to me is the Natural History Museum’s Scott exhibition, and last Sunday I finally made my way over to see it. I don’t know an awful lot about the history of polar exploration, and have deliberately not read much about the Scott expedition, as I can’t bear the thought of their tragic end. However, the exhibition promised to not dwell on the tragedy, but rather to celebrate the achievements of the expedition, and this was an angle that intrigued me. Accordingly I found myself wandering through the cavernous entrance hall of the museum, which is a real feat of Victorian engineering and prime example of how they managed to build beauty into all aspects of architectural construction. I hadn’t been inside for years (despite working next door for two!) and it really did blow me away. I also loved marvelling at the huge T-Rex skeleton on display, and hearing the delighted exclamations of the hundreds of children crowded around it, who seemed to think it might come back to life any minute and gobble them up!
Once I’d managed to get through the assault course of small children, prams and several kiosks selling dinosaur themed merchandise that lay in my path from entrance to exhibition, I arrived in the quiet and peaceful exhibition hall and was immediately entranced by a photograph of the Terra Nova, the ship that transported them from Britain to the Antarctic, surrounded by ice and a sky so white I could almost feel the cold emanating from it. In the background they were playing sounds of the Antarctic and it all felt incredibly atmospheric. I wandered through the first section, which explains the context of the expedition, and what the aims of it were. They have display cases containing the food rations, clothing and equipment they took with them, and alongside the usual dried and canned goods they had crates of chocolate, biscuits, tea, baked beans (I had no idea they went back so far!) and eccentric Edwardian condiments that were sponsored by the manufacturing companies who were eager to be associated with such an exciting adventure. The most interesting product they took with them was a canned food called ‘Pemmican’, which was invented by Native Americans and is a blend of meat, fat and dried fruit that is high in energy. It was adopted by those working in the fur trade and was also given to soldiers in the Boer War. I don’t fancy the idea of it myself but the Scott expedition members seem to have found it pretty tasty!
In fact, I found the domestic arrangements of the expedition members the most interesting aspect of the whole exhibition. This is probably rather shallow of me, as the exhibition made much of the scientific discoveries the zoologists, geologists and astronomers of the group achieved and had some wonderful specimens on display that were picked up on the trip, such as penguin embryos and volcanic rock formations. For me though, all of this paled in comparison to the diaries, photographs, menu cards, books and other intimate, everyday items that revealed the reality of life in a small hut shared with ten or so men for over a year. The exhibition space recreates the dimensions of the hut, so that you can experience just how claustrophobic it must have been. In this space they had to eat, sleep, work and play, and the photographs of how they laid it out, making bunk beds and partitions out of used storage crates and decorating their individual areas with photographs from home was so touching. I loved how they celebrated birthdays and Christmases with elaborate meals, decorations and presents; they were a real family and pulled together to support one another during what must have been a very challenging and emotionally difficult time. The resident chef was the true star of the show for me, though, managing to create interesting and varied meals out of very limited ingredients every day. He kept the team well fed and their spirits up; as we all know, there’s no comfort for a weary soul like a good meal.
The team stayed in the base camp for almost a year, preparing for the final push to the South Pole. During this time they had conducted many trips out to lay stores along the route, as well as other expeditions to collect scientific specimens, take photographs and measure weather conditions. The expedition was certainly not just about being first to the Pole; it was also about enabling the world to greater understand the Antarctic regions and its flora and fauna. However, making it to the Pole was Scott’s overriding priority, and 16 of the men set out to reach it in September 1911. Along the route, 11 were to eventually turn back, leaving the final 5, including Scott, to finish the expedition. We all know how the story ends, and I found it horribly moving to read the diary entries of those left behind at base camp, their worry increasing every day as the date of the Polar party’s return came and went with no sign of their friends. Eventually they had to conclude that they had not made it, but had to wait eight months before conditions were good enough for them to attempt to find out what had happened. It took them less than two weeks to find the tent where their bodies lay; the tragedy of how close they were to making it back alive struck them all and many were wracked with guilt for the rest of their lives at the thought that they could have tried harder to save them.
It is a very sad story, but the exhibition did an excellent job of celebrating what was achieved and the significance of what was discovered over the course of the two years the party spent in the Antarctic. They may not have been the first to reach the Pole, but they made some incredible discoveries and left a legacy of heroism and bravery that means they will never be forgotten. I was enthralled by it all, and now can’t wait to read Scott’s diaries, as well as the party zoologist, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of his time in the Antarctic, The Worst Journey in the World. There is also a wonderful book of photographs of the expedition that will certainly be going on my birthday list.
After all that tragedy, I needed a pick me up, so I popped across the road to see the new British Design exhibition at the V&A. It celebrates the best in British art and design from 1948 to the present day, and it really is fantastic. I was mainly interested in the immediate postwar displays, which explored how artists and designers responded to the austerity of the war years, expressing themselves in stark, clean, simple lines that reflected the ideas of progress and modernity. However, under the surface there was a great wave of nostalgia and patriotism, exacerbated by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, and this tension between traditional, rural values of a Green and Pleasant land and a striving towards a new, urban future of modern, technologically advanced cities is everywhere in the designs of the time. I was especially fascinated by the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, which was a beautiful survivor of the Medieval period and almost totally destroyed in a terrible night of bombing which devastated the city. It had to be largely rebuilt after the war, and the striking modernity and creativity of the Cathedral design reflected the idea of the city rising from the ashes to a new future. New model towns grew up all over Britain, such as Harlow and Milton Keynes (otherwise known as Roundabout City!), built to house those who were bombed out of their homes during the war, and these contained high rise tower blocks and homes filled with clean lines, huge windows, open plan layouts and plenty of green space; ‘new utopias’ for a new age.
V&A exhibitions are always brilliant – though I am biased – and I left this one feeling very proud of how Britain regenerated itself after the war and also fascinated by how much about a society can be deduced from the way it expresses itself through its art, architecture and manufacture. I encourage those of you who can to come and visit, and don’t forget to go to the shop – it is absolutely full of wonderful British Design related things, and I was especially tempted by this book of Eric Ravilious paintings – I love his art and his depictions of rural British life demonstrate perfectly that tension between tradition and modernity that is so evident in post-war British design.
So, a lovely day of exploring and learning was had, and all that was left to do afterwards was have tea and cake with a friend back in Highgate, where I once again spotted a beautiful piece of British design; check out the teacup chandelier!!