Exhibitionist

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, Β 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!!

26 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your wonderful visits. I have never been in the Natural History Museum, despite being to the others nearby countless times. The Scott Exhibition sounds marvellous, and it is still on whilst I am off in August. I am now debating a visit up to London and perhaps a couple of days so I can go and see all these things.

    If not then I know who lady who likes to share their visits and I can always capture some of the moment with her, so thank you Rachel!

    1. Thank you for reading them, Jo! You MUST go to the Natural History Museum and the other museums too – take those days off!!

      Hahahaha you are so welcome!πŸ™‚

  2. Despite all the food innovations and the creative chef you refer to, we now know that the members of the Scott expedition were not getting a sufficient calorie intake for the amount of energy they were having to expend. Sadly, they were completely unaware of this, since nutritional knowledge was still quite limited a century ago.
    Thanks for this account of your recent exhibition expeditions.

    1. Yes, they did explain that in the exhibition – so sad but they didn’t have the knowledge available as you say and they did the best with what they had. Glad you enjoyed the post!πŸ™‚

  3. I was much more interested in their domestic arrangements and pemmican than in the scientific stuff … so you’re no more shallow than I am, Rachel!
    But I think I preferred the Queen’s Gallery exhibition. The photographs were so stunning.

  4. What a fantastic day! When I visited London, going to all the museums was one of the highlights. The V&A and the British Museum were my favourites and I visited them numerous times. May I add that the food and cake were surprisingly tasty there?

    I always found learning history from textbooks very dry and boring but when I go to museums, it really seems like they bring the history to life. I think it’s those little personal items that you mentioned in particular that make it so very real and easy to imagine in our own minds. Knowing how people interacted, what they did in their spare time, what they ate makes it much easier to understand what their lives were like. Also, it shows how much they were just like us, which gives me the shivers a little bit!

    I hope I can visit London’s amazing museums again soon! What a treat!πŸ™‚

    1. I’m so pleased you’re a museum fan and have seen some of London’s finest – and yes, the tea and cake is always a highlight!πŸ™‚

      Yes exactly – they really do and it’s so special to actually see the objects you have only read about or seen in photographs. I love museums!

      I hope you can too Lucy!πŸ™‚

  5. What a marvelous day you had! I love museums and could wander around forever. The Scott exhibition sounds fascinating. I have always been amazed and have read some things about it. I can’t imagine being in the polar region for that long. I really don’t like to be cold. I too would be interested in the details of daily life.

    The stained glass windows are breathtaking and the teacup chandelier is so clever.

  6. I do always feel so lucky to live in London – there is always so much on offer. Oh, and I adore High Tea of HighgateπŸ˜‰

  7. I dragged Roman over to show him all of the adventures you had on your doorstep while I sit here dying a slow death from boredom. He told me to leave a comment calling you a bad word, I told him that that was far from the point I was trying to make! Your strolls through the countryside or visits to museums and galleries have given me loads of ideas for things to do on my next trip. The various councils in and around London who are responsible for bringing such fascinating events to the public are to be commended. You as well, Rachel, as you’ve played a part! Toronto city council can’t get their heads around the idea of a decent subway system, it’s shameful.

    1. Hahahahahaha! Roman can abuse me all he likes!!πŸ˜‰ I’m so glad you have got some new ideas for your next trip – I’m always happy to play tour guide!πŸ™‚

  8. Look at that chandelier! Even a water goblet hanging down the center! Rachel, I would have taken that picture as well.

    The main hall of the British Natural History Museum reminds me of the great hall of our own Field Museum of Natural History here in Chicago with the mastodon and T-rex. The Scott Exhibit sounds fascinating. I would be pulled to the same things of interest as you were. I giggled about the tins of beans. We grew up on cowboy movies and cowboy shows on television and it seems that the one staple they all ate was cans and cans of baked beans.

    I’ve read a little about the Scott expedition in younger days at school. I found it so interesting to read about explorers who went out into the unknown, away from everyday comforts and family, in harm’s way most often, and how their exploration brought back so many things that later effected our lives. This is an exhibit I would love to see.

    What a day of exploration you had, Rachel. I always enjoy reading about the places you see and experience. Thank you.

    1. I know, Penny – isn’t it amazing! I want one!!

      I’d love to have had the opportunity to visit Chicago when I was in the US, Penny – the museums there sound fantastic. I really didn’t realise how old baked beans were – I wonder if the recipe has changed much?!

      Thank you Penny – it’s a pleasure to share it with you!πŸ™‚

  9. Was looking for book reviews and kinda stumbled upon your blog. I’m so glad I did! I loved reading your old post, and your pictures are amazing!

  10. I had forgotten how beautiful the Natural History Museum was until I visited for the first time in about 15 years recently. Must get to the Scott exhibition before it closes. Tragic but gripping. x

    1. Yes you must, Chuck! I think I got caught up in thinking of the Natural History Museum as just having dinosaurs in it – I was quite ashamed when I went inside as there is so much more to it than that – not to mention the amazing architecture! x

  11. Tea cup chandelier! Only in Blighty.

    You’re constantly giving out nice gifts, R.

    Here’s something in return for you:

    – Bop.

  12. You are not just biased! The V&A does legitimately have beautiful exhibitions. I’ve been to several although I now can only recall the very beautiful hat exhibit. Oh how beautiful all the hats were, and how nicely arranged it all was. (I may be biased too on account of the V&A being the first London museum I ever went to…)

  13. I’m so jealous. I’m sort of a fanatic about Arctic and Antarctic explorers and would love to see this! I’ve read The Worst Journey in the World and it’s fascinating and extremely readable stuff. I love those doomed looney explorer guys.

    1. The website is very good Jenny – a reasonable subsititute I think! I am really looking forward to reading that…one day I shall get around to it!

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