Captain Robert Falcon Scott: hero, explorer and scientist?

C H Ponting photograph, Pennell collection, Canterbury Museum NZ

We have all heard about Captain Scott – the man who went to the South Pole but perished on his return, having been beaten by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. But what many do not know, and I myself didn’t realise until my visit to Scott’s Last Expedition at the Natural History Museum (NHM), was that his trip to the South Pole was the dramatic finale of a scientific mission called Terra Nova.

Scott and his team were scientists on a mission of discovery to an unchartered area of the world. Their findings remain useful today and represent extensive collections in museums across the world, including the NHM. How is it then, that we only remember a small portion of the Terra Nova’s expedition? The tragic loss of five lives and media coverage of Scott ‘the hero’, have long overshadowed the significant scientific achievements that were made.

Scott’s Last Expedition is a collaborative project between the NHM, Canterbury Museum in New Zealand and The Antarctic Heritage Trust, set up to coincide with the centenary of Captain Scott’s death. To understand the relevance of this exhibition to science communication, we need to look at the overlapping interests of the institutions involved. One thing all of these institutions have in common is that they are scientific research institutions and some (like the NHM) are voices of authority on the natural world. The values held by these institutions therefore help emphasise the science of the Terra Nova expedition in a novel way.

Preserved animals and specimen jars, unsurprisingly, form a large part of the collection on show. They fit nicely with our traditional ideas of the types of objects we expect from the NHM. A replica of a cabin shows the space where the scientific research was carried out. We also learn that certain team members spent time at the Canterbury Museum carrying out research. Through information and objects such as these, the exhibition clearly highlights the scientific research.

The Scott Exhibition at the Natural History Museum

Ever since the Darwin Centre opened in 2009, visitors have been reminded that the NHM is a research institution. In keeping with this, a video towards the end of the exhibition shows an NHM scientist at work (wearing a traditional white lab coat with NHM branding), as well as research currently being carried out in the Antarctic.

It would be wrong, however, to imply that this is purely a science exhibition. It focuses on “every angle” of the time spent by Scott and his team in Antarctica, including the attempt to reach the South Pole. What connects these different elements are personal accounts from the team, in the form of letters and diaries, along with Herbert Ponting’s film footage of the trip. We learn how the men got there; how they coped with living in such a hostile environment; what they ate. But what does this achieve besides creating a continuous narrative across the exhibition space? Primarily it humanises the objects on display. It helps create a connection between the visitor and a group of Antarctic scientists one hundred years ago.

But, this brings me to the fundamental question: should Scott’s Last Expedition be about science? To me, the strong human narrative makes this feel much more like an exhibition about exploration. The first third of the exhibition is about preparations for the voyage, yet there is no mention here of the scientific aims of the expedition. It is branded from the start as a polar attempt. It is not until you enter the cabin replica that you become aware of the scientific elements. This is by no means a criticism – the exhibition is fascinating, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable (seeing Scott posing with a case of Heinz Beans for publicity is highly amusing).

So, does Scott’s Last Expedition succeed as a science exhibition? Although the exhibition itself is talking science, the parts about Scott present him as the adventurer. The exhibition succeeds in drawing attention to the scientific mission, yet Scott remains the romantic hero of the Golden Age of British exploration.

Penelope Hill is studying for a Masters in Science Communication at Imperial College London. ‘Scott’s Last Exhibition’ is on at the Natural History Museum until the 2nd September 2012, entry is £9 for adults, £5.50 for children and concessions. 

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2 comments

  1. Although I haven’t seen the exhibition, I think even if it is more focused on exploration than science per se, I think this still has the potential to achieve a lot as a science exhibition, since exploration is a key part of science?

  2. Very interesting question: “should Scott’s Last Expedition be about science?”. I like to extend it to another one:

    Are explorations and science very distinguishable?
    In which terms Moon’s exploration contains more science than Scott’s one?

    The question is open but in my opinion they are two faces of the same coin.

    Even expeditions such as that lead in 1804 by Lewis and Clark, who explored the North-West territories of the USA in search of the way to the Pacific, had important scientific content. Although the expedition was mainly driven by economical interests, they ended up providing a lot of information about minerals, plants, wildlife and ethnography of Native American tribes.

    Pushing the issue even further, expedition and science represent both a diving into the realm of incognito and unknown, carrying with themselves the sense of discovery and all its related feelings. From this point of expedition and science could really be thought as metaphors of each others.

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