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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

03/05/22 - Scott Polar Research Institute

Reflecting on Scott Polar Research Institute

Date: 14th - 15th April 2022

Location: Cambridge

Collecting texts and reviewing artefacts

What is the SPRI?

SPRI's mission is to enhance the understanding of the polar regions through scholarly research and publication, educating new generations of polar researchers, caring for and making accessible its collections, and projecting the history and environmental significance of the polar regions to the wider community.’ Based in Cambridge and in partnership with Cambridge University, the SPRI is a museum, library, workspace, and research environment centred around the Polar regions. The building is split up into different sections, the main frontal entrance hosting the museum with a lecture theatre and art gallery behind. On the floors above the library and research facilities are located, including the image and artefact archives.

Why I went there? – content and accessibility

I decided on visiting the SPRI due to the archived documentation located within and the ability to physically be present with historical texts and artefacts. There is something delightful when positioned within historical objects, those objects do not just have to be artefacts, they can also be the books upon the library shelves. Being able to have first-hand contact with such artefacts is exciting an experience. You get to obtain an intimate and personal relationship that you can direct and lead your research through. For the purpose of my studies, I believe that the SPRI can serve me as a base from time to time to conduct research. I like this idea of having a space available that initiates a link to specific geographical locations which in turn can clearly relate to the idea of wilderness. I see the SPRC as the in-between of me and the landscape(s), it is the place that delivers answers and presents opportunities.

My initial thoughts on the SPRI

The institute is about a thirty-minute walk from my partners house (just off Myton Road). I have on many occasions walked and driven past the institute but never have I been inside. I do on occasion enjoy when I get stuck at the traffic lights in my car on Lensfield Road and I have a brief moment to view the beautifully old English building. It mildly projects grandeur in a way that is not to elitist but rather conveys a cool but classy scaled back feel.

I spent two days at the SPRI, and I decided to dedicate each day to a part of the institute, the Thursday would be the library and studying and Friday would be the museum. I felt this to be a sensible decision as this was a new place for me to visit and I did not want to become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of ‘stuff’ present with me. Thursday would be a day of really fixing myself to the library and getting involved in texts and the archives, whereas a visit to the museum on the Friday would be more relaxed and somewhat of a reward, to just enjoy the displayed items on show.

On the Thursday (well a week prior to this date) I had a pre-booked study slot for three hours, in which I could access a host of data from the institute, but as it was my first time visiting, I kept to the library. On my arrival I was escorted through the museum and to the back, where the ‘staff’ entrance was located. I signed in and was given safe passage into the world of the research centre. I did rather enjoy this part, I sadly felt cool and important…almost reminded me of my band days, getting to go backstage and mingle with the rockstars (the rockstars in this case being academic nerds like me). There was a clear historical feel to the researcher environment, 1940’s parquet flooring, 1970’s style bookshelves and that smell, the one from school, that one from the mid 1990’s, there was just this wonderful collective interior landscape. I was shown around and given ‘the best seat in the house’ (apparently) within the rotunda. I had made a request prior to booking to be shown the location of the artist books, which turned out to also be within the rotunda. The section was small but easily accessible to navigate through. Before I get to the art books I sat for a moment at my desk, no one else around me and I just took in this experience of being within such a wonderful place and surrounded by countless documents all describing in their own ways some form of landscape. Immediately I see tempting titles such as, ‘Alone’, ‘Voyages into the Unknown’, ‘The Isolated Traveller’, etc. I knew straight away that I was doomed to be taken down the rabbit hole within this place.

Library - What I found out - Looked at – Investigated?

With myself alone in the rotunda, I found that section of the library to be a mid-range size archive, although in comparison to other libraries, it would be classed as small. I enjoyed the curvature of the space and moving between the floors and the artefacts hung on the wall or placed on a plinth, objects that no doubt were mentioned and described about in a host of the books before me. I went back to the arts section, pulled up the ladder and began to browse at a somewhat uncomfortable not full 90degrees head tilt.

Alone – Richard E Byrd (1938) – 1st Ed - Van Rees Press, New York

A personal account from Byrd detailing his experience of the Antarctic. I skim read the chapter ‘April II: Night’. He discussed being lost and losing his way and how panic had set in with confusion.

British Antarctic Expedition 1907-09, Scientific Reports: Geology Vol 1, Glaciology, Physiography, Stratigraphy, and Tectonic Geology of South Victory Land – Prof T.W. Edgeworth David, Raymond E. Priestley

Beautiful scientific journal detailing factual encounters with the landscape – describing each object as well as analysing it and dissecting it’s make up towards a scientific perspective. Photographic imagery is evidenced as well as illustrations and measurements – ‘Pull out’ panoramic sketches and illustrations are shared. – These were awesome.

Broken, Environmental Photography (Date?) Art and Theory Publishing

A collection of essays about how photography shapes and advertises the landscape within the ecological crisis we find ourselves living within/creating. – Chris Wainwright ‘Squaring the Circle’ chapter discusses the sublime as an aesthetic trope to portray our relationship with nature. The focus is on Japan a year after the 2011 tsunami. Relations to Burke are made about things that can happen which are too terrible to imagine.

The Voyage of the Icebergs; Frederic Church’s Arctic Masterpiece (2002) E.J Harvey, Dallas Museum of Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London

The book breaks down Church’s ‘Iceberg’ in detail, discussing the compositional elements i:e the sea, the surface, the colour, the sky and even the positioning of the viewer. The book is accompanied with Church’s iceberg studies as well as oil painting studies of the seascape.

Light for a Cold Land; Lawren Harris’ Work and Life – An Interpretation (1993) P, Larisey – Dundurn Press Toronto and Oxford

Autobiographical collection of Harris’ Canadian landscape imagery – there is a relationship to European influence, although Harris denies (even when studying in Germany 1904-1907). He relies on compositional adaptation throughout the development of his work, emphasizing shape movement and colour.

Micromosaic, Antarctic Landscapes (2012) K Haydon, Melbourne Australia

Jewellery and object-based book, connecting the human experience through the notion of the souvenir. The artist recounts her own experiences travelling Antarctica and how she then uses the landscape as a form of collective jewellery. Jewellery writers are then asked to discuss these notions.

Sami Art and Aesthetics, Contemporary Perspectives (2017) S. Aamold, E. Haugdal, U.A Jorgensen, Aarhaus University Press, Denmark

Not much time to read through this book but I came across ‘Travelogue’ by Karukinka-Kangirsuk (2013). A collection of stills from a video with no written description except from the image titles i:e ’12. Their dog comes along’ – It caught me because of its way of presentation and the inclusion of no text.

A Legacy of Arctic Art (1996) D.J Ray, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto

Not much time to read through but I was just captured by the one image at the back as a form of representation, Lily Ekak Savok’s ‘Picture Writing’ (1968). Ancient, hunter gather style but almost mathematical as if you had to work out the whole image through the ‘algebra’.

Museum - What I found out - Looked at – Investigated?

A small museum and one that is ‘traditional’, in the sense that it is as with most UK museums, a collection of artefacts dating back to over a century. A clear representation of conquer and the power of man from the European west.

Without falling too far into the rabbit hole of decolonisation and the last remnants of the Empire, the Scott Polar Museum was a celebration of discovery, a race to the poles and a fight for survival. For discovery there were many accounts on how scientists and artists (photographers) catalogued and dissected their way through objects and materials, considering ways of bringing these discoveries into a known known.

The photography from Herbert Ponting was fantastic. Images showed him working in his own ‘ship made’ dark room developing imagery, as well as hanging off the side of the boat on what looked like a ‘pirate plank’. The plank allowed him film and capture the bow of the boat as it pushed its way through the pack ice. A century ago, we see evidence of artists pushing themselves to find new ways to capture real events that emphasise the feel and experience of the voyage. Ponting, somewhat an adventurer himself was at times an entertainer for the crew, requested by Shackleton. He would often show slides from his travels in Japan using a ‘magic box’… a vintage light projector. This show was to keep the crew morale up and to cure forms of boredom.

The diary, journal entries and letters home – the most personal and ‘real’ accounts of what it takes for a human to push themselves through such experiences. These I think were the most exciting elements of the archive that I enjoyed and the artefacts that resonated with me. One letter to a mother, described the fool hardiness of her offspring but also how her offspring had been selected personally by Shackleton to go on a perilous journey… how proud she must be knowing that her son was a part of the great Shackleton team. Descriptions of the intense and extreme cold temperatures of -20c were often documented within pages. A notion towards the belief in God was also repeatedly stated, as crew reassured themselves that for endurance to appear, any belief in God would see them through their conquest. Shackleton’s last journal entry is somewhat emotionally glorified and solum, romantically describing his surroundings with the account; ‘In the darkening twilight I saw a lone star hover, gem-like above the bay…’, a peaceful place to wait for an approaching death. It is these journal entries that resonate and have a deepening effect on one’s own ideas of what it is to be in an alien landscape. A landscape which can cause peril and end with death but also a landscape that can show true natural beauty that is far from the busy common lifestyles we keep.

How has this visit helped me?

What did I get from all of this then? When I reflect on those two days and if I am completely honest with myself, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the content presented before me. There was a lot to take in and I think that is completely understandable in the circumstance of this being my first visit to the SPRI. I am not at all saying it did not benefit me, clearly not. Being in the space alone provided me with a sense of motivational inspiration via the research facilities. I found and held history and being with those artefacts allowed me to receive a communication that told a narrative of adventure. There was a clear interobjectivity between the landscape, the adventurer, the SPRI and me. A passage of communication was told through these books and artefacts, and it was prevalent for me to be present with them and to take the time to read and look through what these artefacts represent. Not all aided my research, but the majority did help in some way or another and what struck me the most (as stated within the previous two sections) were the first-hand accounts of the diary entries and the BAE Scientific Reports. These texts were highly detailed and honest and directly communicated oneself to the authors experience of the landscape, whether that be an official scientific report or a quick, rough journal entry.

I do intend to revisit the SPRI on several occasions over the next year, and as my research turns towards more personal and intimate acknowledgements of experiences, I will focus on the descriptive accounts of landscapes. This will be through the analysis and representation of landscapes as a scientific account (land sketches, geographical surveys, maps, changes in the environment) and through journal entries. I am to believe I can request access to journal entries from the museum archive along with accompanying imagery. I will therefore look towards accessing such texts and document said accounts.

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