Castle Berg with dog sledge, September 17 1911. Copyright Herbert Ponting
24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Journalist Olivia Laing packed her pemmican and set off to discover the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.
“I am just going outside and may be some time” are the most haunting of all parting lines. They were famously delivered by Captain Lawrence Oates, at the moment when Britain’s Antarctic dreams turned sour.
The life and death of Lawrence Oates, soldier, explorer and “gallant gentleman”, is immortalised in The Oates Museum at Selborne in Hampshire.
'The Wakes' in Selborne, home to Gilbert White's House and the Oates Museum. Image courtesy of the museum.
A £2000 grant from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Museum Service to the Oates Museum has dramatically improved the telling of this very British tale. The museum, which also comprises Gilbert White’s House, celebrates the history of an unusually brave and determined family of adventurers and explorers.
Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates was a member of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole in 1910. Having raced to the Pole only to discover they had been beaten by a Norwegian expedition lead by Roald Amundsen, the team of five men attempted to return to their base camp.
The return journey was dogged by bad weather and the men made poor progress. Oates’ frostbite was so bad that he could scarcely walk and had to slit his sleeping bag almost to the base in order to fit his swollen feet in. He was well aware that his tortuous pace was slowing his companions. On March 17 1912 (his 32nd birthday) he uttered his famous words and disappeared into a blizzard, sacrificing his life for his friends. Though his sleeping bag was found in the snow, his body was never recovered.
Capt. Oates (Lawrence E.G. Oates, Captain 6th Inniskilling Dragoons) and some of the ponies aboard the Terra Nova. Copyright Herbert Ponting
Tragically, Scott and his companions also died days later. Their bodies were discovered six months later by expedition member Apsley Cherry-Garrard, only 11 miles from a massive food depot.
The tale of the Terra Nova expedition stands as a testament to a particular kind of British heroism, marked as much by the virtues of stiff upper lip and self-sacrifice as by efficiency and success. In his diaries, Scott himself described Oates’ decision as “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”
The newly refurbished Oates Collection lavishly illustrates the expedition. The grant funded new display material, which, as curator Maria Newbery explains, “has dramatically improved the visual impact of the collection.” A highlight is a newly edited version of 90° South, a documentary film of the expedition made by Herbert Ponting.
A sledge from the Terra Nova expedition, flanked by two penguins. Copyright Peter Langdown.
The exhibition is determinedly multi-media and makes use of all kinds of archive material to give as vivid a sense as possible of expedition life. Copies of expedition members’ letters and diaries, sledges, ration packs and photographs show the full lure and horror of the Antarctic. Saddest of all is Scott’s final diary entry, which reads:
“We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more.”
As an afterthought, scrawled at the base of the page, he adds,
“For God’s sake look after our people.”
Another haunting exhibit displays vital exhibition items, including a crampon shoe, Horlicks malted milk tablets, tins of pemmican and a bar of Bovril chocolate. It gives a strong sense of the fragility of human survival in a land Scott himself described as “an awful place”.
A visitor admires Herbert Ponting's iconic expedition photos in the newly refurbished Oates Museum. Copyright Peter Langdown.
As Jenny Streeter, curator of the collection and education officer, explains, “people do not behave in this museum in the way studies show they are expected to. They read everything, even the obituaries with their tiny print. This story really means something to people. It’s part of our national identity.”
The story behind the collection is every bit as intriguing as that of Oates himself. In 1954, The Wakes, the former home of the celebrated naturalist and curate Gilbert White (author of Natural History of Selborne), was up for sale. A trust formed, which initially hoped to raise the £24 500 required to buy the house and establish it as a memorial to the life and work of Gilbert White.
Insufficient funds were raised, but fortunately for the trust Robert Washington Oates (a cousin of Lawrence Oates) became involved. Robert Oates wanted to find a home for his extensive family archive. In 1955, the Gilbert White’s House and the Oates Museum was born.
The famous gardens at 'The Wakes'.
There are, of course, difficulties in maintaining two very different collections in the same building. The curatorial team have solved these problems by maintaining the Oates archive in the newer parts of the building, with the original parts housing a recreation of Gilbert White’s home.
In addition to the Terra Nova collection, The Oates Museum also houses the archive of Frank Oates, Lawrence’s uncle and a prominent explorer and naturalist himself. Frank Oates travelled widely, and was one of the first Englishmen to see Victoria Falls. He died in Botswana, and his collection of notebooks and specimens are a testament, as the exhibition notes explain, “to an era during which many Britons were prepared to face unknown hazards in order to extend their knowledge of the world.”
Though the era of selflessness and sacrifice may have passed, it is impossible for today’s audiences not to be moved by these brave men, for whom knowledge and friendship were held precious enough to give up one's life for.
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.