Britain’s first modern Antarctic expedition revisited in Scott Polar Museum exhibition

By Richard Moss | 24 January 2011
a photo of a sailing ship at anchor on stretch of water next to an ice cap
'Penola' in Port Lockroy, Luigi di Savola Peak.© Courtesy Scott Polar Research Institute. Photogrpaher: B.B. Roberts
Exhibition: Return to Antarctica - The British Graham Land Expedition 1934–1937 at Cambridge University’s Polar Museum, the Scott Polar Research Institute until April 30, 2011.

It laid the foundations for current British scientific endeavours in the Antarctic and pioneered expeditionary techniques that continue to this day, but history has largely forgotten The British Graham Land Expedition of 1934–1937.

Overshadowed by the more famous preceding expeditions of Scott and Shackleton it was however an important and very successful mission that re-asserted Britain’s imperial claims to Antarctica in the face of American incursions into the mineral-rich region.

a photo of a chap standing on the paddles of a seaplane on a stretch of water
Debenham Islands, plane being towed on floats, Alfred Stephenson on float, April 1936© Courtesy Scott Polar Research Institute. Photographer: Colin Bertram
Now the Scott Polar Museum is returning to the three-year exploration with a new exhibition that investigates how 16 young scientists, explorers and military officers successfully combined traditional Inuit clothing and sea-ice travel techniques with modern developments in radio and aviation.

The first major historical exhibition at the Scott Polar Research Institute since its £1.75m redevelopment in 2010, the show features a wealth of historic artefacts from the expedition together with images and rare archival material. At its core are the stories of the men, their endeavours, the scientific research and their daily lives as they lived on the frozen continent.

As you might expect, the expedition was full of characters. The Rev Launcelot Fleming served as Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and became chaplain to the Royal Family and Brian Roberts went on to advocate the Antarctic Treaty which set aside Antarctica as a region of peace and science.

Another member, Lt. R.E.D. Ryder, was later awarded a VC for leading the commando raid on St Nazaire in World War Two, while Duncan Carse became the voice of the BBC’s Dick Barton Special Agent.

a photo of a cat sat on a barrel
'Lummo', the Falkland Islands cat who travelled aboard the 'Penola' to and from Antarctica.© Courtesy Scott Polar Research Institute. Photogrpaher: B.B. Roberts
Also celebrated is another character, Lummo the expedition cat, who after becoming the first feline to survive a trip to Antarctica returned to a well-earned retirement in Woking.

In fact all members of the expedition, which was led by Australian John Rymill, returned fit and healthy and were awarded the Polar Medal for their work studying seals and birds, the discovery of fossil plants and their mapping of much of the coastline of Graham Land.

Their work also laid the ground rules for modern Polar exploration as routes were reconnoitred by air; then dog sledges carried men and equipment for detailed surveys and scientific research.

Today, dogs have been replaced by snowmobiles but the principal remains: an overview from the air or space followed by a ground party to verify and further explore an area.

Perhaps the most significant discovery of the expedition was that the channels previously reported by Australian and American aviators between the Bellingshausen and Weddell Seas did not exist. The men had sailed to an archipelago, they returned from the Antarctic Peninsula.

a photo of dog sleds making their way across ice flows
Dog sledges on the sea-ice© Courtesy Scott Polar Research Institute. Photographer: W.E. Hampton
As the Scott Polar Research Institute’s Exhibitions Officer, Bryan Lintott points out, this is an opportunity to discover one of Britain’s “most successful but least known Antarctic expeditions - and know more about the extraordinary men, loyal dogs and one very tough cat that made it possible.”
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