Natural History Museum celebrates Captain Scott team in fitting Last Expedition show

By Jenni Davidson | 18 January 2012
A photograph of a man with scientific equipment
Herbert Ponting, Atkinson© Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
Exhibition: Scott's Last Expedition, Natural History Museum, London, January 20 - September 2 2012

It's hard to imagine what it must have felt like, exactly 100 years ago this week, when Robert Scott's party first reached the South Pole, only to discover Roald Amundsen's Norwegian flag already there.

Their courage in attempting the return journey after such a bitter disappointment, especially as it became clear that they would not make it, is legendary.

Particularly moving are Lawrence Oates' last words - "I'm just going outside. I may be some time," - as he walked into the snow to give his companions a chance of survival without him.

Scott has been at times been lauded as a tragic hero, at others criticised as a flawed leader whose decisions led to his own death and that of his four companions. But the significant achievements of the expedition, other than reaching the Pole, are not so well known.

A photograph of an emperor penguin egg
One of the emperor penguin eggs collected by Bowers, Cherry-Garrard and Wilson© Natural History Museum
Scott's Last Expedition marks the centenary of his death with a celebration not only of the ill-fated attempt on the Pole, but also some of the scientific successes of the journey.

Scott was accompanied to the Antarctic by a whole team of scientists who were there to study the continent.

It was the largest scientific study of the Antarctic at the time, and the group took samples of the glaciology, zoology, meteorology, geology and fossil life of the region, and of the areas they passed on their journey south to Antarctica.

Even on their fateful journey back from the South Pole, Scott and his companions were still collecting. As well as their diaries and letters, many items of scientific interest were found with their bodies.

One of the most incredible objects in the exhibition is an emperor penguin egg. At the time, penguin embryos were thought to hold the key to the evolution of birds from reptiles and, in June 1911, scientists Henry Bowers, Aspley Cherry-Garrard and Edward Wilson risked their lives trekking for five weeks through the total darkness of an Antarctic winter to bring back samples of penguin eggs for study.

The exhibition is not all about tragedy and bravery. It also shows that life in the Antarctic base hut was surprisingly full and fun.

One might imagine the group lived frugally on camping rations, but logs show they took a surprising range of food and drink with them, such as 2,300 kg of sugar, milk chocolate, "fancy" chocolate, seven kinds of jam and a variety of soups, fruit, vegetables, meats, cereals and alcoholic drinks, including Courvoisier, orange Curacao, champagne, Crème de menthe, sherry and whisky.

A photograph of a Rowntree's cocoa tin
An original cocoa tin from the exhibition© Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
The team celebrated birthdays and on June 22 2011 they held a Midwinter Day feast of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, plum pudding and mince pies, which expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting, remembered fondly in his memoirs:

"Those who have never been deprived of it for many months have never relished the national dish of Old England as we did that day."

Many of the foods were donated to the expedition by companies in return for product promotion and a photograph shows Scott sitting on a crate of Heinz baked beans for an advertising campaign.

The 25 men spent their time writing diaries and letters, drawing, putting on lectures for each other, carrying out scientific studies and listening to music. A wooden gramophone from Scott's hut is on display and, amazingly, still works.

The exhibition is set inside a scale model of Scott's hut, where the location of the beds and other furniture are marked out on the floor/ Herbert Ponting's photographs of the team at work and leisure are placed around the walls, giving a real feel for how they lived.

It is incredible that we know so much about what happened on the expedition, down to what they were all thinking up until the end, because of the diaries and letters that have been preserved, as well as the photos and video films.

As Scott wrote: "Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale."

100 years on, their achievement and bravery is no less incredible. The Natural History Museum has produced a fitting tribute.

  • Open 10am-5.50pm. Admission £5.50-£9 (free for under-3s, family ticket £26). Book online.
More pictures:

A photograph of Scott writing at his desk
Herbert Ponting, Scott in hut. Pennell Collection© Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
A photograph of Scott and the eight other members of his expedition team
Herbert Ponting, Expedition team with Scott in the centre. Pennell Collection© Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand
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