A Blast of Cool Air: Exploring the Polar Museum

So, as a brief exercise for my travel writing class, we embarked upon our first assignments last Friday: to visit a museum in Cambridge, and write it up–not as a guide book, per se, but also not as a complete narrative story (something in the middle). I chose a quirky, out of the way place, instead of shooting for the obvious, like the Fitzwilliam (art museum). Here’s the narrative for the Polar Museum, which will be printed in a museum guide booklet for our group and future Cambridge-UNH groups, and will also be posted soon here http://cambridgetravelwriting.wordpress.com/


Walking through the center of Cambridge last week, I was beginning to think that heat waves follow me wherever I travel. First, there was the Florida summer years ago when my sister fainted in Ernest Hemingway’s Key West house. Then there was the uncharacteristic humidity of Ljubljana last year, where I found myself reluctantly frequenting McDonald’s, one of only a few restaurants that didn’t begrudge you a cube of ice in your drink.

And while the warmth of the outside air in Cambridge last week didn’t quite compare to Key West or Ljubljana, it was hot enough that the Health Protection Agency reported an increase of heat-related deaths in the past weeks, according to The Guardian.

But the brightness of the tall, white walls, paired with an iceberg-grey floor of the Scott Polar Research Institute’s museum, somehow made me feel cool, as if I’d truly entered into the arctic.

Most noticeable upon entering is the starkness of the wall that blocks your view of the exhibits. It stretches upwards toward a small dome, upon which a map of the Antarctic is painted in a cool color palate. On either side of the whiteness are entryways into the exhibit space, where relics of the so-called ‘Heroic Age’ treks are on display: well-worn tools, fur sleeping bags, and notes from other British journeys to the polar regions as well.

To really get a feel for the museum, you’d have to take the time to browse the drawers filled with the carefully preserved and yellowed letters that the museum’s namesake, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, wrote on his ill-fated 1912 journey to what he called this “awful place,” nearly all of which are ominous in tone.

“My dear Sir George,” he wrote to his mentor, Sir George Egerton, “I fear we have shot our blot—but we have been to the Pole & done the longest journey recorded…”

The gallery, which was revamped and reopened only a month ago by the Earl and Countess of Wessex, is more than just a tribute to Scott’s failed expedition. It also includes exhibits and explanations of polar environmental change, polar history and geopolitics, and ice and climate studies.

But the museum doesn’t just look backwards at history—it’s also part of a working institute, supporting research and offering M.Phil. degrees in Polar Studies and Ph.D.s in Glaciology through the University of Cambridge.

Employees told me that the exhibits were “pretty unique.”

“It’s the only [museum] on the polar regions in England,” one woman told me, as she reached to straighten a row of books.

As the only such museum, it has a quirky sort of value, though the space is small: the newly designed and refurbished entranceway is sparse, and two main rooms house rotating exhibits (currently dedicated to Inuit art), as well as two small emperor penguin chick specimens.

And though it’s about a 15 minute walk from Caius, and open at odd hours, I was glad I’d ventured over, even if only for the delusion of a blast of iceberg-tinged air.

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