Arts / Amundsen’s race to the South Pole

Installation at the High Court

MANY Canberrans are fascinated by the story of expeditions to the South Pole, but the greatest success – the planting of the Norwegian flag at the South Pole by the explorer Roald Amundsen – has long been eclipsed by the story of the doomed journey south by Britain’s RF Scott.

Now, in a patriotic gesture, the Norwegian Government is touring an exhibition mounted by the Fram Museum in Oslo (Fram, meaning “Forward”, which is the name of the ship in which Amundsen and his crew journeyed to Antarctica) and it’s Canberra’s turn to see the show.

“Lessons from the Arctic: how Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole”, now showing at the High Court of Australia, is a touring panel-exhibition drawn from extensive photographic records and personal accounts, exploring some of the lessons Amundsen learnt from his earlier experiences in both the polar regions.

Amundsen was the first explorer to reach the South Pole, on December 14, 1911, but some years earlier he had also crossed the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. In 1926, he was expedition leader for the air expedition to the North Pole.

In contrast, Scott and his party of five reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, less than five weeks after Amundsen. Scott died in March 1912 and immediately became a national hero, a symbol of the fighting spirit.

The British were reluctant to give Amundsen credit and called him “the Man who stole the Pole”.

During the same period of exploration, Douglas Mawson led the first Australian Antarctic Expedition, one that important scientific results, but such is the predilection of the popular imagination for tragedy that of the three explorers, Scott remains the most celebrated. In Australia schoolchildren learn about Scott, but few would know the name of Amundsen, who was to meet an icy fate when he perished in the Barents Sea in June 1928.

Much of the exhibition displayed along the external windows in the High Court’s public area is devoted to Amundsen’s preparatory explorations around the Arctic Circle, in some ways similar locale, requiring, say, skiing skills, but in other ways very different from the Antarctic. Amundsen was later to put his team’s success down to “patience, perseverance and experience” rather than luck. Indeed the exhibit indicates that his foresight and planning meant luck had very little to do with the end result.

Deputy head of mission for the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Canberra, Beate Gabrielsen, told “CityNews” that the exhibition, curated during 2016, was intended for Australian audiences. It has already been shown in Hobart, at the Maritime Museum in Sydney and in Wellington and Christchurch in New Zealand.

Ms Gabrielsen said that the exhibition focused on the meticulous planning for which Amundsen was famous, including his sojourns with Inuit people of the Arctic Circle. The rare images shown were taken by the expedition crew, hand-coloured by Amundsen and later used in his 1912 lecture.

While it was certainly a patriotic narrative for Norwegians, she said, it was also a story of great interest in Australia, with many people calling the embassy to express their interest in the story.

In the final panels of “Lessons from the Arctic” the parallels between the Amundsen and the Scott are set out for the viewers to see.

This is a must-see exhibition for Antarctic buffs, but it is also worthwhile for members of the public who know little of what it requires to penetrate the most inhospitable region on earth.

“Lessons from the Arctic: how Roald Amundsen won the race to the South Pole”, High Court of Australia, 9.45am to 4pm, weekdays, and 12pm to 4pm, Sundays, until July 18.

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