Getting closer and closer to Amundsen!!!!
I was given the privilege of taking a close look at some of the holdings of the National Library of Norway. I have a long standing interest in the Polheim – which was the tent structure that Amundsen erected at the South Pole when he and his team successfully achieved the pole for the first time in human history. The Polheim is an inspiration and central focus for some of my own current research and artwork and I wanted to learn more about its origins and history. The Polheim was one of several tents that were constructed aboard his ship Fram as they voyaged south, it was smaller and of a different fabric to the other expedition tents. It was based on a prototype that had been developed with his expedition mate, the explorer Frederick Cook (soon to be discredited following his disputed claim to the North Pole) on board the Belgica during the Belgian Antarctic Expidition of 1897-1901 (when Amundsen was 25). This was the first expedition to overwinter in Antarctica and one of the several arenas in which Amundsen honed his skills and tool set, which he used with apparent efficiency and even pleasure on his trip to the South Pole in 1911.
When I made enquiries with a friend and expert on the cinema of Polar exploration Jan Anders Diesen about the development of the Polheim, he introduced me to Anne Melgård, the very helpful curator of the manuscripts collection at the National Library of Norway. She told me that they had Amundsen’s original notebooks from the Belgica voyage together with a very neat, hand-drawn design for the polar tent penned by Amundsen. Oslo immediately became a key location for my research!
Anne and her colleague Guro Tangvald agreed to meet with me and to curate a selection from their manuscript holdings which they thought might be of interest – recent published books, image archives which included postcards and other printed materials and notebooks and other handwritten materials. I had no idea what a delightful rabbit hole I was about to plunge into!
Firstly, I meandered through several recent books that were relevant to my topic, including the beautifully illustrated Race to the End by Ross MacPhee, published by the American Museum of Natural History. Which included the following tantalizing image. The fragments of cloth overlaid resemble a map of the ice! Here I was looking for tangible evidence of the Polheim; souvenirs of it sampled by the very next (and last) group of humans who found it! Anne Melgård subsequently informed me that the fragments are in the collection of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge.
The rest of the Polheim is now ‘lost’, buried under meters of ice somewhere near the South Pole, having drifted along with the ice from its original position a hundred years ago. There has been speculation and calculation trying to locate the Polheim but it is essentially unrecoverable – perhaps it will be imaged in a deep ice scan in years to come.
There were lots of wonderful photos in the Library’s archive. Including this gem of crew members whittling and spinning yarns on deck on their way South on Fram.
And delightful postcards!
And yes, the hand-drawn design for the Polheim as developed on the Belgica.
But wait!! There was more!!
There were the haunting images of Amundsen’s joyous team at the Pole. And the tragic ones of Scott’s party disappointed at the Pole a month later when they discovered that all of their effort and suffering had been for naught. The hardest part of their struggle lay ahead – a struggle none of them would survive.
Then there were the original hand written journals in Amundsen’s impeccable, meticulous, tiny hand. Initially written in ink and later in perfectly sharp pencil. I can hardly imagine sharpening a pencil in the conditions they were working in, let alone everything else that they achieved. Accompanying the journals were the data books which record the readings and calculations to precisely locate the pole.
But perhaps the most surprising and emotional documents in the archive was this single piece of paper!!
I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my own hands. Amundsen wrote this letter to King Haakon after he had determined his location at the Pole and had ensured that he had definitely encompassed the Pole in a grid that he had his men laid out on the ice. It was the official notification of his discovery of the Pole. He left it in the Polheim along with other articles in the hope that Scott’s expedition would discover it and be able to return with it to Europe. In case Amundsen and his party were lost on the return route their discovery would live on. Ironically perhaps, Scott took the letter with him and it was Scott’s party that never returned to Europe. The letter was discovered along with the bodies of Scott and his companions 8 months later when their final camp was found. It was extraordinary to hold this piece of paper printed with the Fram Expedition letterhead that Amundsen had carried to the Pole, left behind in the Polheim for Scott, who in turn carried it back close to the edge of the Antarctic continent, where it lay beside his frozen body for months before being recovered and finally returned to Norway.
I am one of those people who feel that history gets inscribed on the things we use. Not that there is any totemic force at play, so much as a deep cultural overlay that gives some objects extraordinary value! I have only encountered one or two objects like that first hand.
Many thanks to Jan Anders Diesen, Anne Melgård, Guro Tangvald and the staff at the National Library of Norway for guiding me to and allowing me to handle these irreplaceable documents.