Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 3 – the National Library of Norway

National Library of Norway

National Library of Norway

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.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

The Belgica anchored at Mount William.

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.

Fragments of silk torn from the Polheim's seams by  Dr. Edward 'Bill' Wilson.

Fragments of silk torn from the Polheim’s seams by Dr. Edward ‘Bill’ Wilson.

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.

Polar whittling!

Polar whittling!

And delightful postcards!

Thorof Holmboe, 1915 Offset lithograph postcard.

Thorolf Holmboe, 1915
Offset lithograph postcard.

And yes, the hand-drawn design for the Polheim as developed on the Belgica.

Amundsen's tent patterns as used for the Polheim.

Amundsen’s tent pattern as used for the Polheim.

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.

Scott's disappointed party.

Scott’s disappointed party.

The B-side

The B-side

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.

Amundsen's journal on the day they achieved the South Pole

Amundsen’s journal on the day they achieved the South Pole

Polar calculations and determinations.

Polar calculations and determinations.

But perhaps the most surprising and emotional documents in the archive was this single piece of paper!!

Amundsen's letter to King Haakon VII

Amundsen’s letter to King Haakon VII

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.

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 2 – the ‘Fram’

The next stop on my museum tour and in my hunt for Roald Amundsen was the Fram Museum.

Set right on the water on the outskirts of Oslo, the museum was built around the wonderful vessel Fram. As Amundsen is an icon of Polar exploration so is Fram. It’s not just a vessel, it’s a character in its own right!

Fram (“Forward”) was used in  both the Arctic and Antarctic regions between 1893 and 1912 by a series of Norwegian explorers including Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup, Oscar Wistig and Roald Amundsen. It was designed and built by the Norwegian shipwright Colin Archer for Fridtjof Nansen’s 1893 Arctic expedition in which Fram was supposed to freeze into the Arctic ice sheet and float with it over the North Pole. Fram has sailed farther north (85°57’N) and farther south (78°41’S) than any other wooden ship

The entire Fram is jammed into the museum!

The entire Fram is jammed into the museum!

She is as a three masted schooner with a total length of 39 meters and width of 11 meters. The ship is both unusually wide and unusually shallow in order to better withstand the forces of pressing ice. The idea was that as the ice formed and pressed close around her she would pop out of it like a squeezed olive pip and so would ride up on the ice rather than being crushed by it.

The smell of tar, oakum and engine oil when you enter the museum is wonderful. You can wander all over the ship and see how amazingly solid she is, and how comfy she must have been.  Nansen tried to make it as comfortable as possible for his crew as they would be staying aboard, fixed in the ice, for at least one winter, perhaps two. So it is heavily insulated and the kitchen is at the heart of the ship so that both food and heat become central. There are private cabins and a saloon and there were lots of entertainments on board – including a magic lantern projector and a piano! Being on Fram gave me a foretaste of life aboard Antigua – another 40m three-masted ship headed for the Arctic with a comfy saloon (more on that in an upcoming post).

Ice level view of the prow

Ice level view of the prow

Cross-battened hull for extra protection from the ice

Cross-battened hull for extra protection from the ice

Heavily reinforced hull

Heavily reinforced hull.

Cosy private cabin

Cosy private cabins

The displays that line the walls of the museum go into great detail about each of Fram’s expeditions. There are convincing reenactment videos of Amundsen’s crew working in their Antarctic base (the Framheim – the home of the Fram), based on contemporary photographs.

Working on the sleds in the wood workshop carved out of the Antarctic snow

Working on the sleds and gear crates in the wood workshop carved out of the Antarctic snow.

There are some wonderful large scale dioramas to guide our imaginations.

Diorama of preparations on the Antarctic ice

Diorama of preparations on the Antarctic ice

Many of the original objects used by the explorers are on display.

Amundsen's personal camera

Amundsen’s personal camera

Mysterious white 'stamina' tablets. I wonder if I can get some for the Arctic trip?

Mysterious white ‘stamina’ tablets. I wonder if I can get some for the Arctic trip?

I really started to get a feel for life on Fram. I can understand why Amundsen was so anxious to have her on his voyage to the Antarctic. She wasn’t a fabulous performer in the open ocean (her broad beam and flat bottom made her wallow and drag in heavy seas) but she was a major character in the heroic age of polar exploration. The first successful attempt on the South Pole wouldn’t have been the same without her!

Oslo – In search of Roald Amundsen – Part 1 – the Viking ships

Donald & Roald

Donald & Roald

I was on the hunt for Polar Bears while I was up North, I was also on the trail of Roald Amundsen.

As you might recall from high school geography or history classes, Amundsen was the first man to reach both poles. In fact, he was the first man to reach each of the Poles independently. The South Pole in 1911 with four companions on dog sled and skis, the North Pole in 1926 aboard the Italian airship “Norge” (created and captained by Umberto Nobile). On both trips he was accompanied by his fellow explorer Oscar Wistig so technically he shares the honor. Though Wistig is mostly considered  an historical footnote (along with the first African American polar explorer Matthew Henson who accompanied Robert Peary on 7 voyages over 23 years including Peary’s now disputed first arrival at the Geographic North Pole in 1909).

Amundsen is a great hero in Norway. Which is hardly surprising for this great seafaring nation. I spent a day enjoying four great nautical museums on the outskirts of Oslo. The Viking Ship Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Nautical Museum and, the icing on the cake, the Fram Museum. All of them provided important clues for my understanding of Amundsen.

The Viking ship Museum was the obvious starting point and a pilgrimage in its own right. I have wanted to view the Oseberg and Gokstad ships since I first saw images of them (in National Geographic perhaps?). What incredible works of functional craftsmanship. They still provide the most revealing evidence of what viking ships were actually like. Prior to their discovery in the late 19th century, the only clues came from the oral sagas, carvings on a few extant standing stones and the Bayeux Tapestry (AD 1077?).

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Vikings invading the Bayeaux Tapestry

Both ships are believed to have been functional (one a luxury yacht and the other a trade ship) prior to their use as funerary vessels. They had been looted and were shattered and degraded when they were discovered in the late 1800’s but thanks to an amazing restoration effort they now seem ready to sail again.

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Sightseers at the Oseberg excavation 1904

Oseberg ship

Oseberg ship restored

Oseberg lines - sweet!

Oseberg lines – sweet!

The carving work is beautifully restored and preserved and both ships have a wonderful patina that comes in part from their age but primarily from their preservation in tung oil and creosote – a finish that I might pursue myself!

Gokstad ship

Gokstad ship

Prow details

Prow details

Bed head details - the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

Bed head details – the women found aboard were laid to rest in ornately carved beds.

I enjoyed savouring the long and culturally layered history of the seafaring vikings. I’m from viking stock myself, as are most folk who have Britain in their ancestry, and my family name was created for a Norman lord who was one of the invaders in the Norman conquest of England in 1066.

The Norman conquest was taught in my grade school books as an invasion from France but it was actually a mingling of related folk from across the English Channel. The “Normans” were named so  because of their northern (i.e. Viking) roots. And by the time of the “conquest” the vikings had been living  amongst the ‘native’ britons for almost two centuries.

I couldn’t help but imagine the fabled viking raider of Britain and France, Ragnar Lodbrok (“hairy breeches”) moodily perched on the prow looking out to sea for new conquests.

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel's fab series Vikings

Ragnar Lodbrok as played by the hunk Travis Fimmel on the History channel’s delicious series “Vikings”.

My favorite vessel was one of the small tenders found with the Gokstad ship. I could imagine myself at the prow of this one!

A sweet and handy little vessel.

A sweet and handy little vessel.