Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Exhibition aims to find the real Captain Scott

Clinical look at ill-fated expedition is a bid to know the man inside the myth.

Robert Scott (rear, centre) and his crew meticulously detailed their findings. Photo / National Maritime Museum of London
Robert Scott (rear, centre) and his crew meticulously detailed their findings. Photo / National Maritime Museum of London

He's been the subject of 50 biographies, while John Mills, Martin Shaw and countless other star actors have attempted to bring the much-maligned British explorer to life.

Few adventurers have been as forensically examined as Captain Robert Falcon Scott, leader of the most famous ill-fated expedition in modern history, where he was beaten to the South Pole in 1912 and perished on the brutal 1500km return trek.

Now, a remarkable new exhibition aims to peel back the layers of myth, romanticism and cynicism that surrounds the intrepid adventurer and reveal the true story behind the epic 1910-1913 Antarctic expedition.

Scott's Last Expedition opened in Christchurch yesterday, reuniting rare original artefacts, equipment and personal effects for the first time in 100 years.

"Scott's story has been told many times and he's either been vilified or hero-worshipped," says Canterbury Museum exhibitions manager Stephen Pennruscoe.

"We've stayed neutral, so by the end of the exhibition, people will be able to judge him for themselves."

The touring exhibition, which has already enjoyed success in Sydney and London but includes artefacts never before seen in public, starts with the damaged remains of the white marble Scott Statue, which toppled off its plinth by Christchurch's Avon River in the deadly February 22 earthquake.

The broken statue reveals that Scott, and his four comrades, all died returning from the South Pole after having their spirits broken when they learned they had been beaten by Norwegian rivals led by Roald Amundsen.

Curators say they wanted the public to know the voyage ended in tragedy and to therefore ask themselves, 'What went wrong?'

"The exhibition takes the public through the planning, science, journey and by the end, they should have the complete picture," Mr Pennruscoe said.

Scott left Lyttelton, Christchurch, aboard ex-whaling ship Terra Nova on November 26, 1910, and reached the Ross Sea on January 4, 1911.

The polar conditions that greeted him and his team are brought to life vividly by the exhibition, especially through use of expedition photographer Herbert Ponting's staggering black and white photographs.

A lifesize representation of the inside of Scott's Cape Evans expedition base is a highlight.

Visitors can walk inside the 17m x 9m space, imagine the cramped living quarters and how it would have become a cosy haven from the hostile environment outside where the men carried out their scientific work.

And it's the commitment to science that the Canterbury Museum, with partners the Natural History Museum of London and the Antarctic Heritage Trust, have slanted the exhibition towards. More than 40,000 specimens, including birds, dolphins and whales, were gathered, carefully documented and returned from the trip, with about 400 new to science.

"One of the big untold stories is the expedition's legacy for science," says Nigel Watson, executive director of the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

All of Scott's men, not just the scientists, made meticulously detailed meteorological readings, recorded plant fossils and made forays into glaciology, zoology, geology, mapping and land information.

Their dedication to science and learning more about the alien environment could have even resulted in the deaths of 43-year old Scott and his four remaining crewmates, Captain Lawrence Oates, Lieutenant Henry Bowers, Dr Edward Wilson and Petty Officer Edgar Evans who, facing death, still lugged around their loads of scientific gear and findings.

"They were driven not just by the race [to the South Pole] but for their thirst for new knowledge, and in the end, it may have cost them their lives," said Canterbury Museum director Anthony Wright.

Man or myth

What: Scott's Last Expedition

Where: Canterbury Museum, Christchurch

When: Until June 30 next year.


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