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David Walton could design his own igloo

There can be few in Britain who have not been reminded over the past few years of our history of Antarctic exploration. The centenaries of those pioneering expeditions have coincided with the rise of the importance of the polar regions in our modelling of global change so that scarcely a day passes without an icy article or photo to catch the eye. Often these have been classic photos from the Heroic Age,  recalling those days only a hundred years ago when the Seventh Continent really was almost completely unknown.

The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge was established by public subscription after the death of Captain Scott’s party. It has come to house not only the world’s largest polar library but also an enormous collection of photographs and other images from both polar regions.  Over the last two years, with funding from xxx JISC, they have digitised over 20,000 of the images from eight Arctic and 13 Antarctic expeditions from 1845 to 1982. Many of the images have never been published before. They will be joined in due course by other expedition material including letters, diaries and scientific data.

Teaching material

Launched in March as Freeze-Frame, the images are clearly an enormous resource for those interested in the poles and, with so many available, it would be easy to be overwhelmed. There are seven subject ‘taster’ galleries just to get you interested, but you can also search by keywords and even make up a set of photos as your own polar gallery. Most are in black and white and, amongst the serious material, include some zanier ones on expedition life.

SPRI have provided resources to accompany photos on seven major themes – expeditions, biographies, polar photography, survival in extreme environments, northern people, changing Britain and the Heroic Age, and environmental change.  Whilst there are still some glitches on these pages – for example, inadequate further reading suggestions and some hyperlinks that fail to work – they all provide very valuable teaching material. 

No science

What is glaringly missing at present is a module on the science conducted by these expeditions, although there are photos of science being done in various other categories. There is also nothing on British government activities in the Antarctic, which have been continuous since 1944. The general impression from these pages is that they will continue to grow more useful as more images are posted and more resource subjects are written up.

The 22 biographies are brief but fascinating with Arctic whaling captains as well as expedition leaders like Byrd, Franklin, Fiennes, Scott and Shackleton.  Whilst  the institute can only put up what  they have copyright permission for, one can but hope that images and supporting material will be found in due course for other important British explorers like James Clark Ross, John Ross, William Parry, Alexander Mackenzie, Hubert Wilkins and so on, as well as some of the many foreign explorers.


Especially interesting are the resource pages where the text comes alive with the linked photos.  In the survival gallery, not only can you learn how clothing and transport have changed but also about the principles of diet, hypothermia, the evolution of transport types and how to design an igloo.  And the succinct summaries of expeditions with photos will help many students with their essays. All the pages have icons for Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to allow you to copy and mail the bits you like.

It is an exciting new resource which can be mined in many different ways by geographers, scientists and all those simply interested in the polar regions.  Keep looking to make sure you see all the new material that will be added in the next few years! 

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Professor David Walton
Professor David Walton is an Emeritus Fellow at British Antarctic Survey
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