The Museum of Natural History Rewrites It in a Gritty New Show

Was Scott’s fatal flaw kindness? The Scandinavians regarded their sled dogs as beasts of burden, to be run until dead, then eaten; the British were too sentimental to let them die. Instead, they relied on ponies, and when those proved useless, they resorted to the time-honored Naval practice of “man-hauling,” dragging their own gear across mile after mile of frozen earth, while the dogs, presumably, ran in the snow alongside.

Scott’s good motives are supposed to balance out what from a century’s distance looks, at best, like recklessness. His team stopped regularly to take measurements and collect geological samples-30 pounds of rocks to drag along with everything else-while Amundsen simply charged ahead, forgoing science for personal glory. Less honorable, of course, but honor doesn’t keep out the cold. Yet 100 years after the fact, Scott is being recast as a good naturalist, a “green” explorer, so to speak, while Amundsen’s lust for victory is dismissed as frivolous.

Lorie Karnath, president of the New York Explorer’s Club-which Amundsen belonged to, and which inducted Scott posthumously-has a soft spot for the tragic Brit. Although she said that Amundsen “made the right decisions, and that’s really important,” she praised Scott for “trying to make this into a more meaningful expedition.” He who briefly was a martyr to the crown has now become a martyr to science.

Mr. MacPhee believes that no matter how one feels about Scott, it is impossible to read the details of his death without being affected. “He’d been out on the ice for something like 114 days,” said Mr. MacPhee. “His feet were frozen. He had no chance. What would most people do? They would probably just fold up. … He wrote. … And they were beautifully written letters … extremely compelling. It cannot help but bring a tear to your eye.”

At the show, many of those heartrending letters will be on display for the first time. But, rather than closing on that sad note, the exhibition concludes with a look at modern Antarctic research, and its roots in the 1910 race. Sir Alan placed particular emphasis on Scott’s 30 pounds of rock. “All his (scientific) samples were recovered,” noted Sir Alan, “so one could say that he didn’t die in vain.”

wakers@observer.com