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

One hundred years ago, when the South Pole had not yet been glimpsed by man, two teams set out to conquer it. Roald Amundsen’s Norwegians zipped there and back with skis and sled dogs, arriving at the pole in December 1911, more than a month before the British expedition led by a Royal Navy captain, Robert Falcon Scott. For the four British explorers, slowed by poor planning, bad luck and the frequent stops they made for scientific research, that second-place distinction became insignificant on the way home. Malnourished, exhausted and crippled by frostbite, they died only days away from safety. That grim yarn is the story of the American Museum of Natural History’s big summer blockbuster, “Race to the End of the Earth,” which opens to the public on Friday, May 28. The tragic subject matter is a departure for this usually kid-friendly, dinosaur-heavy museum, whose recent exhibition strategy has been typified by the dragons and unicorns of 2007’s record-breaking “Mythic Creatures.” That show drew 490,000 full-price visitors-crucial for an otherwise pay-as-you-want museum-and with this show the museum is hoping for comparable success, expecting between 250,000 and 400,000 to come enjoy the chilly melodrama (open through December). To draw that crowd, curator Ross MacPhee has combined photos of both expeditions; videos; never-before-shown artifacts; and that American Museum of Natural History trademark, the elaborate diorama. Upping the stakes, museumgoers will be assigned a historical figure at the beginning of the exhibition, and the odds aren’t great that they’ll make it out alive.

The British Consulate sponsored the show to draw attention to global warming and climate change, Consul Sir Alan Collins noted—but he couldn’t resist adding that Norwegian Amundsen’s victory was ‘just a dash to the pole.’

Why the institutional shift in topic and tactics? Call it a perfect blizzard of factors: The exhibition offered a compelling melodrama, a rich trove of artifacts from the museum’s own collection (cutting costs of the show) and, in an age where museum-exhibition sponsors are difficult to come by, a willing one with a point of view about what actually happened in Antarctica a century ago. The British Consulate in New York is the “corporate” sponsor of “Race to the End of the Earth” (with funds provided by the U.K. government), and some Brits think history has given their valiant countrymen a very raw deal.

Scott’s champions include Sir Alan Collins, New York’s consul-general for England. He called Scott “one of Britain’s most famous sons,” whose story is one that every child knows by heart: “This story probably ranks with the conquest by the British expedition of Everest in the 1950s as being one of those great achievements of overcoming the physical environment.” The consulate co-sponsored the show to draw attention to global warming and climate change, Sir Alan noted-but couldn’t resist adding that Amundsen’s victory was “just a dash to the pole.”

Curator Mr. MacPhee said the museum has been “evenhanded” in its approach to the exhibition. “We’re not out to make any claims about who did the better job,” he said in an interview last week, although he conceded, “Well … Amundsen did the better job. He had no dead guys. He was the more successful.”  He continued: “[Scott] had this view, common at the time-the Brits are still famous for it-of sophisticated amateurism. Through pluck, you’ll get through. Well, he didn’t.”

Scott is a controversial figure among Anglophiles, explorers and particularly among historians, who, since his death, have painted him as either a blundering incompetent or a hero of the British empire.  When news reached Britain of Scott’s tragic end, he was lionized-Mr. MacPhee called him “practically a Sir Galahad,” and statues and monuments were erected across the country. But his reputation disintegrated along with the empire, particularly after a critical 1979 biography, and resulting television show, dismissed him as craven and stupid for mistakes such as packing sleeping bags made of reindeer skin, which moulted.

In the past decade, the tide has turned again for Scott, and several biographers have recast him as a tragic hero done in largely by bad luck. Most famous of these is Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a modern adventurer whose many achievements include amputating the tips of his fingers after contracting frostbite on his own failed polar expedition. Reached by email, he declared that “a great many outright lies have been promulgated about Scott!” But he declined to elaborate.

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