Campus News

Centennial of Peary's North Pole Expedition Celebrated at Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum

Story posted April 16, 2008

To celebrate the centennial of Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary's 1908-09 North Pole Expedition, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum presents Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole, on view beginning April 18, 2008.

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Robert E. Peary greeting crowds in Sydney, Nova Scotia, upon his return from the North Pole.

One hundred years after his quest — and at a time when the Arctic is again at the forefront of international news — Northward Over the Great Ice brings together nearly 300 rare objects and photographs, many never before publicly exhibited.

The artifacts are interpreted using archival voice recordings and film footage, as well as both published and unpublished first-hand accounts of the journey by members of Peary's team. The exhibition reunites key objects from the expedition that, until now, have remained apart since they were first used in the Arctic.

Northward Over the Great Ice tells the story of Peary's quest for the Pole from a broad perspective, and highlights the many individuals who made critical contributions to the expedition. Reflecting an ethnic diversity unusual for its time, his North Pole party included the African-American explorer Matthew Henson, as well as Inughuit (formerly known at Polar Eskimo) men. Peary's efforts received vital support from Inughuit women who made the fur clothing worn by the team, as well as from his wife, Josephine, who helped raise and manage the funds for his expeditions.

In addition to revealing the different perspectives of these individuals, the exhibition features objects such as the American flag made by Josephine that marked the team's attainment of the Pole; one of five custom-designed sledges used by the North Pole party; the bell from S.S. Roosevelt, the vessel that transported the team to the Arctic; the personal journal-previously unknown to scholars-of George A. Wardwell, the Roosevelt's chief engineer; and scientific instruments recently used by scientists at the Pole.

Josephine and Marie Peary holding the flag that Robert E. Peary flew at the North Pole. Josephine, Peary's wife, made him the flag in 1898, and he carried it with him when he went north. Peary cut pieces from the flag and deposited the cut fragments in cairns he erected every time he broke a "farthest north" record. The diagonal piece was left at the North Pole. The flag and some of its recovered pieces are on display.

The debate surrounding the question of Peary's 1909 attainment of the Pole has often overshadowed the legacy of his remarkable career and the accomplishments of his crews.

Northward Over the Great Ice shifts the focus of discussion, examining the full trajectory of Peary's career and providing visitors with an understanding of the broader social, political, technological and anthropological implications of the expedition.

"Peary's innovations in techniques and technologies, the pressures that propelled him and other explorers to venture into unknown parts of the globe, the skills of the people who supported his expeditions, and the complex and complementary nature of Inughuit-Explorer relations are fascinating narratives and are as relevant now as they were in Peary's time," said Susan Kaplan, Director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center.

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Matthew Henson standing on the SS Roosevelt wearing traditional Inughuit fur clothing. Henson was highly respected by all members of the expedition. He learned the Inughuit language, made most of the sledges used by the expedition and was an excellent dog sled driver.

"Today we are at another crossroads in the history of the Arctic. The many voices and perspectives featured in the exhibition reveal the shared history of Americans and northern peoples and countries and provide new insights into the events of our own day."

The Arctic is the focus of global attention as a result of both increased access to its exploitable resources and shipping lanes, and the region's role as a bellwether for the impact of global climate change.

The race to the Pole that helped drive Peary's expedition in 1908 is mirrored in contemporary politics as nations and corporations seek to tap the region's resources and lay claim to territory.

The public is now considering the broader questions posed by global warming and its impact on the Arctic's delicate ecology and indigenous communities.

Northward Over the Great Ice will be on view during the International Polar Year, an internationally coordinated campaign of research and education that highlights the links between the Arctic and Antarctic regions and the rest of the globe.

Exhibition Overview

The exhibition introduces visitors to the challenges of life in the Arctic and the difficulties of travel and navigation over its terrain. Audiences will learn about Peary's early years and family life, the routes of his many expeditions, and his creativity in adopting and modifying Inughuit technologies for use in his quest for the Pole.

Known as the Hubbard Sledge, this is one of five sledges used by Peary's North Pole party. Designed by Peary, made by Henson, it was given to Thomas Hubbard (Class of 1857), one of Peary's major financial supporters.

The exhibition brings together nearly 200 objects and 80 archival photographs.

Highlights include: the 13-foot Hubbard sledge made by Matthew Henson, revealing a unique and ingenious integration of Inughuit and western design; examples of Inughuit hunting weapons and sewing equipment; fur clothing fashioned for the expedition team by Inughuit women; and scientific equipment used by team members.

Examples of his design sketches, scientific instruments, and an admiralty-style model of the S.S. Roosevelt will also be on view.

The objects are set against backdrops featuring expedition photographs and are shown along with excerpts from the journals of Peary's crew. The experiences and perspectives of the journey's participants are brought to life through rare archival film footage and archival voice recordings of the explorers as well as modern studio renditions of their voices.

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The Roosevelt was an auxiliary steamer and the first vessel designed to engage rather than avoid the dangerous Davis Strait pack ice. She was built in the McKay and Dix Shipyard on Verona Island, near Bucksport, Maine. This model was made by Richard DeVynck.

The exhibition builds on a decade of research by Museum staff studying materials in their permanent collection and archives and in museums and archives throughout the country.

The Museum's extensive holdings are supplemented by loans from the National Geographic Society, The Explorers Club, and the families of expedition team members, among other notable lenders.

Arctic, Coastal and Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College

Bowdoin College is one of the oldest centers for Arctic Studies in the United States, and is one of few institutions that combine Arctic, coastal and environmental research with an anthropological and archaeological Arctic program.

Two Inughuit men enjoy a tea break while on a trip to collect scientific data along the coast of Ellesmere Island in 1909.

Bowdoin students are involved in the full range of the Museum and Arctic Studies Center's initiatives. Undergraduate students are provided the rare opportunity to engage in ongoing collaborative research across the arctic, coastal and environmental studies departments, drawing from and contributing to scientific data, historical documentation and material culture that Bowdoin faculty and students have compiled over more than 100 years of travel to the Arctic.

As part of their training, students participated in the development of the new exhibition and its new media components and programming.

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Building a snow house on the sea ice during the North Pole Expedition in 1909.

Bowdoin's Coastal Studies Center (CSC) provides facilities and resources that enable students and faculty to conduct research and participate in curriculum focused on coastal regions and issues. CSC welcomes inquires from a broad range of disciplines including: humanities; arts; social, natural, and behavioral sciences; and mathematics. Discipline-based projects and interdisciplinary programs provide faculty and students with new insights and understanding regarding coastal environments and communities.

Environmental Studies at Bowdoin reflects the college's recognition that human activities influence and are dependent upon natural processes. Bowdoin is committed to a liberal arts education that promotes environmental literacy: an understanding of the world around us, the built and the natural, the local and the global, our role in it and our effects upon it.

Related Programming

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center has organized an international conference on Arctic exploration, North by Degree, in collaboration with the Academy of Natural Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. The conference will be held in Philadelphia from May 22-24, 2008. A traveling exhibition, Across the Polar Sea: With Robert E. Peary on the North Pole Expedition, organized by Arctic Museum staff and featuring photographs taken on the 1908-09 North Pole Expedition, complements the on-campus exhibition.

An interdisciplinary series of lectures will be held on Bowdoin's campus throughout the fall and spring of 2009. Activities for children, families, and alumni on Bowdoin's campus — as well as a number of ancillary programs at Maine partner institutions such as the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England and the Osher Map Library on the University of Southern Maine campus — will be ongoing throughout the run of the exhibition.

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Men and dog teams pause on the ice during a hunting trip in the fall of 1908.

The exhibition was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Additional support was provided by the Kane Lodge Foundation, Inc., the Edgard and Geraldine Feder Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Friends of the College Fund. Additional funding was provided by the Russell and Janet Doubleday Endowment, the Charles Hildreth Endowment, and Gibbons Fellowships and Internships.


In fall of 2008, McGill-Queens University Press will issue a new edition of Donald B. MacMillan's How Peary Reached the Pole, his fourth and last book. The new illustrated volume, with a new introduction by Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center staff members director Susan Kaplan, curator Genevieve LeMoine and assistant curator Anne Witty, recounts the beginning of MacMillan's career in the Arctic as a member of Robert E. Peary's 1908-09 North Pole Expedition and advocates for the value of Peary's methods, equipment and leadership.

The SS Roosevelt reflected in the water as the ice at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, breaks up in the spring of 1909.

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