For some reason, whenever I think of the American Museum of Natural History, my mind immediately transports me back to my days of babysitting. My memory of the museum itself consists of many diorama-shaped blurs barely glimpsed in the mad-dash to make sure little Skylar didn’t accidentally topple a dinosaur skeleton or harass any of the other little monsters children playing hide-and-seek among the museums many fascinating (I assume) exhibits. So it was with great excitement that I walked down Central Park West in the morning sunshine, ready for a day of exploring the museum on my own time.
Today I had the good fortune to beat the heat while enjoying the AMNH’s new exhibit, “Race to the End of the Earth.” An interactive retrospective on British Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s race to be the first man to reach the South Pole, “Race to the End of the Earth” combines history with biology, astronomy, nutrition, geography, and meteorology (to name a few of the lofty “–ologys” explored). Though I was not initially familiar with the epic journey undertaken by Scott and Amundsen and their respective crews, by the time I reached the EXIT sign (and the requisite gift shop), I began to wonder why such an interesting tale never made it into any of my history teachers’ curricula.
The story begins with British Royal Navy Captain Robert Scott, who undertook a voyage to the South Pole in 1902. Ultimately unsuccessful, his courage and bravery sparked a national interest in his effort, and with support from the public and the British crown, he decided to try again in 1909. As he set sail, however, he received a cryptic telegram from a Norwegian explorer by the name of Roald Amundsen, and the race to be the first man to reach the South Pole was on. “Race to the End of the Earth” takes you step-by-step from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole (don’t worry—no spoilers here!) and back.
I think one of the main reasons this exhibit is so fascinating is that it is designed as a fully interactive experience, integrating everything from the low lighting accented by cold, fluorescent blues (to simulate light reflecting off of an icy landscape) to the ambient noise of the recordings played by the men at the base camp or the Adélie penguins squawking outside.
Everyone has the opportunity to select a character card (at random) before he or she heads into the exhibit. Each card has the name, occupation and vital stats of a member of either Scott or Amundsen’s team, and you are encouraged to follow your character’s journey (and to find an object he owned among the museum’s displays). I chose Oscar Wisting, a “Jack-of-All-Trades” from the Norwegian team. Though the cards may seem at first like nothing more than an attempt to keep the children entertained, they actually give you a way to relate to the story. It’s almost ironic that a two dimensional card could make these historical figures seem three dimensional—but irony aside, these little pieces of paper contain a key to identifying with the names on the explorers more personally. I felt a strange burst of—can you call it pride?—at learning of Wisting’s technical expertise, and I even found myself getting excited when I finally found his compass in one of the display cases.
Throughout the exhibit I was encouraged to look through binoculars at photos taken along the journey, touch replicas
of emperor penguin eggs, and “flip” through the pages of a touch-screen “book,” which included pictures and audio. While all of this might seem a little too child-friendly for today’s cynical and aloof adult, I overheard one woman blurt out, “Isn’t that amazing?” as she gazed at the full-scale replica of Scott’s base-camp cabin, while one man made his wife wait at the exit while he went back to double check that he hadn’t missed anything.
Because it is so expertly curated and follows such an incredible story, “The Race to the End of the Earth” is—at least for this history nerd—an exhilarating experience. Not only did I find myself getting caught up in the suspense and tension of the high-stakes race, but I also found myself learning along the way. (By the time I left the exhibit, I was endowed with the knowledge of how a Katabatic wind forms, which Antarctic penguins are most closely related to dinosaurs, and how Inuit “fashion design” saved the Norwegian explorers from frostbite. I even learned how many cigars a British explorer thought it necessary to pack in order to survive the trip to the South Pole—yes, it’s that detailed.)
Sure, you may have to contend for access to the video screens with rambunctious children or jostle amazed tourists out of the way of the dioramas; however, if for no other reason than to feel a little cool air (was the chill in the museum a result of Antarctic winds or just a very good air-conditioning system?), you should make your way to the Museum of Natural History’s “Race to the End of the Earth.” Grab a sweater and some intellectual curiosity, and make sure to give yourself ample time—I spent a good two hours there and could have spent much more—to get acquainted with this fascinating take on a terra australis nondum cognita.*
Kay Prins, SoA’12
PS Check out their awesome website before you go for even more interactive historical and scientific goodies: TAKE ME TO ANTARCTICA!
79 Street And Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Tickets are $22 for students, and include the museum’s entry fee. (The full price is $28.)
* “Southern Land As Yet Unknown” (A label for Antarctica on a map from 1570, as featured in “Race to the End of the Earth.”)