Canterbury Museum

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I must admit that as our New Zealand tour progressed the thought of staying for a period in Christchurch, just over 2 years after the destructive earthquake, was not one which filled me with the same unbridled anticipation that the previous locations had. Rather, I began to sense a strange almost melancholy mood beginning to creep over me, the result perhaps of some empathy for the suffering, or simply a fear of being voyeuristic over the resulting debris of such a disaster and then offending the feelings of the local populace. Was it just tour fatigue after two and a half weeks of driving, or disappointment at the realisation that we only had one day to view all the sights and therefore, could not set our ambitions too widely, who knows?

Before we left home I had seen advertisements for Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition at the Canterbury Museum on the last leg of its ‘world tour’ from the Natural History Museum in London and already pencilled it into the provisional itinerary as a must see, given New Zealand’s role in assisting in Antarctic exploration. The morning sunshine found us on our way to the museum, passing through a residential area where only minimal earthquake damage could be seen. Driving past the Christchurch Women’s Hospital we turn into Rolleston Avenue with the Museum on left. We pass some buildings wrapped in scaffolding, casualties of the geological events, and the unusual sight of some faux Rhineland castle turrets on the floor greets us, having fallen from their towers and in the process of being rebuilt.

After parking up we walk towards the museum and soon encounter more casualties of the shaking, some empty statue plinths. Entering the front door we pay our fee and begin our tour passing through exhibits detailing and glorying in the history of New Zealand and its people. To my embarrassment now I must confess that the majority of museum exhibits from here and previous places we had visited, Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington have melded into a single amorphous blob where I am not sure which belongs where. I can remember a vivid display of indigenous people and their artefacts and treasures and a recreation of a Victorian Christchurch street, but the remainder is a blur. Reaching the end of the street display we turned right through a door to be met by a young lady who took our additional entrance fee for the exhibition. We stepped through the entrance and were met by an extraordinary sight which, for me, provided a perfect, if unintentional, way to set the mood for the exhibition. Robert Falcon Scott’s statue from the empty plinth outside the museum entrance lay broken on the floor, providing a solemn reminder of how the Edwardian belief that they ruled the world and their technology could conquer all would come up short when pitted against the might of nature.

Suitably chastened we quietly moved forward into the main body of the exhibition, and encountered a quite enthralling sight, perfect replica of the Cape Evans hut (50ft x 25ft) built to house the expedition members on the Antarctic ice while they waited out the Antarctic winter ready for the start to the pole. What astounded us about the hut was how little space was available inside to house all the people and equipment, and how the military structure and social conventions of the day were maintained even here. Scott and the senior members, including the scientists of the party had their own private spaces, whereas in an area separated by a wall of packing cases, the men bunked in a communal area. Every conceivable spare inch of space was taken up by wooden boxes and tins of stores. Scientific instruments filled the sections set aside of for the scientists with charts and pictures covered the parts of the walls not having shelves, leaving only a very small area was allowed for personal effects. All this has the effect of heightening just how claustrophobic the real huts must have been and how little room there was to move around in during all those dark winter months while they waited to begin.

Moving on to the display story boards we automatically fell into a respectful quiet as we studied the unfolding history of the ill fated expedition. The photos taken by Herbert Ponting, and others, which were incredibly crisp and clear considering the equipment they had at their disposal. It was only because the clothes the men were wearing looked so primitive when compared to those of today’s explorers, do you realise that they were taken so long ago, leaving you to wonder how on earth they managed to survive as long as they did. The newspaper reports of the day steeped in the clipped official language of the day contrasted vividly with the personal letters and diary entries of not just Scott, but also the officers and men, really let you into the personal side of the expedition. It was quite revealing how the writings which had begun with so much hope and bravado had, as the days elapsed, turned increasingly apprehensive until the haunting final letters and diary entries which spoke of foreboding as the realisation of the unfolding tragedy became understood as rations had to be eked out in ever smaller quantities when the weather failed to improve. The final diary entry by Scott on 29th March 1912 voices the acceptance of the hopelessness of their position and the ‘so near and yet so far’ irony which is so often the epitaph of great endeavours when foiled by a greater power.

Having digested all that was before us, we made our way out into the rest of the museum reflecting on what we had seen, and surprisingly we did not speak for a while. This had been more of an experience than a dusty museum visit. The emotions being stirred by the poignant writings, vivid pictures and even the smells of the wooden huts. For me the whole experience brought home the shortcomings of a state of mind that prevailed in Edwardian times that the ‘English’ way was superior and that the gallant failure was somehow more acceptable than just success.

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