There’s a new exhibition going into the Natural History Museum in London about Scott’s ill fated attempt to reach the South Pole in 1912. For polar buffs like me, this will be a great opportunity to see some of the artefacts remaining from the trip: the fur sleeping bags, the tinned pemmican, the fabric boots, pages from the diaries.
I’ve read all the books, the story is well known, but somehow, seeing the actual artefacts in ‘real life’ makes the experience different, more immediate, more real. It’s a story of personal sacrifice and heroism set against a different cultural code from that which we inhabit today: an age in which the heroic death was something to savour.
The notion of association and imbued value for ‘real’ artefacts is an odd one, certainly at odds with our current drive towards virtualisation and digital experiences. What makes Scott’s sleeping bag from 1912 any more interesting than any other sleeping bag from 1912? Well, the fact that it was in that bag that he wrote the last words in his diary, the fact that it was that bag that he pulled over 800 miles to the Pole and fell 12 miles tragically short of the end of his return journey.
Museums are places where we collect artefacts, collections of objects with this imbued value. We do, somehow, place great stock in ‘original’ items. This is something that we need to consider when addressing issues of interpretation and storytelling. There are some great digital ‘collections’, websites and Apps where you can view objects and delve into their provenance. But it’s still fundamentally a different experience when we see those objects in person, when we see them with our own eyes. Virtual experiences allow us to manipulate and interact with representations of the objects in ways that would otherwise be impossible, but they are an enhancement of, not a replacement of, the real thing.
This is something that Scott understood well. Freezing, starving, knowing with a certainty that they would not complete their return visit, they still pushed on, pulling heavy sleds. Sleds made heavier by twelve kilograms of rocks. Because even though their suffering must have been incredible, they refused to leave behind the scientific specimen rocks that they had collected. Whilst they had drawings and descriptions of the rocks, they understood that the value lay with the real thing.
The lessons we learn from history are complicated and often subject to reinterpretation over time. Today, Shackleton, who failed to reach the Pole, but returned after a two year struggle with all his men alive is viewed as a hero, but he was not accepted as such at the time (a remarkable achievement that included rowing 800 miles across the open ocean and then climbing over South Georgia, a route that defeated the SAS in all their modern gear during the Falklands War). Today, Scott is a more tragic figure, sometimes judged more for his errors than his intentions.
Virtual experiences, e-learning, it’s something that enables us to interact with stories, with artefacts, with learning, in fundamentally different ways from ‘real’ encounters, but it’s not a replacement for those experiences, it’s complimentary.