Although I was already in my 20’s when PBS television show Reading Rainbow originally aired, I enjoyed how LeVar Burton seemed to instill a desire for learning. Following the young book reviewers’ descriptions, Burton invited his viewers to “check it out” or “find more about it.” The end of the show would list related books or activities as a means to follow-up. Such experiences undoubtedly would spark exploration and discovery.
The same can be said of travel. We read about a fascinating destination or exotic location and we want to go there. And sometimes the converse true. As travelers, when we visit a new location, we naturally want to know more about it. Many of us delve into a kind of in-depth research — finding out all we can about our destination. That’s why travel websites and guidebooks also are — in a sense — concise geographical and historical encyclopedias.
When I visited the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge, UK, I realized I was merely scratching the surface of information about North and South Pole exploration. I wanted to know more about these expeditions — these men — these “heroes” who put themselves in such extreme and dangerous conditions to reach the ends of the earth – literally. The museum, which houses collections of the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, is continually expanding and developing its displays devoted to expeditions of both Arctic and Antarctic regions. Physical sciences meet social sciences with historical evidence through letters, journals, and photographs — all convening under plate glass displays. Museum visitors learn the gripping tales of polar conquest, perseverance, human survival and sometimes, tragedy. Here, visitors can learn about a bit of everything that represents polar exploration — about regional native cultures and indigenous plant and animal species including polar bears, penguins or tiny marine micro-organisms.
Exhibits at the Scott Polar Museum tell a story of various expeditions, especially the British led parties. The museum itself is named for Robert Falcon Scott, British leader of the Discovery and Terra Nova Expeditions. The latter team found its way to the South Pole 33 days after a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen, who is credited with the discovery. After a series of setbacks such as foul weather, poor health and unsuccessful rescue attempts, Scott and his Terra Nova team would not survive the return trip. Journals, letters, personal effects, tools, photos were recovered when the bodies were found months later. Some of these can be viewed at the museum. Other museum exhibits describe similar expeditions. One heroic tale involves The Endurance, the ship of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916. Although the ship became trapped in the ice and the entire crew was forced off the sinking ship, a small contingent of men including Shackleton and Captain Frank Worsley miraculously reached a whaling station and returned to rescue the rest of the crew. There are some amazing videos of The Endurance and the rescue story on YouTube and it has been the subject of many books and films.
So when I asked my son, Andrew Britton — a University College London and Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate, Cambridge resident (and my personal Scott Polar Museum guide) — if he could recommend a book that might describe both geography and history of Antarctica. His answer: “The Roof at the Bottom of the World: Discovering the Transantarctic Mountains” by ASU geologist/SESE professor Ed Stump. I can’t wait to start reading.
After my Scott Polar Museum visit, my interest in these expeditions peaked, I now find myself searching for old movies and documentaries about polar exploration on Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. I am flipping through out-of-print books, journals and Wikipedia references.
See what travel and tourism do to an otherwise normal person? When I’m not exploring physically, I’m exploring intellectually. A little taste of exploration and discovery — even the satisfaction of reaching that destination — and it only makes you want more. Travel — like reading — ignites the imagination. Remember that famous LeVar Burton-Reading Rainbow phrase? “But you don’t have to take my word for it…”