Memorials of endurance and adventure : exhibiting British polar exploration, 1819 – c.1939
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Over eighty polar-themed exhibitions were held in Britain between 1819 and the 1930s, a time of intense exploration of both the Arctic and Antarctic. These varied from panoramas and human exhibits to displays of ‘relics’, equipment, photographs and artwork, waxworks and displays shown as part of a Great Exhibition. This period also saw the creation of the first dedicated polar museums. These displays were visited by thousands of people throughout the country, helping to mediate the subject of exploration for a public audience. Despite this, the role exhibitions played in forming popular views of the polar regions has not been fully assessed. This thesis addresses this gap. It is the first to consider all the polar exhibitions held during this period as a collective body, making it possible to study how they developed over time and in response to changing circumstances. The thesis uses a variety of archival sources to both reconstruct the displays and place them in their historical and museological contexts. The study shows that exhibitions evolved in response to changes both in the museum sector and in exploration culture. It demonstrates that, while they were originally identified with the shows of the entertainment industry, polar exhibitions began to take on more of the characteristics of museum displays. At the same time their dominant themes changed; the natural world was relegated in favour of ideas relating to the human experience of the regions such as heroism, adventure and everyday life in an exotic environment. While other media may have been more effective in disseminating ideas about exploration, visitors could find the experience of visiting an exhibition more compelling. This thesis contributes to our understanding of this distinct role that exhibitions played in presenting the polar regions to the British public.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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