Arctic Museum: ‘A Glimmer on the Polar Sea: The Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917’

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center has opened the exhibit, A Glimmer on the Polar Sea: The Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917.

“Eight Exposures at Twenty-minute Intervals of Midnight Sun in Smith Sound, 78° 20’ N. LAT. By this method the land and water were photographed eight times on the same plate. First exposure at 11 p.m., July 25, 1917; last at 1:20 a.m., July 26. Note slight curve or dip which increases as one proceeds southward.” Photo by Donald B. MacMillan. Hand-tinted glass lantern slide. Given in honor of Walter E. Ekblaw, Jr., devoted son.

“Eight Exposures at Twenty-minute Intervals of Midnight Sun in Smith Sound, 78° 20’ N. LAT. By this method the land and water were photographed eight times on the same plate. First exposure at 11 p.m., July 25, 1917; last at 1:20 a.m., July 26. Note slight curve or dip which increases as one proceeds southward.” Photo by Donald B. MacMillan. Hand-tinted glass lantern slide. Given in honor of Walter E. Ekblaw, Jr., devoted son.

In 1912 Crocker Land was a mystery. It was a distant land in the Polar Sea that Robert E. Peary sighted in 1906 while standing on a headland. He named the island after one of his financial backers, George Crocker, but did not visit it. In 1913 Donald B. MacMillan and six other men embarked on a two-year expedition to claim Crocker Land for the United States. They planned to reach the island by travelling across the frozen Polar Sea by dog sledge. When not discovering new lands they hoped to gather a wide range of scientific information about Arctic environments.

Musk Ox. Anon. Ivory. Given in honor of Walter E. Ekblaw, Jr., devoted son. Photo by Alan LaVallee.

Musk Ox. Anon. Ivory. Given in honor of Walter E. Ekblaw, Jr., devoted son. Photo by Alan LaVallee.

The two-year expedition lasted four years because two attempts to retrieve the men failed. The expedition did not run out of supplies because they planned for this possibility, and took with them tons of provisions, from Grape-Nuts cereal to spare instruments. Throughout the four years the men continued to study plants, animals, glaciers, tides, Inuit culture, and anything else that attracted their curiosity. They returned to the United States with thousands of scientific specimens, over 5000 photographs, some of the earliest motion pictures of the Arctic ever taken – and the knowledge that Crocker Land did not exist, but rather that it was a mirage!

Today research and exploration of the Arctic are of great importance. Satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques are used, but fieldwork continues to be an important part of Arctic research. Some of the work being done today could not have been imagined 100 years ago by the participants of the Crocker Land Expedition, while some research is built on investigations done a century ago.

The exhibit looks at how the expedition was planned, what life was like in the field, and what kind of science was conducted by the men. Some contemporary science is featured as well. Visitors can follow along on sledge journeys using an interactive map developed by Bowdoin students. Children can experience a mirage. Also featured are an Inughuit-made fox skin coat worn by MacMillan; fossils, bees, and springtails the men collected; scientific and navigation instruments; and even a packet of 100 year-old dental floss that belonged to Walter Elblaw, an expedition member. Visitors can also sit on a replica of a sledge of the type used by the Crocker Land Expedition.

The exhibition is funded by the Russell and Janet Doubleday Endowment, Gibbons Summer Research Internship Fund, Bowdoin IT Mobile App Development Program, and Kane Lodge Foundation, Inc. In recognition that MacMillan included Grape-Nuts in his supplies of foods, the opening reception held Nov. 13 was funded by Post Grape-Nuts.

 

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