If you go to one Cambridge museum this term…

JOSHI EICHNER HERRMANN thinks that when it comes to exam term inspiration, the Art Fund Prize nominated Scott Polar Museum gives the Fitzwilliam a serious, heart-rending, life-affirming run for its money.

antarctica Art Fitzwilliam Museum michael portillo museum museums polar museum polar scott museum

“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale”. Captain Scott’s final diary.

If you are anything like me, you will spend much of this term restlessly devising reasons to leave the library.  A trip to the Fitzwilliam Museum is up there with the most legitimate excuses for taking the afternoon off.

What could offer a better disguise for reckless timewasting than browsing one of the country’s finest collections of art and antiquities; an hour spent questioning the troublesome beauty of Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia, or musing on the rows of Renaissance maiolica: spectacular visual achievements or ugly kitsch?

Well this week I discovered a museum that could promise an even better escape from revision tedium.

The Scott Polar Museum on Lensfield Road (near Downing) is an intriguing little place, and should be high on the list of anyone’s procrastination targets for the coming term. For it celebrates the precise qualities that will be called upon these next few weeks:  endurance, patience, and hard work, all in the name of possibly futile ends.

The recently overhauled museum exhibits a fascinating range of artifacts from various polar expeditions, including a forlorn looking Emperor Penguin from the Dion Islands and an enormous kayak built for an expedition in the 1930s.

It would be a deserving winner of the Art Fund Prize, the prestigious annual award for museums and galleries for which it has been longlisted.

When the judges came to Cambridge last week, their self proclaimed “inexpert Chairman” Michael Portillo (right) told me that the Scott Polar had undergone a “very striking transformation” from when he last saw it:

“For a long time it appeared to be very unwelcoming to the public. It was a very long time since the displays had been rehoused and a lot of the material was in storage and pretty much overlooked.

“So it’s been a big transformation and I’m sure it’s been a big success. I think it is now very attractive; it is welcoming and the displays are excellent. I think it is also an introduction to what lies behind, which is the Scott Polar Institute where very important work is done on the understanding of the Poles.”

One particular wall at the museum packs an emotional punch. It tells the story of ‘The Final Camp’, the tent where Scott, Wilson and Bowers froze to death in the last days of March 1912.

Just days before, their friend Lawrence Oates had sacrificed his life for the sake of the group’s survival, walking into the blizzard with the famous words “I am just going outside and may be some time”.

Eight months later, their preserved bodies were found in the tent, and visitors to the Scott Polar can read the remarkable letters the men wrote to their families as the end approached.

In one, Wilson writes to Oates’ mother “He died like a man and a soldier without a word of regret or complaint except that he hadn’t written to you at the last”. To his own parents he says simply “The end has come”.

Scott’s letter to Wilson’s mother (which the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins was able to decipher rather better than me) reads:

“My dear Mrs Wilson, If this reaches you Bill and I have gone out together – we are very near it now and I should like you to know how splendid he was at the end – everlastingly cheerful and ready to sacrifice himself to others, never a word of blame to me for landing him into this mess.”

These raw words, scrawled stoically by the most tragic men of Antarctica’s Heroic Age of discovery, have a solemn, haunting power when you peer down at them. They achieve what every museum presumably aims for; they transport us from the comfort and warm to a more remarkable place- in this case one of resignation, cold, heartache.

The polar expeditions – with the long periods of tedious nothingness, sometimes in 24 hour darkness – are perhaps not quite parallel to our own impending slog, but the experiences of the men who were there are here made powerful, and perhaps can offer some inspiration.

For that reason, I commend the Scott Polar to anyone with an hour’s spare time this term. It might just persuade you that ‘the fear’ isn’t the drama everyone’s cracking it up to be.

To vote for the Scott Polar Museum to win the Art Fund Prize 2011, click here. And if you can live – in a very real sense – with the wide-eyed wonderment and gap yah gawping at the astonishing, iconic and intriguing things he finds in it, then Ben Fogle’s documentary about Scott’s Hut is here.