Trapped in ice, far from home, with dwindling supplies of food and fuel, facing the prospect of an icy grave. Despite our best efforts, it’s almost impossible to contemplate the swirling thoughts and emotions which must have tormented the 28 men who set out in August 1914 on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, led by the imperious Ernest Shackleton. Their tales of heroic resilience and Shackleton’s legendary leadership have been told time and time again, a remarkable story of endurance (and, indeed, Endurance) which has undoubtedly passed the test of time with flying colours.
Thanks to the latest – and possibly most ambitious – exhibition by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), we now have a chance to follow the incredible trials and tribulations those men went through on their ill-fated attempt to cross the Antarctic continent. Displaying many of official expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s negatives – newly digitised from the fragile glass plate and celluloid negatives stored securely at the Society for more than 80 years – as well as films, drawings and diary entries from the entire crew, even the most knowledgeable historian is likely to learn from this new documentation of the unlikely events which were to happen to the crew of the Endurance.
There is a clear narrative structure, so even newcomers can chronologically follow the story from start to finish. Starting with pre-expedition correspondence between Shackleton and Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, questioning the usefulness of such an endeavour, we move through relevant newspaper front pages and crew photographs, until we find ourselves in the Southern Ocean in late 1914. Hurley’s eye for a great photograph ensures that the entire experience of leaving South Georgia, approaching the Antarctic continent, and then becoming trapped in sea ice as winter fell is captured in extraordinary detail.
A deliberate sense of enclosure follows, as the visitor passes through low-ceilings at the same time as witnessing images of the men passing through the dark Antarctic winter, with no contact to the outside world and no knowledge of when or even if they will ever be able to get moving again. A background soundscape of water sound effects only adds to this sensation of actually being there, trapped with them on the Endurance.
Powerful diary extracts accompany these images, communicating the crew’s sense of frustration at their inability to rescue themselves from this situation. ‘Absolutely helpless,’ writes Hurley, with geologist James Wordie recording ‘a pretty despondent crowd’, and carpenter Harry McNish poetically describing the start of winter: ‘the last day on which we could have looked for the sun, but it never appeared’. Come the start of 1916, Hurley writes, ‘New Year resolutions. We have none to make as there is nothing to make them for’.
Perhaps most admirably, certainly for our sakes, is the determination to keep documenting the events which possessed much of the crew, despite the very real possibility that they would never again be seen by another soul. Even throughout the dramatic loss of their ship, and the brave march west across the ice, Hurley continued taking photographs, and others – such as official artist George Marston – continued to create paintings which show the crew’s desperate journey in search of safety.
The outcome of the expedition is well known, yet it is told so well through the final stages of the expedition and includes a deliberately crafted lack of information so as to continue that sense of confusion and helplessness which must have driven the entire crew to despair. Certainly, this style of storytelling, whereby the visitor to the exhibition is taken on a physical and sensorial journey through the experiences of the subjects in question, is perfectly matched to the story being communicated. And with such in-depth resources at the RGS–IBG’s disposal, including some truly incredible images that pay tribute to what an excellent photographer Hurley was, this centenary exhibition is able to fully capture the importance, the drama and the immense heroics of this iconic expedition.