Seven years ago, I borrowed my mother’s paperback copy of Endurance by Alfred Lansing. For years she insisted that I read Lansing’s account of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica. The expedition began with the goal of being the first to cross the frozen continent on foot, and turned into a series of harrowing bids for survival: months spent on drifting ice floes, an eight-hundred-mile sail across open ocean, a terrifying climb over icy mountains.
Over a few days that hot New York summer, I consumed the story of Shackleton and his crew. Perhaps something about polar explorers was already percolating in my brain. I was working on a Master’s degree and had been reading about traditional Inuit fur clothing, clothing that European explorers sometimes adopted. But something about Lansing’s book especially turned the gears in my head. I thought endlessly about Shackleton and his colleagues: what were they doing in these places? What could possibly compel them to go on such expeditions? Explorers, we are told, have typically been motivated by a combination of nationalist and colonial fervour, scientific interest, military duty, and (especially in Shackleton’s time) a desire for personal glory and financial security. But surely even in 1914, there were other ways to become famous or show one’s devotion to science or country. Why go about it in such a dangerous way?
These questions wouldn’t leave me alone, prompting me to follow them through my Master’s, then through a PhD, compelling me to seek answers in archives and museums. While I’ve approached something like answers in my academic work, these questions are now my constant companions on my own travels. Why am I drawn to certain places, I wonder? Is my presence in these places more harmful than good? Why do I bring certain objects with me when I travel? Now that I have been to the Arctic several times, have my expectations of the region been distorted somehow from reading historic expedition accounts? Where am I going?
Sarah is a PhD student at Yale University, interested in histories of exploration, field science, and extreme environments. Her current research examines everyday objects carried on expeditions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – clothing, food, tents, medical kits – to probe the concept of “the comforts of home,” and understand how explorers recreated domestic comfort in far-flung places. She has written about material culture for a variety of academic and popular outlets, including an essay in the exhibition catalogue Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme (Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology, 2017).