To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Robert Peary’s 1909 expedition to the North Pole, the Berkshire Museum presents “Race to the Top: Arctic Inspirations 1909 & Today” through May 17.
Anniversary aside, the choice isn’t a random one, as the museum has an important connection to the famous expedition.
Before the 1909 trip, Peary had been traveling to the Arctic for nearly 23 years, and before his final attempt at age 68, the North Pole had eluded him. As with all expeditions, funding was an issue. Morris K. Jessup, president of the American Museum of Natural History and owner of a cottage in the Berkshires, promised Peary he would fund the trip.
Jessup died unexpectedly, leaving Peary’s expedition largely unfunded. That was when Berkshire Museum founder Zenas Crane stepped in with money, making the expedition possible. Crane owned the Crane Paper Co. in Dalton, Mass., whose claim to fame was manufacturing paper for U.S. currency,
“Race to the Top: Arctic Inspirations 1909 & Today”
WHERE: Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Mass.
WHEN: Through May 17, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays noon to 5 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $10 for adults, $5 for children 3-18.
MORE INFO: Call (413) 443-7171, ext. 10 or visit www.berkshiremuseum.org
When Peary returned from his successful expedition, he gave the museum one of the sledges he used, as well as a fur suit worn by his companion and fellow explorer, the largely overlooked Matthew Henson.
“The sledge is really, really beautiful and all hand-made,” said Maria Mingalone, director of interpretation at the Berkshire Museum. The men used leather thongs to hold it together, as nails would just snap in the cold. “It’s a pretty incredible design and pretty compelling,” Mingalone said.
Henson, a black American whose role in the expedition was disregarded at the time because of his race, shares equal billing with Peary in “Race to the Top.” Some say that if it hadn’t been for Henson, Peary would not have been able to make his famous voyage.
The pair met at Steinmetz’s hat store in Washington, D.C., where Henson was working as a clerk. Impressed with the young man, Peary offered him a job as his servant on his U.S. Navy expedition to Nicaragua in 1887. Later, when Peary began his Arctic explorations, he knew that he wanted Henson to be part of his team. Henson accompanied Peary to the Arctic on five expeditions.
Henson became not only an expedition member, but an indispensable one, even providing medical aid to Peary when his frost-bitten feet became gangrenous and then ferrying him 250 miles on a sledge to safety during an expedition in 1899. When he was safely back to a ship, a doctor amputated all but Peary’s little toes with Henson’s assistance.
The exhibition is designed to mimic the base camps the explorers set up on their expeditions as they made their way closer to the North Pole.
In addition to the sledge and Henson’s fur suit, made from polar bear and blue fox fur and seal skin, visitors to the museum can see other objects from the journey, including a harpoon, cooking tools, snowshoes and a camera.
The exhibition’s title, “Race to the Top,” has a double meaning. Peary was in fierce competition with other explorers to be the first to reach the North Pole. Even though he enjoyed the fame and glory of “winning” the race, he accomplished this with the help of men of two different races, black and Inuit. Four Inuit men, Egingwah, Seegloo, Ootah and Ooqueah, made the final push to the geographic North Pole with Peary and Henson on April 6, 1909.
“It’s a race — white people and black people and Native people — and it took all of them working together to help reach the goal of reaching the North Pole,” said Berkshire Museum executive director Stuart A. Chase. The Inuits, who were instrumental in Peary’s success, took a liking to Henson, who took the time to learn their language and became a skilled hunter. He gained their trust and their cooperation, which was essential in making the voyage.
Mingalone points out that in order to be successful, Peary and Henson had to adopt the Inuits’ technology and lifestyle to survive in the harsh environment with temperatures far below zero. Included in the expedition is some Inuit material obtained in Greenland when an anonymous donor sailed there on The Neptune in 1917. The collection includes Inuit clothing made from seal skin and other materials, as well as Inuit tools.
Historic photographs are a large part of the exhibition, and they give visitors an idea of the kinds of challenges that the explorers faced in trying to reach the North Pole. One shows the sledge teams making their way over a pressure ridge, with huge ice hummocks 200 feet high.
“Two ice floes come together and through the pressure, they created these mountains of ice rubble,” Mingalone said. “They had to basically climb over. There are amazing photographs of them pushing the sledges weighing 1,000 to 1,500 pounds.”
She also reminds people that the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. “They were literally traveling over polar sea ice. It’s constantly shifting, and there are leads where the ice will break, creating expanses of water a few feet wide or hundreds of yards wide. They could happen unexpectedly.”
There are also hand-written letters from Peary to Crane, authenticating and describing the objects he donated to the museum. One section of the exhibition is dedicated to Peary’s wife, Josephine, and his daughter, Marie, who was born in the Arctic. Josephine made several trips to the Arctic, accompanying the supply ships.
At interactive stations in the exhibition, visitors can try on mock reproductions of the kind of gear the explorers had to use and build an igloo out of foam blocks.
Despite the hardships the men endured during the voyage, Mingalone said that the final expedition was the smoothest one that they made, as they had learned valuable lessons on the previous failed attempts.
On one of the earlier expeditions, the men ran out of food and were forced to eat some of their sled dogs and even the skin of their boots to survive.
To illustrate the harshness of the environment, the exhibition includes a room dedicated to the natural history of the Arctic, with a polar bear, snowy owl, harbor seals, narwhal tusks and a walrus skull, showing the types of animals that are able to survive in that extreme environment.
Links to today
Tying the expedition to today is a section of the exhibit that compares Inuit technology to the modern gear that explorers use.
Another modern-day link is a group of four photographs from a show titled “True North” by London-based contemporary black photographer Isaac Julian. Julian created a modern photographic interpretation of Henson’s trek to the North Pole.
“The whole story, the whole race to one of the last frontiers at the time, is really an extraordinary story of strength and of keeping pushing forward,” Chase said. “I can’t believe where they went and what they went through to get there.”