Fallen hero. A cairn marks the grave of Robert Falcon Scott.

Ice Mecca at 0° Longitude

Rich oversees Science's international coverage.

Greenwich, U.K.--An Antarctica exhibition at the National Maritime Museum here will give goosebumps to everyone from ice novices to lovers of the frozen continent. "South: The Race to the Pole" profiles three men who vied to be the first to reach the South Pole: Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Ernest Shackleton.

A blast of cold air greets visitors to the exhibition, which opened last week and will run until September 2001. Inside, eye-popping artifacts--from Amundsen's wolf-skin jacket to the doomed Scott's last journal entry--help tell the heroic explorers' stories. Exhibits detail, for example, how Amundsen's team beat the ill-equipped Scott party to the goal in the summer of 1912, and how Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, was crushed by pack ice in 1915--and yet all hands were saved as a result of his death-defying dash across rough seas for help.

Besides bringing visitors to the world's time capital up to speed on timeless antarctic tales, the exhibition offers insights into how the explorers viewed each other and how they were viewed by the world. Never-before-displayed letters from Shackleton to a lover reveal that the leader revered by his men was tortured by self-doubt. And Scott is in for revisionism, too. After his death, he was idolized in Great Britain, where schoolchildren in the 1920s were misled to believe that the English captain, not Amundsen, had discovered the pole. The exhibition aims to rehabilitate the Norwegian's reputation in the United Kingdom. "Some myths may be shattered," says curator Sian Flynn.

The three men all died while exploring the ends of the Earth, but no death is more haunting than Scott's. On display is his diary, turned to the page in which he scrawled his last words. They conjure an image of the frost-bitten explorer and two companions, their heating fuel gone, spending their last minutes alive huddled in a tent only 18 kilometers from a resupply depot: "We shall stick it out to the end but we are getting weaker of course and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity but I do not think I can write more."

Related sites
The National Maritime Museum
More about Antarctica exploration