March 12, 2010



— By

Staff Writer

The old wooden sledge looks tired, and well it should.

It sits under glass at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, a relic from 100 years ago.

Made with wood and held together by leather straps, the 14-foot sledge was one of five that explorer Robert E. Peary and his crew used when they went to the North Pole.

A century later, the sledge looks all beat up, with the burden of transporting heavy loads across endless miles of ice showing on its battered runners.

On April 6, 1909, Peary, a Mainer, planted a makeshift American flag in sea ice at the North Pole. His wife, Josephine, made the flag for him for this occasion, just as she stitched for him custom underwear that included extra pockets so he could warm his scientific instruments with body heat.

Peary's patriotic action was a bold gesture of conquest, and signified the Arctic explorer's arrival at the pole after eight attempts spanning nearly a quarter-century. He claimed to be the first to make it to the geographic North Pole -- sending a notice to the Associated Press, ''Stars and stripes nailed to North Pole -- Peary'' -- although his claim was disputed in his day and remains in dispute today.

Nonetheless, it was and remains a triumph of great magnitude, both personally for Peary and his able crew and for the world, which had regarded the frozen north with a wary eye and abundant wonder for many years.

The worn flag, the rugged surviving sledge and even Peary's underwear (as well as his personal revolver and numerous other artifacts) are part of a continuing display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, ''Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole.''

The Bowdoin museum is one of two honoring the anniversary of Peary's exploration with Arctic exhibitions this year.

Peary is also present in ''The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration in American Culture'' at the Portland Museum of Art, although he is not the focus. This show attempts to tell the larger story of Arctic exploration, putting Peary's journey into context with the times.

Accompanying ''The Coldest Crucible'' at the PMA is ''Polar Dispatches,'' an installation of 19 contemporary art pieces that explores polar geography in sound, image and the written word.

The Bowdoin show has been up for almost a year, but the museum recently supplemented it with additional items, including the sledge and a rarely displayed page from Peary's diary marked with the words, ''The Pole at last!!!''

Peary was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Maine when he was very young, after his father's death. His mother had relatives in Maine.

He went to Bowdoin and studied civil engineering. In 1881, he joined the Navy's engineer corps, beginning a career of exploration that made Peary one of America's 20th-century heroes.

Peary retired to Eagle Island, off Harpswell, and died in Washington, D.C., in 1920.

Michael F. Robinson, an assistant professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, said America was awash in ''Arctic fever'' during the Peary years. More than a dozen voyages entered the Arctic in search of the North Pole and a passage to unknown worlds.

Most of the voyages were unsuccessful, and many people died, notes Robinson, who curated ''The Coldest Crucible'' and also wrote a book of the same name.

In truth, despite the tempest of the late 1800s, the Arctic was a source of mystery for ages.

In the Portland exhibition, Robinson uses rare maps from the Osher Map Library of the University of Southern Maine, including one from the very first world atlas, showing the Arctic represented as an undefined land mass separated by water.

Going back to the 1500s, the maps suggest the optimism and confidence of their makers that some sort of transportation route surely existed as a shortcut to China, Robinson said.

In the PMA exhibition, Robinson's goal is to create context by removing the polar explorers from the backdrop of the Arctic -- represented in popular art as a foreboding place with massive mounds of ice -- and placing them within America's cultural experience.

In addition to maps, Robinson uses full-page engravings from books, magazines and other publications to illustrate the story. Those images inspired such artists as Frederic Church and William Bradford to create Arctic scenes, which also are part of the exhibition.

Robinson's interest in the Arctic began at the Peary museum. Although he now lives in Connecticut, he grew up in Maine and graduated from Cheverus High School in 1985.

He remembers riding his bike to Bowdoin in the summer, to learn more about Peary and the North Pole. When it came time for his graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, he chose Arctic exploration as his field of focus.

Both the PMA and the Bowdoin make generous use of photogravures and photographs, and Bowdoin has assembled more than an hour of film footage from the period.

Susan A. Kaplan, museum director at Bowdoin, said the exhibitions provide audiences with an opportunity to learn about the Arctic as part of the 100-year celebration of Peary's arrival. These days, much of the talk surrounding the Arctic involves global warming.

''The Arctic once again is at the forefront of our news, just as it was many years ago,'' Kaplan said. ''Some of the issues are different, and certainly we know a lot more about the Arctic now than we did then. But there is still a sense of mystery and unknown.''

The Bowdoin exhibition attempts to tell Peary's story from a broad perspective. While very much about Peary and his dogged pursuit of the pole, ''Northward Over the Great Ice'' also tells the story of the crew that Peary depended upon, both while traveling to and around the Arctic, and also on the team back home that helped fund and support the expeditions.

The exhibition also makes the case that Peary was a smart man and a good engineer. Against the odds, he and his team managed to keep their equipment working and made repairs as necessary.

''He learned from his mistakes,'' Kaplan said. ''He was a great inventor and adaptor. When he came home, he would retool and try again.

''When you look at his maiden voyage, the ship was almost lost. But by 1908-09 when he finally made it, the travel north was very boring. By that time, Peary and his men had solved so many problems.''

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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