Project Description

One hundred years ago, six intrepid men—the legendary Polar explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary and fellow adventurer Matthew Henson, accompanied by four native Inuit, Egingwah, Seegloo, Ootah, and Ooqueah—accomplished a seemingly impossible task when they raised the American flag on the shifting ice over the Polar Sea at the North Pole on April 6, 1909.

In Race to the Top: Arctic Inspirations 1909 & Today, on view January 24 through May 17, 2009, the exhibition curated by Berkshire Museum and sponsored by TD Banknorth, the famous expedition and its players—from the explorers to the philanthropists who funded them at the turn of the last century, notably Zenas Crane, founder of the Berkshire Museum—were examined through the lens of time. The exhibition celebrated and reflected upon American exploration, the technologies involved in discovery both then and now, and looked back at an era when race, too often, determined a person’s success.

Admiral Peary (1856-1920) began his career as a surveyor exploring the interior of Nicaragua with the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps. It was on that journey that Peary first met African American Matthew Henson (1866-1955) and enlisted him to serve as his valet for the remainder of the trip. Henson then went on to accompany Peary on numerous challenging yet unsuccessful Arctic expeditions in search of the North Pole and teamed up with him again on the ultimately successful, 1909 attainment of the Pole. Though Peary and Henson together are believed by many to have been the first to reach the North Pole, it remains an achievement whose legitimacy scholars and explorers have continued to debate.

Another controversy about the expedition continues to this day. Henson claimed throughout his life that he was actually the first of the two men to reach the North Pole and this assertion will forever be the word of one man against another. The only indisputable fact is that Henson’s role and contributions to the expedition were largely unrecognized until much later in his life. Due to racism, Henson’s contributions and role in the North Pole expedition were to a great extent uncelebrated and undervalued until many decades later. Henson published an account of his experience of the record-breaking journey, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, in 1912, though he was only able to find steady work as a car parker and later as a messenger boy.

Peary’s wife, Josephine, shocked the American public by accompanying her husband to the Arctic, daring to go where no other white woman had been, and where few men had the courage to go. She became her husband’s most ardent champion and lectured widely to raise money for his many expeditions, becoming a celebrity in her own right. On one of her earliest trips to the Arctic, she gave birth to their first child, Marie Ahnighito Peary, in 1893. The Inuit, seeing a Caucasian baby for the first time, called the child Snow Baby. Josephine would later overcome indignity when her husband fathered a child with an Inuit woman.

The wealthy Berkshire County resident Zenas Crane had a great interest in exploration and supported many explorers, including Peary’s 1909 expedition to the North Pole. As a result, Peary donated a significant group of 16 items used on the journey to the Berkshire Museum. The two most prized objects from this collection are a sledge that was used on the final trek to the North Pole and the fur suit worn by Henson on the expedition. These exceptional objects have been authenticated by handwritten correspondence between Crane and Peary and from Henson to the Berkshire Museum. Other objects from this historical expedition from the Museum’s collection in the exhibition include a harpoon, cooking tools, snowshoes, and camera.

Included in Race to the Top are Inuit objects gifted to the Museum in 1918 by explorer Donald B. MacMillan. In July 1913, the MacMillan Expedition had gone in search of “Crocker Land,” a landmass Peary said he had observed on a 1906 expedition. They set sail in search for it with funding from the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geography Society. Commanded by MacMillan, the party spent the winter of 1913 through 1914 at Etah, North Greenland, then traveled 125 miles northwest. When they did not find “Crocker Land” they decided to explore Greenland. The objects they obtained there, on view in the exhibition, include Inuit attire such as a coat, shirt, pants, and mittens made from sealskin and other materials, and Inuit tools.

The exhibition included a second collection given to the Berkshire Museum by MacMillan in 1929 containing articles from a subsequent expedition he made in October 1925. That expedition, made under the auspices of National Geographic Magazine, explored the Polar Sea between Axel Heiberg Island and the North Pole, and the collection from the journey includes harpoons, a model kayak, soapstone dishes, and other Inuit objects.

In his forward to Henson’s biography, Dark Companion, MacMillan, who also sailed on the Roosevelt with Peary’s 1909 exploration team, wrote “Matthew Henson went to the Pole with Peary because he was a better man than any one of us.” As a counterpoint to the historical aspects of the exhibition, four contemporary images of the icy Arctic by London-based-photographer Isaac Julien were featured. The photographs were from Julien’s acclaimed 2005 True North series, which was inspired by Henson’s 1909 expedition to the North Pole. In retelling Henson’s tale through a photographic series, Julien has selected an African American woman to symbolize Henson, noting that the contributions of women throughout history have also often been excluded from “official” accounts.

“For me, True North is an ironic title that is situated as the story around Matthew Henson perhaps being one of the first people to reach the North Pole,” Julien said in a 2005 interview. “This project is a meditation, a retracing of Henson’s footsteps…I think it’s really interesting that you have an African American who is forging this journey into the sublime, into blankness, into whiteness, and almost a certain disappearingness because Henson disappears from history.”

Race to the Top included interactive activities for children and families. An igloo-building station challenges participants to build a shelter using varying sizes and shapes of foam blocks, try-on stations offer children the opportunity to experience traditional Inuit garb and to test Inuit snow goggle designs, and an Arctic rope challenge entails tying the sorts of knots (while wearing faux fur gloves) that Admiral Peary would have used to secure gear, dogs, and sledges.