The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

On view June 23, 2000 to September 10, 2000

In August 1914 Ernest Shackleton and his crew of twenty-seven sailors and scientists left Britain for the Antarctic on the Endurance. The plan was to cross the Antarctic on foot. Only 80 miles from Endurance’s destination, the ship was caught in thick pack ice that splintered and sank it. The men set up camp on ice floes that drifted on a frigid sea 2,000 fathoms deep. Eventually they managed to sail lifeboats to Elephant Island, perhaps the most uninhabitable island on all of earth’s surface. Because the men were faced with sure death, Shackleton and a handful of his strongest men took the lifeboat James Caird 800 miles to South Georgia Island. The seventeen-day trip was unimaginably grueling. The men kept the boat afloat despite 60-foot waves—thousands of them each day—and sub-zero temperatures. When they reached their destination, they had to scale immense glaciers to get to help on the other side of the island. It took another three months to rescue his men. The entire ordeal lasted nearly two years.

This exhibition, which has struck a chord with Americans and critics alike, was developed and first shown at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It features 150 mesmerizing photographs taken by Frank Hurley, a member of Shackleton’s expedition, as well as other objects that accompanied the crew on their heroic mission of survival. Ms. Alexander says the photographs are the heart of the show and are complemented by moving images of a tumultuous ocean projected on the walls. Aiding in one’s imagination are the sounds of a hostile, ferocious sea.

I was completely dazzled when I saw how many—and how surreally good they were. I was amazed that they had never been exhibited.

Ms. Alexander, who now lives in New Hampshire, developed an “obsessive interest” in Shackleton’s experience after reading his account, South. A freelance writer with no experience in photography or museums, she had only seen “clouded, rough” work prints of Hurley’s glass negatives. “I was completely dazzled when I saw how many—and how surreally good they were. I was amazed that they had never been exhibited.”

Hurley’s photographs are dazzling. They are detailed depictions of white-on-white landscapes, where glaciers in the distance and ice crystals in the foreground are equally focused. Hurley considered himself a “tough Aussie” amid a bunch of soft British sailors. More so, he adored the Antarctic landscape, and repeatedly revered it in his eloquent diary entries. “Hail to thee, thy wondrous land,” he wrote. “It was,” says Ms. Alexander, “the landscape God made for him.”

He depicts the day-to-day life of the men, their teams of sled dogs, and the slow demise of their home for ten months, the Endurance. He worked without hat and gloves, always on the move, always looking for the next composition. “His eye for light was flawless,” says Ms. Alexander.

The Endurance exhibition was developed by the American Museum of Natural History with generous underwriting support from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph F. Cullman, 3rd. Images by Frank Hurley from the collections of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), the Scott Polar Research Center, and the State Library of New South Wales. Please include this information when citing the exhibition.


Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Learn more about the characters, their journey and read an interview with Curator, Caroline Alexander.