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Exhibition Overview

This exhibition closed January 6, 2004

Ice stalactitesThe Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition, a landmark exhibition devoted to one of the greatest tales of survival in expedition history. The traveling exhibition brings to life the epic story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 Endurance expedition—its astonishing panoramas, doomed ship, extreme hardships, and miraculous climax. Haunting expedition photographs and vintage film footage resurrect one of the most awesome man-against-nature sagas to emerge this century.

The exhibition presents more than 150 compelling photographs of the expedition's ordeal taken by ship photographer Frank Hurley, who dove into frigid waters to retrieve his glass plate negatives from the sinking Endurance. The photographs, printed from the original negatives and Hurley's album of prints, are displayed chronologically and accompanied by gripping memoirs from the voyage. The visual record is complemented by incredible film footage and a replica of the James Caird, the lifeboat that carried Shackleton and five of his crew on one of the greatest adventures of all time.

The exhibition also features a computer interactive that allows visitors to experience the challenges of open-boat navigation, and several videos, narrated by actor Liam Neeson, that examine the historic, geographic, and scientific context of the voyage.

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition is the most comprehensive presentation of the journey ever mounted. It is also the most extensive showing of Hurley's work; limited numbers of his photographs have been on view twice in London since the 1920s, and once in Australia in 1963.

During the same dates the Museum will also feature the giant-screen film, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure. Narrated by Kevin Spacey, this film features stunning Antarctic images and re-creations filmed in 1999 and 2000, plus the remarkable original still photography and 35mm motion-picture footage of Frank Hurley, the official photographer for the Endurance expedition. This film is a presentation of Morgan Stanley and a production of White Mountain Films and NOVA/WGBH Boston.

The Endurance Expedition

The end of the Endurance, Frank Hurley, 1915    Royal Geographical SocietySir Ernest Shackleton's third polar expedition came in the wake of the tragic death, in the Antarctic, of Robert Falcon Scott, the famous English explorer, and as Europe was preparing for the First World War. With England having lost both poles to the Norwegians, Shackleton was determined to be the first to cross the Antarctic by foot and claim the last prize in polar exploration for Britain. A week after the war began, Shackleton and his crew of 27 seamen and scientists set sail on the Endurance, not to be heard from for nearly two years.

It was a particularly cold winter, and the pack ice of the Weddell Sea extended further north than anyone could remember. The Endurance began following leads to navigate through the pack ice, on route to its intended landfall. Just one day's sail from the Antarctic continent, temperatures plummeted and the ship became trapped. Frozen fast for ten months, the Endurance was about to be crushed by ice pressure, forcing Shackleton and his men to abandon ship.

The depature of the James Caird at Elephant Island, Frank Hurley, 1916    Royal Geographical SocietyAfter five months of camping on drifting ice floes, open water appeared, and the men sailed their three lifeboats through stormy seas to a rocky, uninhabited outcropping called Elephant Island. Knowing that his men would never survive on the desolate spot, Shackleton decided to attempt an incredible 17-day, 800-mile journey, in freezing hurricane conditions, to the nearest civilization—South Georgia Island. The James Caird lifeboat miraculously landed on the island, having achieved what is now considered one of the greatest boat journeys in history. Once on land, Shackleton and two of his men trekked across the mountains of South Georgia, finally reaching the island's remote whaling stations where they organized a rescue team, and returned to save all of the men left behind on Elephant Island. Shackleton's words, written after the expedition, express the enormity and the extremity of the adventure: "Not a life lost, and we have been through Hell."

The Exhibition

The journey begins with an introductory section that familiarizes visitors with Sir Ernest Shackleton, James Francis "Frank" Hurley, the continent of Antarctica, and the history of its discovery. A video on the heroic age of Antarctic exploration sets the stage for the Shackleton expedition. A timeline of historic maps and photographs from the sixteenth through the twentieth century is included, along with a model of the Endurance.

A large image of the Endurance trapped in the ice draws visitors into a section where Hurley's stunning photographs of the expedition unfold with explanatory wall text, diary excerpts, and artifacts from the journey. The photographs in this area depict the men's journey on open seas and their first encounter with pack ice, as well as scenes of living on the ice, their sledge dogs, daily life on the Endurance, and their scientific study.

The next section of the exhibition presents Hurley's dramatic images of the break-up of the Endurance, the camps they set up on the ice, and the men's attempted march over snow and ice. The dramatic break-up of the Endurance is presented by original film-footage taken by Hurley on the expedition. Computer animation enhances the video, illustrating the ice pressure that crushed the ship. A nearby panel presents some of today's research in the Antarctic and features recent findings on the color of ice.

Next, in a section devoted to navigation, the rolling ocean, clouds, and the sun are projected onto three large screens. The sound of wind and waves, digitally mastered and in stereo, envelops the visitor when they enter the room. Here visitors confront the formidable challenge Shackleton and his men faced in sailing a small, open boat 800 miles, in towering 60-foot waves, through gale force winds, with only a sextant, some charts, an unreliable chronometer, and a few sightings of the sun to guide them.

Hauling the James Caird, Frank Hurley, 1915    Royal Geographical SocietyStanding before a replica of the James Caird, visitors may handle interactive sextants, and with the aid of a computer program, set their own course for South Georgia. The interactive allows visitors to "take a sight" of the sun, displays the course the boat would take with that sight, and compares it to Shackleton's actual course. The experience underscores the extraordinary skill of Shackleton's navigator, Frank Worsley, and the terrible odds they faced. Hurley's photographs of Elephant Island and of the launching of the James Caird to South Georgia Island flank the section devoted to navigation. Photographs of the crossing and the rescue are found just beyond this section.

The concluding area showcases Hurley's moving portraits of 20 crewmembers, along with descriptions of what each achieved after the expedition. A video on Shackleton's life following the Endurance expedition, and his death in 1922 on South Georgia Island, is also on view, along with ten reproductions of rare color images from the expedition, taken by an early color process called the Paget method.


This exhibition was developed by the American Museum of Natural History with generous underwriting support from Mr. and Mrs. Joseph F. Cullman, 3rd.

Exhibition Design and Installation

The traveling exhibition was designed and executed by the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Exhibition, under the direction of David Harvey, vice president for Exhibition.

Photos by Frank Hurley Royal Geographical Society

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