The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration in American Culture

March 14, 2009 ~ June 21, 2009 …

In the late 1800s, “Arctic fever” swept the nation as dozens of American expeditions sailed north to find a sea route to Asia and, ultimately, to stand at the North Pole. Few of these missions were successful, and many men lost their lives en route. Yet failure did little to dampen the enthusiasm of new explorers or the crowds at home who cheered them on. The drama of Arctic exploration unfolded across America and throughout American life, just as it did in the wintry hinterland. The Coldest Crucible examines explorers’ astonishing struggles, not only in the Arctic, but also at home where they struggled to build support for their expeditions before departure, defend their claims upon return, and cast themselves as men worthy of the nation’s full attention. This exhibition paints a new portrait of these polar voyagers, one that removes them from the icy backdrop of the Arctic and sets them within the tempests of American cultural life.

About the Exhibit:

Guest curated by Prof. Michael Robinson in collaboration with the Portland Museum of Art and the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education.
The exhibition is on view at the Portland Museum of Art from March 14 through June 21, 2009 while the Osher Map Library remains closed for renovations until September 2009. Graphic images and maps drawn from OML’s collections are supplemented with loans from the Bates College Library, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections and Archives of the Bowdoin College Library, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College, and the Portland Museum of Art. Together they provide a vivid portrayal of Arctic exploration in the context of American culture.

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Michael Robinson, assistant professor of History at the University of Hartford and recent visiting scholar at OML, curated this exhibition in observance of the International Polar Year. He is the author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), an examination of the “Arctic fever” that gripped the American public in the late 1800s. The book won the 2008 Book Prize from the Forum of the History of Science in America.