Antarctica: Quest for the South Magnetic Pole

In 1600, scientist William Gilbert discovered the Earth was a giant magnet.  Later scientists and explorers dedicated themselves to understanding how this magnetic field worked.  They were driven partly by curiosity and partly by a desire to improve navigation.  By the 19th century they had worked out that a compass needle was pulled towards a magnetic rather than geographic pole.

The exhibition traces one of the most bizarre, protracted quests in exploration history.  For over 150 years, using sailing ships and sledges, in one of the planet’s most hostile environments, explorers risked their lives to plant a flag at a shifting point on the Earth’s surface.

Australia played a pivotal role in the quest.  The great nineteenth century ship–based expeditions wintered in its ports, and Australian scientists were key players in the 20th century search for the Pole on the continent. 

The exhibition explores the astounding risks and punishing conditions that sledging parties endured in their search for the Pole. It was not until the year 2000 that the quest finally concluded — back at sea, from a ship, by an Australian scientist, and with surprisingly little fanfare.

Quest for the South Magnetic Pole explores two key themes:

  • The science of magnetism—how does the Earth’s magnetic field work, what is the South Magnetic Pole, and why were scientists and explorers so keen to locate it?
  • Life and work in Antarctica—how did scientists and explorers live, work and endure in such an extreme environment? 

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Event Details

23 April 2010 - 20 June 2010