Tracing the History of Norwegian Polar Exploration at Oslo’s Fram Museum

For anyone with even the slightest interest in polar exploration, Oslo’s Fram Museum is not to be missed. Built around the polar expedition ship Fram, it tells the story of Norway’s expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Launched in 1892, the Fram holds the record for sailing both the farthest north and the farthest south of any ship. Built for Fridtjof Nansen’s Arctic expedition, it was designed to withstand crushing ice during months of drift in an attempt to reach the North Pole by riding a polar current whose existence had been theorized but not yet proven.



In Search of the North Pole with Nansen: The First Fram Expedition

Nansen and his crew, including Otto Sverdrup as captain, set off in June 1893 on an expedition that ended up lasting three years and reached a still-unbeaten maximum latitude of 85° 57′ north. After a fanfare-filled voyage up the coast of Norway, the Fram entered the ice in September 1893 and began her drift across the Arctic Ocean.

IMG_2339Realizing the currents were not going to carry the ship to the North Pole, Nansen and crew member Hjalmar Johansen left the Fram in March 1895 in a bold attempt to reach the North Pole by crossing the ice with dog-drawn sledges. However, constantly shifting ice ultimately forced them to abandon the the attempt and spend the winter in a makeshift hut in the Arctic archipelago of Franz Josef Land. Eventually they managed to hitch a ride home with a passing British explorer, reaching Norway in mid-August 1896.

Meanwhile, Sverdrup and the rest of the crew endured another year and a half of drifting in the pack ice aboard the Fram, with the ship tested to the utmost by the pressure and grinding of the ice. In August 1896, she finally emerged from the ice, and the crew set sail homeward, arriving back in Norway just a week after Nansen and Johansen.


To Greenland and Beyond with Sverdrup: The Second Fram Expedition

Two years after the Fram returned from her first expedition, Otto Sverdrup led a new expedition north, taking the ship – with improvements made based on lessons learned during the first expedition – to Greenland and the Arctic islands to its west (now part of Canada) for scientific surveys and investigations. The expedition was intended to last three years but ended up stretching to four due to ice blocking the ship’s passage around the southern tip of Ellesmere Island. In September 1902, the Fram finally returned home, with thousands of samples and measurements that became the basis for dozens of scientific papers.



Amundsen Goes South: The Third Fram Expedition

Several years later, Roald Amundsen received permission to use the Fram on his own Arctic expedition, in which he would make a new attempt to drift to the North Pole, this time from the Bering Strait side. However, as Amundsen was preparing to set off in the spring of 1909, word came that U.S. explorer Robert E. Peary claimed to have reached the North Pole on April 6.

The news sparked a new ambition in Amundsen: to try to reach the South Pole en route to the North Pole. The idea was not as odd as it sounds, since Amundsen’s expedition was going to have to sail around South America anyway to get from Norway to the Bering Strait. Still, it was an ambitious undertaking, especially since Amundsen was determined to keep his new plan secret, initially even from his own crew.

The Fram left Norway in August 1910, two months after British explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition had departed England, also aiming for the South Pole. Not until nearly a month later, when the ship arrived in Madeira in early September for its last stop before Antarctica, did the crew of the Fram learn of their new destination. Meanwhile, Scott did not learn of his rival’s plan until his own expedition arrived in Melbourne, Australia, in October, to find a telegram sent by on Amundsen’s behalf by his brother, Leon. It read simply: “Beg inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen.”

Amundsen’s decision to use dogs to pull his sledges was a major factor in his successful South Pole expedition

In January 1911, four months after leaving Madeira, the Fram finally arrived at the Bay of Whales off Antarctica, reaching a maximum southern latitude of 78°41′, setting another record that still stands. The crew established a base on shore where they spent the winter preparing for the trek to the South Pole. In October, the final five-man expedition set off from the base, reaching the South Pole on 14 December 1911.

When Scott’s expedition arrived at the Pole a month later, they found a Norwegian flag already there.

Whereas Scott and his companions perished on their return journey, Amundsen and his men had arrived safely back at their base. After various detours and delays, and abandoning the plan to continue to the North Pole, the Fram arrived back in Norway in July 1914.

Photo by T. Storm Halvorsen, courtesy of the Fram Museum
Photo by T. Storm Halvorsen, courtesy of the Fram Museum

The Museum

Because of World War I and the ship’s poor condition after many months in the tropics, the Fram was never again used in a polar expedition. Instead, after many years of efforts to preserve her, led until his death by Otto Sverdrup, the Fram eventually became the centerpiece of the Fram Museum, which opened at Bygdøy in Oslo in 1936.

Three floors of exhibits tell the story of the Fram‘s three expeditions in depth, with original artifacts and explanatory displays in 10 languages. Visitors can go on board the Fram herself and see what life was like for the adventurers who sailed on her three great expeditions. For those who want to know what it feels like to be trapped in pack ice during a polar winter, a simulator recreates the cold and dark, along with the noise and motion of the crushing ice.

Adjacent to the main museum, and connected to it by a tunnel, is a smaller building housing the Gjøa, the ship on which Amundsen and a crew of six became the first to navigate the entire Northwest Passage. The expedition, which lasted from 1903 to 1906, also pinpointed the magnetic North Pole and proved that its location moves over time. Other exhibits in the Gjøa building explore the history of additional Norwegian polar expeditions, by both sea and air.


For more information, visit the Fram Museum website.


Published May 7, 2018

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