Friday, January 23
PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Museum's newest exhibit will make today's temperature seem balmy.

"Race to the Top: Arctic Inspirations 1909 & Today," celebrates the 100th anniversary of Admiral Robert Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole, where the average temperature is minus 40 — cold enough to crystallize the inside of your lungs.

The exhibit has two twists: Berkshire Museum founder Zenas Crane, of the famous Crane family, was one of the financial backers of Peary's expedition. The exhibition also examines the role of Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer who accompanied Peary on five expeditions to the Arctic, including the successful 1909 trip.

Peary, Henson and four Inuit men who helped them are believed to be the first people to reach the geographic location of the North Pole.

"This in an incredible story," said Maria Mingalone, the museum's director of interpretation. "People from all over the world were trying to get there. There was a whole fever to see who would get there first."

When he returned, Peary donated 16 items used in the expedition to the museum. Many of those items have been in and out of storage over the years, and now they're being shown in one massive unveiling.

Kimberly Rawson, the museum's director of communications, said the display is a first-time exhibit unique to the history of the exploration. It was developed and executed by a team of minds at the Berkshire Museum.

"This is a brand new take on this famous exploration," she said.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a sledge (snow sled) used by Peary during the final leg of the trip. There are animal-skin outfits, icepicks, snowshoes and a stuffed polar bear. Children can build igloos with fake snow blocks and adults try on Inuit goggles.

There's Inuit technology of the past and Arctic exploration gear of today. Photos show the hardship of dealing with subzero temperatures for extended periods. The crew sailed north with 70 tons of whale meat and 247 sled dogs.

"The sheer audacity of the attempt was incredible," Mingalone said.

Crane and Peary were mutual friends in an exploration club based in New York City. Crane was an explorer himself, traveling around the world and collecting items for the local museum.

Patrons will learn that Peary named one of the ports the crew used on the ice mass Crane City. And there are original letters from Peary to Crane.

The exploration didn't go down without controversy. After Peary and his crew returned to America with the news, a man named Frederick Cook claimed that he made it to the North Pole in April 1908.

He was later found to be a fraud, and modern explorers have since confirmed Peary's claim with forensic science, examining his photos from 1909.

When Peary and his crew made it to the Pole, he wrote: "The Pole at last. The prize of three centuries. My dream and goal of 20 years. Mine at last."