North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession, National Maritime Museum, London

3.00

Sound sets the scene. When you pass through the doors, you are assailed by the bone-chilling noise of howling winds, and the crepitation of ice. Welcome to an exhibition about the fabled North-West Passage, a source of endless, greed-driven fascination, and often fruitless and tragic endeavour, for centuries. Was it somehow possible to travel by sea from the North Atlantic to the North Pacific, passing through the ice-bound waters of Alaska? Many tried. Many perished. John Cabot, sailing in 1497, believed that it would give him access to the fabled riches of the Far East. There then followed five hundred years of failure. Yes, it was not until 1906 that a Norwegian called Roald Amundsen achieved the near impossible, threading his way through, quite modestly, in a small herring boat.

This pleasing, intelligent, compact show at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – and what more fitting a location could there be than this museum? – tells the story of some of the most remarkable of those voyages, and of those who led them. But it does much more than that. It shows us the instruments that were used, and of how they grew in sophistication, the food that was eaten, the clothes that were worn, and the way that these lands, and the indigenous peoples of these lands, were represented.

Early attempts to map the region were primitive in the extreme. Mercator's of 1620 shows the North Pole as a large rock rising from the sea. Sir Martin Frobisher's early voyages to the Arctic of 1576-8 resulted in a remarkable find – fool's gold, which Elizabeth I took for the real thing, locking it away in the Tower for safe keeping. Fragments of it are here. Other bits of it were later used as building material, and can still be found in Dartford, embedded in a wall near the railway station. Out of the discovery of the local wildlife, useful things emerged. Here, for example is a Royal Naval cocked hat, made out of beaver felt. Hunting in these regions became a popular sport. John Webber's dramatic painting of 1778, documenting an incident from Captain Cook's third voyage, shows a party of sailors shooting walruses, popularly known as "sea-horses".

As with all exhibitions of this kind, it is not the large-scale and often loftily idealised portraits of naval heroes that have the most effect upon you. It is the smaller, everyday things that testify to the terrible lives that those who did most of the work on board ship were obliged to suffer. Take this fragment of ship's biscuit, a solid looking brown disc, for example. Many a poor sailor's tooth must have come to grief on such a thing as this. Or, worse still, this old tin of pemmican, a kind of primitive dried and powdered meat product, mixed with fat. It looks as lip-smackingly appetising as a sliver of slate chipped from your local quarry. Well, perhaps I'm being too hard on it. It is, after all, almost 140 years old. Perhaps it was indeed mouthwatering when the breakers were pounding at your back and you'd had nothing else for 20 hours, and especially when washed down with a mug of rum.

The most sobering aspect of the show is the last room, which deals with now – and the aftermath of now. The melting of the sea ice. In the summer of 2007, the North-West Passage was entirely free of ice for the first time since records began. By 2030, the entire region could be ice-free. Then would come the scramble for the precious oil and gas reserves, the disruption of an ancient way of life, the disappearance of the local fauna, and the final destruction of this pitiless landscape.

Man, in all his boundless cleverness, would have had his revenge.

Until 3 January (020-8858 4422; www.nmm.ac.uk)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?