The continuing tale of man’s fascination with the alluring and fatal Arctic region is vividly present in the thousands of photographs, letters, illustrations, maps, film, and diaries in the libraries’ Arctic collections.

In this online presentation, we have curated a selection of highlights from the participating libraries, representing the beautiful and the horrifying, the explorations and the failures, and the diversity of materials.

The treasures are presented in four themes: Travelling Towards Tragedy, Mapping Myths, Tales of Heroes, and Through the Looking Glass. Many of the objects are examples from larger collections, and you can click through to the individual libraries to read more.

The treasures originate from the archives of New York Public Library, Royal Danish Library, Central Library of Greenland, National Library of Norway, and National Library of Sweden.

Travelling Towards Tragedy

Many attempts to reach and understand the Arctic have gone differently than planned and some have resulted in outright catastrophe. Several members of polar expeditions have paid the highest price for their Arctic aspirations. However, their substantial testimonies and the important documentation they left behind is still accessible in library archives.



Jørgen Brønlund (1877-1907) was a Greenlandic polar explorer, sled driver, and interpreter who participated in the 1902-1904 Danish Literary Greenland Expedition and the 1906-1908 Denmark Expedition. This is the final entry in his travel diary. He was the last survivor of Sled Team 1, and knew he had no chance of survival. It says:

Died 79 Fjord after attempt to travel home over the inland ice in month of November. I arrived here in fading moonlight, and could not go on because of frostbite in my feet and darkness. The other's bodies are in the middle of the fjord in front of a glacier (about 18 km) ... Hagen died November 15 and Mylius about 10 days later. 

                                                                                                                               Jørgen Brønlund

The diary and the expedition's maps were found four months later next to his body in the cave where he took shelter.

Brønlund's diary is a part of Royal Danish Libray's Manuscript Department. Have a closer look at the diary here.



The Barents Sea of the northern coast of Norway and Russia takes its name from the Dutch navigator Willem Barents (1550-1597), who led three Dutch expeditions in the 1590’s searching for the Northeast Passage.

The expeditions were headed for the Orient but never reached it. On the third expedition, Barents and his crew became trapped in the surrounding icebergs and had to stay through the winter on the Novaya Zemlya Island. They used lumber from their ship to build a small lodge and heated stones and cannonballs kept them warm in the extreme cold. Barents died on the return trip in 1597, but he did not struggle in vain. His travels were immensely important in mapping the unknown world of the Northern seas.

The historian and merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563-1611) accompanied Barents on his first two travels, and passed on this significant understanding. 

Linschoten's beautifully hand colored map is a part of the collection of National Library of Norway. Have a closer look at the map here. 



The majestic, Danish merchant ship M/S Hans Hedtoft was built to be unsinkable – even in the harsh Arctic waters. The maiden voyage to Greenland in January 1959 was a spectacular event and a huge crowd of people showed up at the day of the departure from Copenhagen.

But when the ship began its return jorney, tragedy struck: On 30th of January 1959 M/S Hans Hedtoft sent out an SOS - the ship had collided with an iceberg. A German trawler picked up the SOS signal and rushed to the location of M/S Hans Hedtoft but it was already too late. There was no sign of the ship nor its crewmembers.

Ever since, the loss of M/S Hans Hedtoft has been surrounded with mystery, as the wreck has never been located even after a thorough search in the following days as well as in modern times. Nine months after the accident, what turned out to be the only remaining effect washed ashore in Iceland; a lifebuoy carrying the name M/S Hans Hedtoft.

The Central Library of Greenland has made a great effort over many years to gather and register material about the "Greenlandic Titanic", and you can explore the collection on their website. Photo courtesy of The Maritime Museum of Denmark.



The quest for the Northwest Passage continued throughout the 19th century. Sir John Franklin, an officer in the Royal Navy, set off on his fourth Arctic expedition to chart the Passage in May, 1845. His ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were last seen by European sailors in Baffin Bay in July. The fate of the ships and their crews was pieced together over the decades and the remains of the ships were recovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively. This letter from the 14th of July 1845, written by the expedition surgeon, Stephen Samuel Stanley, two weeks before the disappearance, describes the bravery of Sir Franklin and the good spirits of the crew.

The gripping letter is a part of New York Public Library's collection.

Mapping Myths

Myths and legends have always been a part of the tales of the fabled North. The library archives reflect a long desire to reach a better understanding of the fierce and fascinating Arctic landscape and nature both in a tangible and abstract sense. The drive to grasp the Arctic resulted in the creation of maps, illustrations, writings, and films.



This is one out of fifteen magic lantern images that illustrate Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld’s (1832-1901) famous polar expedition The Vega Expedition 1878-1880. It was the first Arctic expedition to successfully navigate through the Northeast Passage.

The artist behind the images is unknown but could be of German descent since German words appear on one of the illustrations. The images are drawn on glass and show the journey from start to finish: the ship Vega stuck in ice, the crew hunting walruses, the wildlife of the Arctic, the crew exploring the Arctic by foot, the amazing northern light, and the glorious return to the Stockholm harbour in 1880.

The Vega Expedition is considered a very successful but adventurous expedition, which these images map out in an imagniative and even romantic manner.

The magic lantern images were donated to the National Library of Sweden in 1966 by a Swede living abroad in Germany.



Many explorers have tried to locate the exact North Pole and be the first to discover this mythical place. Frederick Cook (1865-1940) claimed to be the first on the North Pole in 1908 - as did Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd (1888-1957) in 1926. All three wellknown claims are highly disputed. Together with American Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951) and Italian Umberto Nobile (1885-1978) Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) carried out the World’s first verified overflight of the North Pole in 1926 thus making the crew of the airship Norge the first verified explorers to have reached the geographical North Pole by ground or by air.

This photograph of the airship Norge is from the film The Flight of the Airship Norge over the North Pole, which you can watch on the National Library of Norway's website. It shows Amundsen being given the airship by Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) and the launching ceremony before the flight across the North Pole.



Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594) was a Flemish cartographer who invented a new way of projecting maps – the highly influential Mercator projection. He was also the first to name a collection of maps ‘atlas’.

This is a remarkably early map from Atlas Sive Cosmographicae Meditationes De Fabrica Et Fabricati Figura that shows the Arctic split into four continents by flods that come together in a giant whirlpool with the magnetic North Pole in the center. The myth of the great whirlpool stems from the early legends about the powerful Norwegian Lofoten Maelstrom, also known as the Moskstraumen. This same maelstrom is an integral part of novels by Jules Verne and Herman Melville. For this exact reason Mercator’s imaginative map is truly an example of the mapping of a myth.

The remarkable map can be found in the collection of the Department of Maps, Pictures, and Photographs at Royal Danish Library. Have a closer look at it here.



Although Samuel Petrus Kleinschmidt (1814-1886) is probably most famous for his linguistic and missionary work in Greenland he also had a tremendous interest in natural sciences and made meteorological observations both for sin own entertainment as well as for the observatory of the Danish Meteorological Institute. 

He would draw sketches and carry out land surveys of the Greenlandic west coast. To this day the precision of his surveys is striking. These surveys enable us to see exactly how dramatically the Greenlandic landscape has changed over the years, since the methods of surveying are similar to the methods scientists use today. 

On the occasion of Arctic Imagination the diaries of Kleinschmidt, including his meteorological observations and land surveys, have been digitalized by Royal Danish Library for Central Library of Greenland. You can read all the diaries here.



The stoic iceberg on this photograph is from the unconventional Hayes and Bradford Arctic Expedition. While captains and men of business continued the search for the Northwest Passage, a new interest in polar tourism was growing in the nineteenth century. In 1869, William Bradford, a New York Artist, and Isaac Hayes, a medic with prior experience on polar expeditions, organized a pleasure cruise to Greenland and Baffin Bay. This tourist trip had many of the hallmarks of modern day cruises: extravagant meals, excursions to shore, and lectures from prominent speakers.

The photographs from this adventures expedition are a part of New York Public Library's collection.

Tales of Heroes

Expeditions to the Arctic have been seen as heroic, and often explorers acquired both respect and fame upon their return. Sometimes, the prestige was even part of the explorers' motivation to go. Many photos and other items in the collections reflect this particular view of the travellers.



Bjelland canned sardines have been common on Norwegian lunch tables for decades. Some of the beautifully decorated labels were made by famous artists such as Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914). They would typically be printed in strong colours for instance with different motives from Norse mythology, members of the royal family, or celebrities.


This sardine label was released in 1896 and portrays the polar hero Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) greeting people from the top of the Earth. The Nansen cans were mass-produced for a commercial market, and display the massive interest that arose after his return from the 1889 expedition across Greenland. The original photo stems from a series by Ludwik Szacinski (1844-1894).

The label comes from the National Library of Norway's collection and can be found in the book they published on polar heroes in 2011. Have a look inside the book here.



Every member of the Danmark Expedition (1906-1908) was given a camera to document the Arctic landscape, the camps, and their fellow travellers. This is why we are in possession of breathtaking and significant pictures from this ambitious journey. The expedition was a success at large. The crew was divided into three sledge teams, and each had the task of mapping a specific part of Greenland. Team 1 set out to locate and map the Peary Channel, which they, of course, never succeeded in, and the outcome was fatal; All members lost their life. In the Travelling Towards Tragedy theme you can read the last words of Jørgen Brønlund, a crew member who kept writing right until his tragic and lonely death. 

There are more than 2500 photographs from the expedition alone in the photographic collection of The Royal Danish Library, which comprises of more than 17 million items in total. You can have a look at all the pictures from the Danmark Expedition here.



The expense of polar exploration relied on generous contributions from benefactors, which in turn, required fundraising savviness on the part of the planners. Dinners organized to celebrate the achievements of notable captains (and simultaneously raise money for future exhibitions) took place in the major cities of the east, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. This menu, from a 5th Avenue dinner in 1907 featured a dessert named after Admiral Robert Peary, who later claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole in 1909.

With approximately 45,000 menus dating from the 1840's to the present, New York Public Library’s restaurant menu collection is one of the largest in the world, used by historians, chefs, novelists and everyday food enthusiasts. 

Through the Looking Glass

Like Alice's Wonderland, the Arctic has often been seen as a new, strange world, fundamentally different from areas further south. We have dived into our collections looking for material, which unfolds and mirror the peculiar and poetic stories of the Arctic.



This remarkable and detailed woodcut is from the legend of Aqissiaq. The legends of the Inuit people have been passed on from generation to generation in an oral tradition, which continued throughout centuries before a written language had been developed. The information about the traditional way of life of the Inuits was sparse when three men in the middle of the 19th century began to gather the tales of the Intuits.

The three men were geologist Hinrich Johannes Rink (1819-1893), Vicar Peter Kragh (1794-1883), and the college professor Vittus Steenholdt (1808-1862) and the project was exceptional at the time. Firstly, because it provided an occasion for Greenlanders to write down their own tales in Greenlandic and secondly since it involved a Danish translation by poet Rasmus Berthelsen (1827-1901) that shared the fascinating tales with a Scandinavian audience. The sheer volume of the project was also outstanding as the project collected enough legends to publish four volumes. In addition, the aesthetic quality of the publications were remarkable due to the illustrations of the local artist Aron of Kangeq (1822-1869).

The first volume was one of the very first Greenlandic publications altogether, published in 1859 with the title Kaladlit oKalluKtualliait: kalâdlisut kablunâtudlo / Folktales of the Greenlanders: Written and Told by Natives. The fourth and final volume was published in 1865. Today, Rink’s handwritten originals can be found at the Royal Danish Library. You can access them here.

The legends concern a wealth of topics such as rules for living, jealousy, revenge, cultural meetings and conducts for hunting as well as weather phenomena. Most of Aron’s woodcuts illustrate everyday life, the fights and hunting, however some show nature as well. The included woodcut is from the tale of Aqissiaq. It tells the story of the boy Aqissiaq who grew up to be faster and stronger than anyone around him. It also depicts the youth of a settlement playing games and the way they learn about hunting and fishing from the elders. Aqissiaq is superior to the others and moves out of the settlement. He is searching for his peer. Only when he finds this person can he truly settle down. This woodcut portrays the settlement before Aqissiaq leaves and the ancient Inuit ball game where a stuffed seal functions as the ball.



This handwritten manuscript At the Uttermost Parts of the Sea by the world-famous fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) mirror the Arctic of the tales from the famous expeditions of the time.

Even though Andersen was inspired by these explorations, the fantastic and supernatural elements in his imagined Arctic lets the reader know that this text is not a testimony from an Artic explorer but rather the fantasy of a poet. Andersen describes the landscape as a vast, unbroken plain of ice, and the native people as strange-looking figures dressed in hairy skins, dragging sleighs made from ice blocks.

It is well known that Andersen was fond of travelling, and although he never went to the far North this story opens at the very heart of Arctic: “A couple of large ships were sent up toward the North Pole, to discover the boundaries of land and sea and how far it would be possible for the human race to penetrate in that direction.” (translation by Jean Hersholt)

Royal Danish Library has a comprehensive digital collection of original Andersen manuscripts available here.



The 1939 New York World’s Fair featured ticketed entertainments as well as exhibitions of science and technology. One amusement, “Arctic Girls Temple of Ice”, combined two popular diversions of the day: the excitement of the Arctic and girls in bathing suits. Six slabs of ice were fashioned into a “coffin”, into which one of the Arctic Girls climbed and then posed for public viewing. Neither the ice nor the models hailed from the Arctic, but the exhibition demonstrates the way the region captured popular imagination years after naval men and merchants raced to exploit it for fame and fortune.

This amusing and thought-provoking photograph is a part of New York Public Library’s collection that today exceed over 50 million items in total.



The northern lights – aurora borealis – have always fascinated travelers to the North. The first Old Norse account of aurora borealis, ‘norðrljós’, is found in the Norwegian chronicle Konungs Skuggsjá from AD 1230. The chronicler has heard about this phenomenon from compatriots returning from Greenland, and he gives three possible explanations: the ocean was surrounded by vast fires, the sun flares could reach around the world to it's night side, or that glaciers could store energy so they eventually became fluorescent.

Explorers and researchers travelling to the North tried to find scientific explanations for the phenomena. Today’s research on aurora borealis gives us information on the Sun and the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Norwegian doctor and botanist Henrik Greve Blessing (1866-1916) was part of the crew on Fridtjof Nansen’s (1861-1930) Fram Expedition, 1893-1896. He took great interest in the colourful light that were dancing across the skies and was sketching it in his journal from the expedition.

Blessing's journal is of a part of the polar collection of National Library of Norway.



Sören and Vivianne Stadell’s missionary activities in Greenland from 1963-1973 is documented in 30 films, that present their missionary work, Greenlanders in various activities, visitors, excursions to the mountains and more. This short video is a compilation of clips displaying the beautiful and dramatic surroundings of Greenland in the year of 1965. The video short shows the surroundings of icebergs at sea, older houses in Nuuk, and houses under demolition to make space for modern new buildings. Finally, we see the missionary house and the dramatic nature with the mountains in the background.

Marianne Cassel gives a profound description of how it was to travel in Greenland together with Stadell’s: ”My earliest memory is the team trip along the west coast of Greenland in the late 1960s. The summers in this polar country are short and Sören longed to reach out with literature and hold meetings in all the small, winter-insulated villages to the north along the coast. We were a bunch of young people from different Nordic countries who made this trip with him under the name Noa. What an experience it was to ride 1,200 nautical miles by boat for two months, in ice-filled waters and midnight sun.”

The National Library of Sweden has produced this video short especially for the Arctic Imagination project.