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Airship museum takes flight
Couple seeks to tell full story of overlooked trio of expeditions from Svalbard to North Pole

Airship museum display
The interior of the Spitsbergen Airship Museum features aluminum covering the ceiling and walls that is designed to resemble ice and snow.

As planetary conquests go, it wasn't anybody's finest hour.

The first successful flight over the North Pole came to an abrupt end when bad weather forced a trio of legendary explorers to land their airship well short of their intended destination of Paris. They brought their airship down in a tiny village in northern Alaska where the Inuit people greeted the strange object from the sky with indifference.

The locals then foiled recovery plans by stripping the aircraft for parts, leaving the explorers to quarrel in the world press about whose country deserved credit for the pole flyover. The feud resulted in one of them setting out as the sole leader of a subsequent flight that crashed, leading to his arrest and public disgrace after numerous people died in the rescue operation – including another leader of the original journey.

Perhaps it's not surprising those close to the incident consider it an ill-documented and misunderstood part of history.

The new Spitsbergen Airship Museum in Longyearbyen is seeking to present the complete story of a trio of historic expedition flights originating in Svalbard. Two local residents spent years visiting and working with the eight countries involved in the journeys, assembling a tale from which each only has pieces.

"What I discovered when I came here is many people don't know much about the expeditions...and what people did know has not been enough because what is known about the expeditions has been in different languages and has not been translated," said Stefano Poli, co-founder of the museum with his partner Ingunn Løyning.

The museum is across the street from the Svalbard church in a building used first as a pig farm and then the Svalbard Museum for about 30 years until it relocated in 2006. Everyday operations at the airship museum began earlier this month after its grand opening last November. Those unable to visit in person can view hundreds of exhibit photos, historical narratives, and extensive information from other countries and organizations in Norwegian, English and Italian at the museum's Web site.

Expeditions featured at the museum include:

Walter Wellman's unsuccessful attempt to fly over the North Pole in the airship “America” in 1907 and 1909.

The first successful flyover of the Pole by Roald Amundsen, Lincoln Ellsworth and Umberto Nobile in the airship “Norge” in 1926 and the subsequent controversies.

Nobile's attempted flyover in the airship “Italia” in 1928 and the rescue following his crash, which resulted in the death of Amundsen and others.

museum owners
Ingunn Løyning, left, and Stefano Poli examine a diary from a polar expedition featured at their new Spitsbergen Airship Museum.

Devoting the museum to a specialized and relatively small portion of Svalbard's past was less about a personal interest in airships than the untold drama of the expeditions and their historic significance, Poli said.

"I think it was not so important whether it was by airship or by camel," he said. "These expeditions started here."

Amundsen, for instance, is a household name, but more for being the first to set foot at the South Pole than the subsequent Arctic flights from his homeland.

"I did not know there had even been an airship," said Løyning, who grew up in Bergen, referring to the "Norge" expedition. "I don't remember it being talked about in school. Once you understand the mission of 1926 you understand why it's not talked about."

Poli, a native of Milan, Italy, has worked for tour and research logistics companies in Svalbard since 1994, and currently manages the tour company Poli Arctici A/S. Løyning has worked for tour companies and operators since moving to Svalbard in 1998. They said serious work for the airship museum began in 2005, although tourist activities kept them from doing any work between February and August each year.

"Not even to answer e-mails," she said.

During the autumns they traveled for "short, very intense periods every year," Poli said, including visits to Italy to collect information and donations of exhibits from institutions and people connected to the airship expeditions. Løyning said she did extensive research at The National Library Of Norway and was surprised at how many artifacts remain from the journeys.

"It was a customary to throw things away, burn things down and make a run for the next thing," she said. "There was 10 to 15 times what I expected to see."
In addition to the eight nations involved in the flights, Poli said they sought material from any other source they could think of, including eBay. Among the exhibits they said they value most are two pieces of the original logbook from the "Norge" and what they believe is a piece of the plane that killed Amundsen when it crashed.

Not everything went smoothly. Originally a new building for the museum was planned, either by the shore or near the center of town, but differences with Italian Roberto Sparapani resulted in his selling his ownership share in the project in 2007. Poli purchased the shares, some of which he sold to Løyning, at which point they decided to use the building vacated when the Svalbard Museum moved to The University Centre In Svalbard.

"The first idea was to build something smaller," Løyning said of the original design plans, but Sparapani was interested in a bigger facility. "When he pulled out we sat down and said 'What do we do now?' We didn't want to make a big monument. We wanted to make a museum. Quickly we decided we didn't want to do something ourselves."

Putting the airship museum in the first floor of the former pig farm is a tighter squeeze than they wanted, "but one always has too little space," Løyning said. The second floor is still used by the Svalbard Museum for exhibit storage, but she said expanding the airship museum may be possible if the demand exists.

Opening the museum in 2008 was always the goal since it was the International Polar Year, plus the 80th anniversary of the "Italia" rescue and death of Amundsen, and 30 years since the death of Nobile, Poli said. An opening ceremony on Nov. 15 featured descendants of Nobile and others involved in the "Italia" flight and rescue, plus numerous international officials and polar scholars.

Political and community leaders hailed the opening as an achievement in diligence by Poli and Løyning comparable to the rescue itself. A gift required a final bit of strenuous effort as Løyning, with some help from 9-year-old Ivar Henningsen, had to use a hand pump to pop a balloon that contained a slip of paper. Opening it, she uttered a shocked gasp upon learning it was a 10,000 kr. donation to help develop the museum's library.

"Since you are into air and we are into ships, this seems like a good way to salute the airship museum," said Hilde Henningsen of Henningsen Transport and Guiding, who presented the gift.

The museum is designed so visitors can follow a chronological "route," with exhibits ranging from artifacts to video to interactive displays.

"Gerd Schwalenstöcker (the interior designer) has made magic, especially considering that the premises were empty on October 30th," Poli and Løyning wrote in the museum's most recent newsletter, which details the opening. "He has covered both the ceiling and the walls with aluminum which, reflecting the light, gives an impression of ice and snow. His idea is also that the material was used at the time of the expeditions and the nature of the aluminum is reflecting the contradictions in the years 1920 and 1930. The floor is made to give an impression of ice."

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. More information is available by calling +47 79021705 or at www.spitsbergenairshipmuseum.com.

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