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Arctic explorer Matthew Henson, the first African American to reach the North Pole, wore lots of protective gear in the brutal
conditions faced during the historic quest with Robert Peary in 1909.
The way Matthew Henson described it, the brutal cold that punishes
those who dare to approach the North Pole is enough to turn a mans
flesh into something like hamburger.
Freezing of the nose and the whole front of the face is an ordinary
occurrence, he wrote in 1910. The skin keeps peeling off and freezing
again until that part of the face is like raw beef and it leaves spots
on the face like smallpox.
Hensons hobbling partner in exploration, Robert Edwin Peary, had lost nine of his 10 toes to frostbite on one expedition.
So the sealskin mittens Henson wore on April 6, 1909, when he and
Peary and four Inuit guides reportedly became the first there is
continuing debate to reach the North Pole, deserve a good bit of
credit for keeping the brilliantly resourceful Henson alive.
Whether they were first or nearly first, Henson was without
question the first African-American to sledge across the ever-shifting
ice of the Arctic Sea and stand on top of the world, the truest north of
all, where all directions point south.
The harsh conditions and the intervening century took their toll on
the mittens, though. They were matted, rigidly creased and brittle in
some places, compromised by insects in others.
Then they wound up in the hands of Caitlin Richeson, a student in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, directed by UDs Debra Hess Norris, the Unidel Henry Francis du Pont Chair in Fine Arts.
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Caitlin Richeson works on the mittens, which were made by Inuit women using sealskin, with inserts made of polar bear fur. Richeson's treatment plan accounted for the different types of materials.
At Richesons workbench, they found new life.
Why, you might ask, would the owner of these mittens trust a student to tend to them?
Lacey Flint would know that. She is the archivist and curator of research collections at The Explorers Club
of New York City, to which Henson gave the mittens in 1934. The
Explorers Club counts an astonishing swath of historys most adventurous
luminaries among its members the first to the North and South poles,
the first to the top of Mount Everest, the first on the surface of the
moon, the first to the deepest point in the ocean. Henson is among them.
Richeson had toured the Explorers Club before starting her graduate
study at the Winterthur/UD program and was amazed by the collection she
saw. She saw, too, that Flint was doing the work of 10 people.
When I got into school, Richeson said, and started talking to Debra Hess Norris
about what I had been doing in New York and my connection to the
Explorers Club, I asked if we could do something to help them?
Richeson then learned that Norris had her own personal bond with
The Explorers Club. Norris late brother, Peter Hess, an attorney and
avid explorer who was part of multiple deep-sea shipwreck expeditions,
had been a member and chaired the clubs legal committee.
They went together to The Explorers Club and Flint identified items
in the collection that needed treatment. She pointed to the Henson
mittens and Richeson could hardly believe her eyes.
As a child attending Gorman Crossing Elementary School in Laurel,
Maryland, she had studied Henson who was born about an hour away in
Nanjemoy, Maryland and written a report about why he was important to
Matthew Henson leans against the sledge used to carry
supplies and gear across the shifting ice of the Arctic Ocean. They
reached the expedition launch site aboard Robert Pearys ship, The
Hensons story was untold for many years, as so many African-American
stories were. Orphaned early in life, he found work as a cabin boy on a
ship out of Baltimore, then as a clerk in a Washington, D.C., hat shop,
where he met Peary. Impressed by Hensons knowledge of seamanship,
Peary hired him as a valet for an upcoming trip to Nicaragua.
proved his skill, Henson accompanied Peary on seven Arctic expeditions,
stretching over 20 years. He learned the Inuit language and survival
skills that served the teams well. His recognition, though, would trail
Pearys by decades.
The ongoing debate about whether it was Pearys team that reached the
North Pole first or that of Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached
the pole in 1908 or perhaps another team has never been definitively
resolved. You cannot plant a flag in shifting ice and expect it to stand
until the next sledge arrives. The evidence available from both Peary
and Cook was thin.
The Explorers Club itself, having both Peary and Cook
in membership, issued this statement in 1983: The position of The
Explorers Club in the Cook/Peary controversy is that we have no records
or documents that settle the question one way or the other.
Richeson just wanted to focus on Henson and his mittens.
I said, Debbie, I need this! And it became a project that followed
me through the two years I was in residence at Winterthur, Richeson
For all of those reasons, Flint lost not a moment of sleep
turning the historic mittens and their polar-bear-fur inserts over to
Henson gave the mittens to the Explorers Club in New York in 1934. He inscribed them with this message: "Matthew Henson/May 5
1934/N.Y.C./To -- /Explorers Club/ Mr. Roy Chapman Andrews/ Worn by
me from / Cape Sheridan to it -- / North Pole April 6, 1909.
Based on the reputation of the program and my relationship with
Debra Norris, handing them over to Debbie and any of her students was
never a question, Flint said. The people at the Winterthur/UD program
have been so incredible and professional, I had no doubts. Whether to a
student or a professor, I knew whoever ended up with it would take such
great care of the mittens and the project. I met Caitlin a number of
times. She had done so much pre-research on the expedition and Henson.
It was blind faith. I handed them over and said, Good luck.
She knew Richeson would not rely on luck, of course. She would draw on the skills she gained in studies with the late Bruno Pouliot, Lara Kaplan and Melissa Tedone,
all part of the Winterthur/UD program at the time. She would rely on
careful scrutiny of the items, using ultraviolet light, infrared
reflectogram examination techniques and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy
to analyze the materials, understand their true condition and develop a
plan for treatment. She would also recommend and develop a storage
system that would protect them in storage and any future travels.
Richeson did all of those things. And when her plan was approved, she
documented each step of her work so that others would know exactly how
she had proceeded.
She photographed everything, cleaned the surface of the mittens
and the inserts with cosmetic sponges, removed insect casings with
tweezers, an African porcupine quill and a stereomicroscope and took
tiny samples to analyze specific areas more closely.
The data from these analyses informed her work, allowing her to
proceed without damaging the fragile materials. Among the toughest
challenges: Using water vapor to humidify the mittens and inserts,
restore their shape and prevent tears and cracks in the leather.
Great care and proper tools are required when working with these
items. Richeson used tweezers and an African porcupine quill to remove
insect casings from the fur inserts.
It was painstaking work that continued for months. The treated
mittens soon will make their return trip to New York City. But the work
already is drawing high praise from Flint, who received photos from
Richeson, now completing her third year of study and final internship at
the Museum of Modern Art.
They look absolutely incredible, Flint said.
Seeing the treated mittens reminded Flint of an encounter she had
during a celebration of Hensons 150th birthday. She brought the mittens
to that event, she said, and one of Hensons great grandsons picked one
of them up. What he said has stuck with her.
I feel like Im shaking hands with my great grandfather, he said.
The mittens have been on display many times on loan to national
buildings and museums. During one of those trips last year to the
Fashion Institute of Technology the mittens and Hensons full
expedition suit were reunited for the first time, Flint said.
The Explorers Club also has a sledge from the Peary-Henson expedition
hanging from a ceiling, she said, and about 60 lantern slides. Other
objects and photographs from the Clubs collections have also been
treated by students in the Winterthur/UD program.
Over the past three years our graduate and undergraduate students
have worked with collection materials from the Explorers Club that have
included, in addition to the Henson mittens, 10 boxes of 19th century
albumen prints documenting the Arctic Age of Exploration and 20th
century prints and albums that record discovery, Norris said. These
challenging preservation projects allow our students to analyze and
preserve images and artifacts that celebrate humanity, discovery and our
global connection. Our students have recommended strategies for
collections care as well. For me personally, this work is a tribute to
my beloved brother, Peter, who as an Explorer truly treasured the
clubs remarkable collections and raved about their significance and
The work has been of extraordinary benefit to the Explorers Club, Flint said.
I cant stress enough how grateful we are to Winterthur and the
University of Delaware for taking on so many projects and giving me that
peace of mind, she said. The program is so strong and the people are
so professional and know what theyre doing. They have transformed this
In 2009, Hensons great-great-great-grand niece, Leila Savoy Andrade,
accepted the American Geographical Societys Cullum Geographical Medal
on his behalf at a ceremony at the University of Delaware,
part of UDs William S. Carlson International Polar Year Events. The
Cullum Medal is the AGSs oldest, established in 1896, and recognizes
those who distinguish themselves by geographical discoveries or in the
advancement of geographical science.
In the summer of 2018, students from historically black colleges and
universities (HBCUs) visited UD to learn principles of art conservation.
Five of them spent two weeks with UDs Joyce Hill Stoner, Rosenberg
Professor in Material Culture, working on materials owned by Tuskegee
University, including a diorama depicting the expedition Henson and Peary made to the North Pole.
Article by Beth Miller; photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Bradley Robinson. The historic photos of Matthew Henson are used by permission of www.matthewhenson.com, a free public service provided by Bradley Robinson.