The centre in eastern France is “the only permanent museum devoted to the Arctic and Antarctic in the world,” said communications director Anthony Renou.
Built in the shape of a jutting iceberg and with 60 percent of its volume buried underground, the museum was conceived by anthropologist Jean-Christophe Victor – son of the French polar explorer Paul-Emile Victor – and Stephane Niveau, a naturalist.
Once inside, visitors are plunged into a world of intense white. Huge video screens show the ice caps amid the noise of an icy blizzard.
Photographs, items from polar expeditions and video presentations – on ecosystems, rising sea levels, indigenous peoples and other themes – bring the polar environment to life and expose its vulnerability to global warming.
The Arctic's surface temperature has risen by more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 19th century – double the pace of the world as a whole.
At the other end of the planet, scientists are most concerned about Antarctica's western peninsula, sitting underneath a kilometre-thick ice sheet with enough frozen water to lift global sea levels by six or seven metres (more than 20 feet).
70,000 visitors per year?
Warming air and ocean water are eroding dam-like seaside formations called ice shelfs that prevent massive inland glaciers from sliding more quickly into the ocean.
The museum, | Paul-Emile Victor, provides a visually compelling tutorial on these changes.
“The idea was to open a place that could serve as a support to teaching about the polar world, while approaching it in a playful way,” said the museum's director Stephane Niveau.
Jean-Christophe Victor, who died in December at the age of 69, had said he wanted to make visitors “feel the beauty of these polar landscapes and lights, of the disproportion of man in relation to the nature which surrounds him”.
The museum highlights objects and documents from the expeditions involving his father, a pioneer of modern ecology who documented the polar wilderness.
Paul-Emile Victor died in 1995 at age 87. The adventurer, who spent much of his childhood in the region where the museum is located, carried out his first missions to Greenland in 1934.
The museum includes a documentation centre which is accessible to researchers, a skating rink and a conference hall.
The local authorities which manage the establishment hope to attract 50,000 to 70,000 visitors per year.
By Angela Schnaebele