To The Memory of Birdie And All His Companions

Next to the Polar Plunge and the chance to see auroras (though they are fickle beasts, and I’ve yet to spot one this year), my favorite thing about wintering at McMurdo is the open house hosted by the Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators over at Scott Base.

Because, for someone who loves to geek out over historic stuff, it’s like Christmas.

Cocoa tins and packets of pins, oh my! Items from Cape Evans historic hut in various stages of conservation at the AHT lab, Scott Base

The Antarctic Heritage Trust was set up to help conserve the historic huts around the Ross Sea area that were built and supplied and used by the likes of Scott, Shackleton and other early 20th century explorers. In the summer, conservators work at, well, conserving the sites themselves. I can’t really say “fixing” or “improving” the huts because they’re trying to keep them as unchanged as possible. But the summer AHT teams do things like painstakingly remove floorboards one by one, place an invisible layer of sealant to protect against dampness and then put the floorboards back in place.

The winter AHT teams work out of a lab over at New Zealand’s Scott Base, conserving thousands of items brought back from the huts by the summer teams. When summer comes, the conserved items will be taken back to the huts and placed in their original position.

Reindeer skin boots (no, there are no reindeer in Antarctica.These were brought here), mittens and other items from Cape Evans historic hut undergoing conservation

The work the conservators do is nothing short of amazing. Last year, one of the winter AHT team was a specialist in textiles and, among her items, had conserved an incredible sweater from the ill-fated Ross Sea expedition, which had been patched and re-patched a number of times while its wearer waited to be rescued. Being able to see that sweater up close, to appreciate each individual stitch, was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had here on the Ice.

So a high bar had been set when I headed out with a van full of other McMurdoans through the darkness to Scott Base this evening.

I knew it would be great, of course, because I’d met the conservators already (they are some of my nicest customers on the egg line) and attended an earlier lecture they gave on AHT–one in which I learned the term “inherent vice,” which ranks high on my list of cool phrases to know, along with “moral turpitude.”

[Inherent vice, in addition to being a great band name, is how conservators describe items that by their very nature–the level of acidity in the material or being composed of two different materials that react with each other, for example–are self-destructing.]

Anyway, tonight was another wonderful experience, and much thanks to Suzanne, Georgina, Gretel and Stefan for opening their lab and sharing their work with us.


Okay. Let me get hold of myself.

First, I was fascinated by the work Georgina has done conserving a variety of paper items. To give you an idea of the work that goes into it, consider these before and after shots of a bottle of chutney found unbroken at Cape Evans (food items must be discarded as biohazards if they’ve been opened or are leaking, etc., but if the container itself is intact, the conservators stabilize it and put it back where they found it).

Before and after conservation shot of intact bottle taken from Cape Evans

She does a lot of her work using Japanese paper, a feather-light material that she stains with acrylic paint to match the original material color as close as possible, then uses to fill in cracks, rips and tears and other degraded areas. When she’s done, it’s difficult to tell what’s original and what’s her work, though she uses special adhesives that can be easily removed without damaging the artifact itself, so that future conservators, if they need to, can replace or improve her “fixes.”

Georgina demonstrates how she matches stained Japanese paper to an artifact to conserve and strengthen the original material almost invisibly

She let me hold some of the Japanese paper which was like incredibly supple and thin tissue paper, yet extremely strong.

One of the super fragile cocoa tin labels Georgina has removed and will conserve. Once Gretel, the metal conservator, has stabilized the tin (one of those pictured with the pins a few photos up), Georgina will put the conserved label back on.

Georgina mentioned, by the way, that in a museum setting she might stain the paper with watercolors, but because the artifacts were being placed back in the Antarctic environment, she used acrylics so that, if the item got wet (hey, it can happen here), the stain wouldn’t seep into the original material.

Another cocoa tin label. Between them, the conservators will deal with more than 1,000 items this winter season alone!

One of the things I didn’t see set out in Georgina’s workplace was the set of “toothache plasters” another conservator, Suzanne, had mentioned at the lecture a few weeks ago. Apparently, they found a packet of rubber caps that the toothache-afflicted were supposed to pop onto the aching tooth.

Georgina went and got the caps for me to see though I think I creeped her out slightly by asking a lot of questions about them.

The toothache plasters. The conservators tested one and found it had no morphine or other painkiller. It was just rubber, apparently to keep air out of the tooth. I think I’d opt for a bottle of rum and a pair of pliers.

“Are you…really interested in teeth or something?” she asked hesitantly, backing away slowly.

No, not necessarily, but I am fascinated by how we puny humans have, over generations, tried to improve our lot in life, with mixed results.

The mysterious “blue pill” packet, part of a medical kit being conserved

Suzanne, an American working for AHT, had several very neat artifacts to show off. I felt particularly fortunate to see one of them, a glass Christmas ornament that one of the men had brought with him on the journey, but then left behind. It was wrapped in some “dead” cotton (“dead” here meaning unsalvageable in conservator lingo) and broken in a few places, but she’ll be working to conserve it and, yes, place it back at Cape Evans.

Suzanne peeling away the lumpy cotton someone had packed his treasured ornament in.

I couldn’t help but look at the ornament and wonder if it belonged to one of the men who died coming back from the Pole, or one of the men waiting for the doomed party to return. If the man it did belong to noticed at some point that he didn’t have it anymore, if he was indifferent or sad that he’d lost that small piece of home. I wondered if he had bought it, if it was given to him and if so by whom. I leave History with a capital “H” to others. I couldn’t care less who was king or how many ships were in which Armada. The history that interests me are the small stories, like how a broken Christmas ornament ended up at the bottom of the world.

The glass ornament. Behind it is a dog collar and chain being conserved.

Another pair of items she was particularly excited about were cans of preserved rhubarb. Someone had scrawled “BROWN” on one and “R.F. Scott” on the other, suggesting the rhubarb had been allotted to the two members of the expedition as part of their rations. Stefan, one of the conservators, had done some investigating and found that “BROWN,” likely short for expedition member “Browning,” had been written by Henry “Birdie” Bowers, who was in charge of supplies, but that Scott’s name might have been written by Robert Falcon himself.

And there they were, right in front of me.

Historic Rhubarb! The tin on the left was apparently meant for one R.F. Scott, and the one on the right for expedition member Browning.

Suzanne then confessed a bit of a crush on Birdie and showed off her Birdie Bowers shrine over her workplace. Bowers, originally meant to be part of the supply team, was, at the last moment, assigned to the team heading all the way to the Pole on Scott’s expedition.

Suzanne shows off her Birdiemania at her workstation in the AHT lab.

Bowers, Scott and Edward Wilson were the last three of the ill-fated team to perish in March/April 1912.

To the Memory of Birdie, and all those in his company

If, by the way, you are geeking out to this as much as I am, you can follow the conservators’ blog (set up through the National History Museum in London) or learn more about AHT. They do some seriously amazing work, often under extremely adverse conditions.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to do some research on how long it takes to train to be a conservator…I’ve been feeling the need to get another degree of late…


12 thoughts on “To The Memory of Birdie And All His Companions

  1. Pingback: Catching Up « Gemma Tarlach

  2. Having wintered over in 1983, I remember the plunge into the sound and the great hospitality of the Kiwi dinner and songs after. The winter-over period was the best stretch of my 12-month stay at McMurdo (10/5/82 – 10/5/83).

    • I’m sure a lot has changed since your time…I’m guessing you guys didn’t have free WiFi in your dorm rooms, lol…The Kiwis are still a rather hospitable lot, by the way. Thanks for reading!

  3. The band that opens for Inherent Vice should be called Cleanse Me of My Iniquity.

    I loved your story in the Journal Sentinel. I can’t imagine going that long without fresh produce! You do have access to chocolate, right?

  4. Terrific post!

    You’ll be happy to know that Historians with capital aitches (to use the Brit spelling…don’t be judgemental, to pick up a thread of ours from elsewhere) also do the history of stuff (though usually categories of stuff, rather than individual items — though a compelling item might get its own history). It’s called material history. And sometimes it crosses over with cultural history (you know, when you study stuff that involves cultural practices, which stuff tends to do). Kings and ships in armadas are political history (and possibly also military history, contexts depending…though a material historian working on technology of warfare might still be interested in ships in armadas). Of course, economic historians are sometimes interested in stuff, too, but they usually just want to count it.

    If you want to be a conservator, you should ask other conservators what their degrees are in. My guess is there might be a range, but a lot of them might come out of museum studies and public history (either MA or PhD level). As for me, I want to go back and do a Masters of Library Science or a PhD in Archives and Preservation (for books, that is).

    • Oh, I know there are plenty of historians who study “stuff” (how else would the informational signage I obsess about get written??)…I do think, however, for the *average* person, there is more of a focus on the political and military big-Haitch History. I know, for example, in the historical fiction forums I lurk around, it seems most readers want, within a story, a lot of political history context…in a story about a shoe cobbler they want to know who was king at the time and what the cobbler thought about that. Personally, I really don’t care who was in power and I don’t care if the characters in a story care (as you well know from reading my historical fiction, lol). I also think, for a lot of us who didn’t go to the best schools (pre-college), history was just memorizing a lot of dates. I think schools do better with that now (I’m pretty impressed with the stuff I’ve seen from kids of friends). And while I did look into the whole conservator thing, I talked myself out of it. Seriously, the last thing I need to do is go back to school! Thanks for the props, btw πŸ™‚

      • Huh. That’s weird that the general public readers want the political history/great man stuff. But that explains the Hitler Channel, I guess. (Then again, “History Detectives” is usually about the stuff.) But my point was more that the “big H History” distinction was false. Professional Historians — people I’d call big H Historians — write about stuff.

        I think maybe the memorizing dates thing in high school was a product of too many basketball coaches doubling as history teachers. At least in my school, where the other subjects were rigorous, but history tended to be lame in the way you describe. (My history prof friends lament this, so it’s still going on.)

        And yeah, I didn’t want to be the one to say maybe you shouldn’t start over *again*. πŸ™‚ I try to be encouraging, but maybe I’ve passed over into *enabling*, LOL.

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