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.
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.
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).
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.”
She let me hold some of the Japanese paper which was like incredibly supple and thin tissue paper, yet extremely strong.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bowers, Scott and Edward Wilson were the last three of the ill-fated team to perish in March/April 1912.
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…