I May be Some Time:
Caring for our Heritage in Antarctica
UK Antarctic Heritage Trust
It is almost 250 years since Captain James Cook set out from Whitby in search of the southern continent. Since then and even before, man has had a fascination with the great white continent – it has presented the greatest challenges of endurance, survival, science and exploration and today is the theatre of the extraordinary, the extreme and looks both forward and back.
[Fig 1. Captain Scott at the South Pole]
The UK Antarctic Heritage Trust was established in 1993 with ambitions to ensure the legacy of past human endeavour in Antarctica was secured for future generations. This work continues today through the management of six historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula and through our support of others to care for and share the stories of the Antarctic heritage in their care.
What can be expressed in a few words belies the need for considerable resource, expertise and the dedication of a range of people and organisations to ensure the tangible heritage in our care in the most hostile environment on earth is preserved for the future. Conservation of what were envisaged to be temporary structures supporting early exploration and science in Antarctica pushes to the extremes our understanding of materials and their preservation and we find ourselves at the cutting edge of heritage management practice.
The six sites we care for represent different periods in British Antarctic involvement and science on the Antarctic Peninsula since 1944 and are ultimately owned by the British Antarctic Survey (and the Natural Environment Research Council), but managed by UKAHT. They are:
Base A Port Lockroy, 1944, HSM 61
Base F Wordie House, 1947, HSM 62
Base Y Horsehsoe Island, 1955, HSM 63
Base W Detaille Island, 1956, HSM 83
Base E Stonington Island, 1961, HSM 64
Damoy Refuge, 1975 HSM 84
[Fig 2 Base A, Port Lockroy, Goudie Island, Antarctica 1944-62]
Conserving Antarctic Huts
Managing heritage in general is complicated, time consuming, resource intensive and requires expertise, judgement and compromise. Managing heritage in Antarctica is all of those things, but on steroids! These wooden huts, never designed to last beyond their useful life, are situated in one of the harshest environments on Earth. They are at least 9,000 miles away from our head office and plans to visit then can never be certain.
Port Lockroy is the most visited site in Antarctica and as such is maintained and presented as a museum. It has curated displays in room settings which tell the story of the base in its heyday in the late 1950s. There are artefacts and ephemera which tell the story of life, science and the men (and animals) which occupied the base. Alongside the museum is an operational post office and gift shop, which support the work of the Trust and the whole site is in the middle of a successful gentoo breeding colony of about 1,000 pairs.
[Fig 4 museum display at Port Lockroy]
The other sites are maintained and conserved ‘as found’ and maintaining them is focussed on keeping them weathertight and discouraging further deterioration and dilapidation. In reality our work is to stabilise the structures, weatherproof them to keep the interiors as dry as possible and conserve and monitor the artefacts in an ongoing maintenance and conservation regime.
[Fig 4 Base Y, Horseshoe Island, Antarctica, 1955-60]
An Antarctic conservation operation is a complex business. The logistics are challenging and rely on a range of supporters and partners to make it all happen. Each season a team of four travel to Port Lockroy to work there for the Austral summer (some 4.5 months) and we have field team who visit one of the other sites for conservation and maintenance work.
There are a number of challenges we need to overcome to get this work done each season. Working in such cold conditions means that work is inevitably slower, fatigue can set in more quickly, fingers become clumsier and solvents will cure glacially slowly. So progress is never achieved at speed and a season’s work can sometimes seem paltry.
[Fig 5 Annual maintenance of the windows at Port Lockroy]
Despite the Antarctic’s incredibly low rainfall, damp is a significant problem and the efflorescence of moulds and mildew in the more northerly sites can be a problem. Similarly, achieving good ventilation to dry out timbers comes at the expense of weathertightness, as any gap will be severely exploited by wind driven snow and ice particles during the winter resulting in build-up of ice inside the buildings.
[Fig 6 Build-up of windblown snow in Base W, Detaille Island]
The long daylight hours and the strong UV levels in Antarctica also are a severe problem for many artefacts and the damaging effects of UV are soon apparent.
Normal museum pests are, mercifully, not such a problem, but other wildlife can prove destructive – gentoo penguins nest very close to, on and under buildings and are not shy about where they leave their waste. Fur seals can be both dangerous and clumsy and are curious, and often force their way inside structures. However, just as important is our need to have high biosecurity measures to avoid the introduction of pests which could come in with passengers or cargo.
[Fig 7 a common museum pest in Antarctica]
Documentation looks straightforward enough. We use MODES, for good or for ill, but of course, all the data is captured during the short season and then the database needs to then be updated afterwards. There’s no popping back to check something, and often the person capturing the data isn’t the person updating the database.
Who is it for?
The primary visitng audience for our heritage sites is of course the tourist.
Around 40,000 people visit Antarctica each Austral summer and around half of those visit Port Lockroy, significantly fewer to our other sites. This is a great international opportunity, but it is a self-selecting, privileged group who do visit, so we have to think more broadly about reaching further.
[Fig 8 Visitors at Port Lockroy]
We recognise that most people will never see the heritage we look after, but it is nonetheless incredibly important, interesting and can teach us a lot about science, international politics, life in the middle of the 20th century as well as a whole host of other things. So we try to find other ways to make it accessible, particularly using digital media.
We are in the early stages of this and are still gathering the stories, uncovering the artefacts and talking to the veterans and their families, but we have plans to create virtual access to each site giving people the chance to explore the collections, the peoples, the dogs, the incredible stories.
And of course, the penguins…
So, Antarctic conservation is certainly fraught with difficulties, but needs to be conducted with the same rigour, thoughtfulness and insight as any conservation project in more temperate climes.
But I have to say this is definitely one of the best gigs going.
Find out more about us, our work and our grants programme at www.ukaht.org.