In and amongst the ongoing demands of running both our Antarctic operations and our UK-based activity I have been spending a good deal of time working on our strategy for preserving the heritage on the Antarctic Peninsula; the how’s, what’s and wherefores.
When in Antarctica myself, on my first visit to our historic sites aboard the MS Fram, I experienced first-hand the impact Antarctic heritage can have. Visitors on the cruise were clearly captivated by the landscape and wildlife and the privilege of visiting the seventh continent and these are undoubtedly what draw people south as visitors. What became clear, however, was that once they stepped inside the remote time-capsules of our huts, they were transported back in time and were given an authentic appreciation of life on base and it stirs a great deal of interest and conversation, long after the landing. Part of this effect is achieved by the remote landscape and the weather-wornbuildings but also by the rich collections of artefacts maintained in the huts.
The artefacts are the evidence of life, survival, work and play in Antarctica and, I believe, are what give our bases and the Antarctic heritage their soul. These are the items that sustained the men (yes, all men), kept them warm, busy, entertained and alive. They are at the same time familiar and unfamiliar; food brands like Lyle’s golden syrup, Punch magazine and woollen socks are recognisable from our own lives; but meat bars, a sunshine recorder and sealskin ski skins..? The objects left behind bring the history to life and they are a key to connecting people with human endeavour in Antarctica.
But, the artefacts present us also with one of our biggest challenges. Preserving buildings in the extremes of the polar climate is one thing, and certainly challenging, but even more difficult is to preserve the everyday items. They just want to rot! The conditions we face; extreme fluctuations in humidity, punishing ultraviolet light levels and intense cold, are the nemesis of the everyday materials we are trying to save; steel tins, textiles, paper, foodstuffs are all susceptible to these conditions and can’t help but decay. But it is our responsibility in UKAHT, as with heritage organisations and museums the world over, to do our level best to conserve and protect the artefacts for future generations
Over the coming year a key focus for development will be our artefact conservation programme. We will be working with partners like the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, Scott Polar Research Institute, and Historic England, all of whom are seasoned experts in conservation. We will evaluating the collections, the conditions and environment and setting a programme for the ongoing preservation and conservation of these often modest, yet highly evocative objects. This will involve both looking at the immediate environment of the artefacts – can we buffer the effects of the climate - as well as direct remedial treatment of individual objects. The aim being that we try to slow down the effects of the harsh climate, or even reset the clock of decay, so that we might preserve them for decades to come in order that future visitors to our bases may encounter the same unique atmosphere they have been able to until now.