Few people conjuring up the “most comfortable dwelling place imaginable” are likely to picture a wooden shelter on an island off the coldest continent on Earth. But that’s how Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott described the hut at Cape Evans that was the base for his 1910-13 Terra Nova expedition.
The hut is nestled below a small volcanic hill on a long stretch of black sand. I’ve been there twice, when it looked like a building site in 2011, and again on a sunny day last December. On my second visit, seals lay on the sea ice in front of the newly restored structure and sun glinted off the ice cliffs of the nearby Barne Glacier.
The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust recently announced the completion of 10 years of intensive work to save three historic buildings on Ross Island. As well as the hut at Cape Evans, it has been working on the Discovery Hut from Scott’s 1901-04 expedition, at Hut Point, and the hut at Cape Royds, built for Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition.
On my first Cape Evans hut visit, many of the artefacts had been removed while carpenters repaired the walls, floors and roof. This time, the hut contents had been returned, and Lizzie Meek, a specialist paper conservator and the trust’s programme manager for artefacts, showed me around. In Scott’s “zone of command” was the table – now home to a stuffed emperor penguin and a 1908 edition of the Illustrated London News – where Edward Wilson made his enduring biological illustrations. In a dark corner nearby, Edward Atkinson had incubated his moulds and parasites. My favourite space, though, was the small workbench and array of test tubes, sample jars and Bunsen burner stands of biologist Edward Nelson, lit by sunshine through a murky window. This was where the young scientist preserved marine specimens – fish, krill, starfish and more – as part of his search for new species and an understanding of the Antarctic food chain.
Trust executive director Nigel Watson describes the three restored huts as “fantastic remnants of humans’ first contact with the continent”. The genesis of the conservation project, he says, “was the fact that we were in great danger of losing them”. When the on-site work began in 2004, snow and ice were building up around, under and sometimes inside the huts, damaging the structures and threatening their contents.
“We now have three buildings that are structurally sound and watertight with a very different feel – they are drier and lighter and the humidity is reduced. It’s a much better environment for the collection.”
As well as heritage carpenters, the trust team has included specialists in textile, paper and metal conservation: in total, 62 experts from 11 countries have visited Antarctica to work on the project, often spending months on-site, sleeping in tents and popping 25km back to Scott Base for the occasional shower. “It became known as the most exciting conservation project in the world,” says Watson, “so it attracted top heritage conservation talent.”
Some of the most exciting discoveries were three intact crates of “Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky” found encased in ice beneath Shackleton’s hut, a notebook that belonged to surgeon, zoologist and photographer George Murray Levick found buried in dirt at Cape Evans and a small box of 22 cellulose nitrate negatives found in Herbert Ponting’s darkroom in the Terra Nova hut.
But most of the 18,202 items catalogued and conserved are more mundane: food, tools, clothing and other personal items that were not precious enough to be taken home on the return voyages.
The trust’s conservation treatments involved “removal of degradation products followed by chemical treatment to either slow, or in some cases reverse, the deterioration”, said Meek when we spoke again last week. Metal items would go through corrosion removal, followed by a chemical stabilisation treatment, then application of an oxygen and moisture barrier to prevent further corrosion. Treatment of paper items often involved washing “to dissolve harmful acids and salts and to help the fibres to reknit, often resulting in the paper having a stronger cohesion”.
As a result of the project, the trust has become the world leader in cold-climate heritage conservation. Next summer, its skills will be applied to a new challenge. The Ross Island huts are the “jewels in the crown”, says Watson, but there are other historic buildings needing attention. With logistics support from Antarctica New Zealand, programme managers Al Fastier and Meek will be part of a small team heading to Cape Adare, an exposed site more than 700km north of Scott Base. The two Cape Adare huts, remnants of an 1898-1900 British expedition led by Carsten Borchgrevink, “are not only the first buildings on the continent”, says Watson, but also “the only example of humanity’s first buildings on any continent on Earth”.
The three-year restoration effort will involve building repairs and the removal, conservation and return of about 1100 objects. Compared with the relatively sheltered hut sites on Ross Island, Cape Adare is “a very remote and challenging place to work in”, says Watson. “It’s set among the world’s biggest Adélie penguin colony on an exposed spit of land and these little wooden buildings are just perched there, defying the elements.”
Meek looks forward to the challenge. “But I’m also looking forward to going back to the Ross Island huts and seeing them with fresh eyes. After so many years of working on them, to be able to step inside and look around to see what we have accomplished will be amazing.”
If you can find your way to Antarctica, you’ll need a permit to visit any of the Ross Island huts, which are each in an Antarctic Specially Protected Area. But there’s an easier way to see them: the trust has partnered with Google to offer Street View walkthroughs of each of the dwellings, available via Google Earth or through the trust’s website at www.nzaht.org.
This story was first published in The Listener at http://www.listener.co.nz/current-affairs/science/nice-spot-on-a-sunny-day/