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SPRI Review 2005: Director's Introduction

Director's Introduction

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and Professor Julian Dowdeswell at the opening of the Institute's exhibition of Antarctic paintings by Edward Seago
Image as described adjacent

The year has been marked by a series of achievements in both the academic research of the Institute and in the ways in which we reach out to the wider community through the Institute's polar museum, library and archives. Several major books written by members of staff have been published during 2005. Gareth Rees has produced a new academic monograph based on his wide experience of the remote sensing of snow and ice. Reindeer People, by Piers Vitebsky, encapsulates over 20 years of research and friendship with the reindeer herding people of Eastern Siberia and encompasses both scholarship and a strong narrative. It has received excellent reviews. The Times, for example, commented 'Vitebsky is both an excellent scholar and a gifted writer, with a feeling for landscape and character'. Several doctoral theses by students working in the social sciences and humanities have also been published recently as books. It is notable that a large number of Institute research students and post-doctoral workers have gone on to academic appointments in the UK, Europe and North America in the past few years, indicating the high standing in which their research, and indeed the research culture of the Institute, is held.

The research of the Institute continues to be supported by a series of grants from the UK research councils, the European Union and a number of charitable organisations. It is important that we are able to call on a varied group of agencies for grants, and it is especially pleasing to note that staff have won grants from three research councils in open competition - the Natural Environment, the Economic and Social, and the Arts and Humanities Research Councils. These sources, currently summing to about £2 million, provide post-doctoral staff, students and financial support for field programmes in both the Arctic and Antarctic. For our scientific projects, they also provide access to icebreaking research vessels and for the hire or purchase of geophysical equipment. During 2005, a number of academic papers have been published in the international literature, resulting from field, laboratory and archival projects undertaken over the past few years.

Important changes to the operation and organisation of our comprehensive archival collections also began in 2005. From May, an online booking system for archive access was initiated, streamlining the way that external users can assess availability and select the timing of their visits. Bob Headland retired from the post of Archivist and Museum Curator after more than 20 years, and Heather Lane, our Librarian, has taken on the role of Acting Keeper of Collections. Use of the Archives is increasing, and we continue to welcome scholars from throughout the world to use our extensive documentary resources, which are especially comprehensive in the history of British exploration and science in the polar regions. Beau Riffenburgh is also moving on after 14 years as the editor of Polar Record. He has maintained an excellent standard of scholarship in both the journal and in his personal writing throughout his tenure of the post. Ian Stone becomes editor from January 2006.

The Institute's museum continues to be an important vehicle for public outreach. In addition to displays on the importance of the polar regions to issues concerning global environmental change, several major exhibitions have taken place this year. The first was of the Antarctic paintings of Edward Seago. The Institute holds a single Seago seascape, 'The first iceberg', while the bulk of Seago's Antarctic work, undertaken when he was a guest during the Royal visit to the Antarctic Peninsula in 1956-57, is in the collection of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who kindly agreed to the loan of 25 canvases. The Duke of Edinburgh, as Chancellor of the University, spoke at the opening of the exhibition in June. During the summer, the life and work of Professor Frank Debenham, founder and first Director of the Institute and a scientist on Scott's last expedition, was celebrated. The acquisition of Herbert Ponting's 1700 original glass-plate negatives, purchased with a grant of £533,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, allowed the staging of an exhibition of large-format prints taken direct from the negatives. The photographs depict several themes from Scott's Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica - the members of the expedition themselves and the way they lived in the South, the scientific and exploration work they undertook and, of course, the aesthetics of Antarctica itself. Taken together, these three exhibitions are the culmination of much work by many members of the Institute's staff, and represent a very important component of our objective of raising public awareness of and interest in the polar regions.

Our collection of artefacts relating to the polar regions also continues to grow. A notable gift, donated by Dr John Levinson, was a Union Jack presented by Queen Alexandra to Ernest Shackleton as he departed for Antarctica on the Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09. Acquisitions of artefacts, artworks and photographic materials come with a clear responsibility for curation and, in some cases, restoration. For example, Picture Library staff have been working with external conservators to make sure that the Ponting glass-plate negatives are properly scanned, boxed and then stored in our temperature and humidity controlled Photographic Archive. We have also begun a programme to ensure that all our paintings and artefacts are photographed at high-resolution, with the aim of providing both online visual representations of our collections for scholars and also an independent off-site record of our extensive holdings. Grants and donations to support staff time are a vital part of this important behind-the-scenes activity.

Many members of staff have active roles in international organisations and both national and international committees concerning the polar regions. Roles range from the chairmanship of the UK National Antarctic Research Committee to the co-chairing of the international Tundra-Taiga Initiative, which concerns the changing boundary between these two major Arctic ecosystems in a warming world. Three staff are also members of the UK Committee for the forthcoming International Polar Year (IPY), and are involved in research projects that are approved contributions to the IPY. Wider outreach to the public is also part of the Institute's remit, and contributions to newspapers at home and abroad, and to television and radio, have continued. Institute staff were filmed in Greenland as part of a forthcoming programme in the BBC's prestigious Natural World series.

The Institute's Appeal, now a component of the University's 800th Anniversary Campaign, has continued. I thank those who have contributed so generously to the Appeal this year including, of course, the Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute. Our aim is twofold: first, to underpin and enhance our museum, library and archival activities, including public outreach work; secondly, to endow academic posts to build on our considerable scholarly expertise in the scientific and human issues that affect the Arctic and Antarctic, especially in a time of significant changes to our environment.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell