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SPRI Review 2009: Director's Introduction

Director's Introduction

The Director at the memorial cross on Observation Hill, Antarctica, with Mt. Erebus in the background
The Director at the memorial cross on Observation Hill, Antarctica, with Mt. Erebus in the background

During the year, many at the Institute have been engaged in making plans for the celebration of the centenary of Captain Scott's last expedition to Antarctica. Central to our planning is the redesign and complete refurbishment of the Institute's polar museum, which we intend to reopen in June 2010, exactly one hundred years from the time that Scott's Terra Nova left Britain for the journey to Antarctica.

The opportunity to redevelop the museum has come via a grant of almost one million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This support must be matched by over £700,000 from other sources – by the end of 2009 we had raised almost half this sum, with substantially more promised for the coming year. I would like to extend my personal thanks to those individuals and trusts that have supported us so generously.

The design work on the museum was completed in the first part of the year, and the three-phase refurbishment began in January with the renovation of the archive strong room and museum basement storage spaces. We have substantially increased the storage capacity in both these areas and, importantly, both are now equipped with state-of-the-art storage systems. For the first time, we also have dedicated storage space for our extensive collection of polar clothing, which includes items from balaclavas from the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton to the traditional furs and boots worn by the Inuit and reindeer herding peoples of the Arctic. In addition, we now have a dedicated workroom and curatorial space where we can undertake the cleaning and conservation of historical artefacts, and have appointed the first Collections Care Officer, a qualified conservator, to work at the Institute. Such developments behind the scenes are a vital counterpart to the redevelopment of the museum itself.

The second, and most disruptive, phase of the refurbishment was the building work associated with the new museum itself. Although the works have not increased the overall footprint of the Institute, several key changes have allowed almost 25% more floor space to be devoted to the new museum. Important among these changes were the reopening of the original front door of the Institute onto Lensfield Road, which will be the new museum entrance, and the relocation of the entrance to the 1968 building. The works have also included the installation of disabled lifts to both entrances. At the same time as the construction, the detailed design of the museum interior was taking place. Phase three, to take place in early 2010, will be to install an entirely new suite of display cases and associated text panels. The redesign should allow us to display around 30% of our holdings, as compared with only about 5% in the old museum. The overall theme of the new museum is 'exploration into science'. We will have displays on the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, and move through the exploration of the Canadian Northwest Passage and the heroic era of Antarctic exploration, to focus on the contemporary significance of the polar regions in terms of their wider influence on the global climate system.

The museum will be an important means of public outreach for the Institute and the wider University. In this context, we will be able to bring the research work of Institute staff to a much greater audience. This research encompasses not only the natural sciences, and ice in particular, but also our work on the indigenous peoples of the Arctic and the history and governance of the polar regions. This multi-disciplinarity has been a feature of the Institute's research profile since its foundation in 1920 by Frank Debenham, himself a member of Scott's last expedition.

2009 has also been a busy year for exhibitions, despite the extensive building works at the Institute. Early in the year, several art exhibitions took place in the foyer, and travelling exhibitions were also held at several venues. An exhibition of polar portraits, 'Face to Face', was held at the Explorers Club in New York, where both the Director and Heather Lane, Keeper of Collections at the Institute, gave lectures. We have also been working closely with the American Museum of Natural History in New York to develop a centenary exhibition about Captain Scott and the Terra Nova expedition, which will open in 2010 before touring internationally during the centenary period.

The 'Freeze Frame' project, funded to almost £425,000 by the Higher Education Funding Council's Joint Information Systems Committee, was also formally launched in March. The project allowed us to digitise over 20,000 photographic negatives from our polar collections, and to produce a comprehensive web interface for their wider use for educational purposes. The site has proved hugely popular and a valuable resource for teaching about the Arctic and Antarctic in schools throughout the UK and beyond. Another important initiative launched in both London and Paris was a limited-edition portfolio of 48 prints from the Terra Nova expedition, produced using the platinum process from scans of Herbert Ponting's original glass-plate negatives. This collaboration with the fine-art printer Salto Ulbeek of Belgium should yield a substantial sum in support of the Institute's museum, archive and picture library.

It was pleasure to welcome HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco to the Institute in May. Prince Albert viewed the Institute's historic collections and gave a talk on his recent visit to Antarctica, emphasising the importance of climate-change research in understanding how the polar regions may respond to future environmental change. The Prince Albert II Foundation has generously agreed to support our research on ice-sheet stability through the funding of a post-doctoral research associate and that on Arctic governance by helping to fund an international discussion meeting.

Members of the Institute were involved in field research programmes in both the Arctic and Antarctic during the year. Arctic work included visits to Siberia, Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland. I spent five weeks aboard Britain's ice-strengthened research vessel James Clark Ross investigating ice-sheet growth and decay on the continental shelf of West Greenland, and then worked as part of an international team using airborne radar methods to measure the thickness and bed properties of huge drainage basins of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. While at the McMurdo Sound base, I was able to visit the historic huts at Cape Evans and Hut Point that were the bases for Captain Scott's Terra Nova and Discovery expeditions, respectively.

It is, once again, a pleasure to record my thanks to the staff of the Scott Polar Research Institute for the time and commitment that they have shown in making possible the breadth of work that we undertake. This has been a particularly busy year, involving much upheaval during the museum building works – our staff have coped with this admirably.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell