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SPRI Review 2009: The Polar Museum

The Polar Museum

2009 has been a very important one for the polar museum. Work began early in the year to renovate the museum galleries and archive strong room and to build a new museum store and curatorial space. The tender for work on the stores was won by York Construction Ltd. The first phase, work on the archival storage, was completed by July. The galleries closed on 6 April and all items on display were removed to temporary storage, awaiting conservation. The basement was renovated to create a purpose built, environmentally controlled museum store. With new racking in place and after thorough cleaning, the first objects were installed in August by our Exhibitions Officer, Bryan Lintott, with help from Sherrie-Lee Evans, a museum intern from the University of Sydney. After a survey revealed the presence of asbestos, removal was carried out by a specialist company before building works to remodel the galleries began in earnest. The works, carried out by contractors ISG Cathedral, which included the reopening of the main door onto Lensfield Road and the resiting of the Institute entrance, were completed in December.

With Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) support, the Museum was able to employ two documentation assistants, Janette Dutton and Willow Silvani, to carry out a full inventory of the collections and to photograph and record each item. With the recruitment in June of the Museum's first full-time Conservator, Fiona Cahill, work began on the selection and preparation of objects for the new displays. Fiona's previous experience included spending seven months wintering in Scott Base, Antarctica, conserving objects from the hut at Cape Royds. The Keeper of Collections Heather Lane, Project Manager Robert Smith, and Bryan Lintott developed the concepts and interpretation for the permanent displays on the science and history of the polar regions with assistance from SPRI staff, students and many others.

The Museum mounted three temporary exhibitions prior to closure of the galleries in April, including: Nimrod – an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition, 1907–09 (21 October 2008 to 4 April 2009); John Gale & Sons – oil paintings from Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (14 January to 14 February); and Flood Cycle: Visual Impressions of a Changing Planet – artwork by John Kelly (25 February to 4 April 2009). Touring exhibitions included: Art of Exploration: The Polar Vision of Sir Wally Herbert on display at the National Geographic Store, London from 29 March to 26 May and at Discovery Point, Dundee 30 May to 31 August; and Face to Face: Polar Portraits, historic photography from the SPRI collections with modern portraits from leading expedition photographer Martin Hartley which was shown at the Explorers Club, New York (15 January to 1 February) and again at Discovery Point (7 March to 28 May).

Acquisitions during the year included a Bell and Howell cine camera in leather case used by C.T. Dalgety on the 1934 Wordie Expedition and donated by his son, Alexander. Film taken by this camera is held by SPRI. Frank Kenneth Elliott, Base Leader at Hope Bay, donated a small leather rucksack made while awaiting rescue after the Hope Bay fire in 1948. Anton Bowring gave the flag used during the Transglobe Expedition 1979–82. A fine model of Endurance to 1:60 scale was made and presented by Chris Birkett. New loans to the collection included three ship models by Wyndham B. Williams, of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and the barque Endeavour. Two significant purchases were made: an 1846 pattern presentation naval officer's sword, presented to Adam Ayles on Nares' Arctic Expedition, 1875–1876; and, with the help of funds from the Bevis Foundation, a 19th century brass pocket compass, the lid with printed label reading 'Pocket compass used by the late Sir Robert Le Messieur McClure, K.C.B., the discoverer of the North West Passage'. We thank all those who have contributed gifts and loans during the year.

The Museum loaned material for display to the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum for an exhibition to mark the centenary of Shackleton's Nimrod expedition, as well as a number of watercolours by John Ross and George Back's 'Eskimo vocabulary book' for the National Maritime Museum's exhibition 'The North-West Passage: An Arctic Obsession' which ran from 23 May 2009 to 3 January 2010. Museum staff made two inspection visits during the course of the exhibition. In May, we provided an exhibition panel for display in St Paul's Parish Church, Cambridge, in celebration of the University's 800th and the Diocese's 900th anniversary.

Rosalyn Wade, who had made a great impact on the development of the Museum's educational outreach programmes, resigned as Schools Liaison Officer to take up a new post at the University Museum of Zoology. We thank her for her efforts. Recruitment for a new full-time Education and Outreach Officer was delayed until funding could be secured, but Suzy Antoniw, formerly Exhibition Assistant at the Sedgwick Museum in the Department of Earth Sciences, will take on the role from January 2010. With the galleries closed from April, we still recorded 6,000 visitors in the first three months of 2009. Requests from schools were met by museum and Institute staff and Associates providing talks and sessions outside the museum and by the loan of the handling collection to teachers.

Dr Huw Lewis-Jones continued work as research assistant on the HLF funded Collecting Cultures scheme to investigate and make new acquisitions for the Institute's Inuit art collections. With the help of Library Assistant, Mark Gilbert, and with advice from Ken Mantel of the Narwhal Inuit Art Education Foundation, a group of sculptures and prints was purchased, mainly at auction, considerably extending the range of artists and communities represented in the collection. A further new section was added to the Museum's online catalogue during the year. Dr Huw Lewis-Jones prepared the descriptions for Edward Adrian Wilson's paintings of British birds and this was implemented by the SPRI webmaster, Martin Lucas-Smith. The Museum's collection of materials from Kamchatka was also catalogued and, with assistance from the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, which holds cognate collections, a design was drawn up for new web pages which will be launched in 2010.

The Museum benefits greatly from the help and enthusiasm of its volunteers. Thanks go to Anthony Ellis and Ronald Pile for assistance with photography and conservation. Greta Bertram joined us as an intern for four weeks in September, prior to starting her MA in Museum Studies at UCL. She has a personal connection to the Institute as her grandfather, Colin Bertram, was a member of the British Graham Land Expedition in the thirties and was the Director of SPRI from 1945 to 1954. We were also delighted to welcome Nick Hunnisett, who joins us in a voluntary capacity as Volunteer Manager. His role is to recruit and oversee the team of assistants who will act as guides and staff the reception desk and shop when the Museum reopens in June 2010.

Heather Lane