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Antarctic Cataloguing Project « The Polar Museum: news blog

Antarctic Cataloguing Project

The mystery of “The Black Goggles”

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

While working through all the objects with Antarctic associations, we came across these:


They are described in the catalogue as “goggles” but they are definitely odd. The shape is completely unlike any other goggles we have ever seen, and they don’t look practical to wear. Even more unusually, the lenses are clearly magnifiers. All the rest of the Western style goggles in the collection (and we have over 70 pairs) have flat lenses with no prescription. Actually it makes you wonder what explorers with poor vision did before contact lenses, because you couldn’t fit glasses underneath snow goggles. Presumably they often couldn’t see very well outdoors.

Intrigued, we decided to ask an expert about the lenses in our black “goggles”. Are they prescription lenses, or are they meant for something else?  Luckily we have an expert very close at hand, namely Andrea Clamp from Clamp Optometrists in Regent Street.  She came over to the museum to examine the “goggles” with some specialist equipment. First she used a lens measure to work out the curvature of the lenses:

photo (2)

This showed that they are both identical, and are curved on the inside and outside to a similar degree (“biconvex lenses”). Then Andrea placed the lenses into a focimeter to work out their power and focal length:

photo (1)

This showed that the lenses both have a focal length of about 25cm and would magnify anything that distance away to about twice it’s natural size.  Andrea was impressed by the quality of the lenses, which have no distortions whatsoever.  The company which made the “goggles” was Dallmeyer, who were famous for camera lenses.

To an optometrist like Andrea it is quite clear that the “goggles” are not prescription goggles for an individual.  Instead it looks as though the “goggles” are intended as magnifiers to help with a particular task.  So the question is, what are they for?  Theories we are investigating include that they are an accessory for photography, part of a stereoscopic viewing system or maybe viewers for cartographers….  If you know what they are, please let us know!

There is a chance to get up close and personal with more of our goggle collection this weekend at Conservation Conversations, a Science Week event at the Fitzwilliam Museum on Saturday and Sunday, 2-4pm.  It is a drop-in session with no need to book.  Just come along and have a chat with us – we will be delighted to meet you.



It’s object time!

Friday, January 23rd, 2015


Nearly three months into the Antarctic Cataloguing Project and I nearly feel like I’m ready to get going properly. As well as continuing to work on our gold standard object catalogue record (a much bigger undertaking than I ever imagined!), this week we’ve been trialling the object study side of things. There are three elements to this: describing and measuring the objects (me), conditioning assessing them (Sophie and Christina, our conservators), and photographing them (Chris and Tom, two very skilled photographers). As ever, it’s about figuring out what the process is – who needs to do what and when so that we can maximise efficiency and minimise the amount of handling of each object.

For the sake of the trial phase, we’ve been looking at a representative selection of objects which vary in shape, size, material, age etc. in the hope that this will help us understand and think through some of the issues that different types of objects will present. So we’ve looked at goggles, fossils, penguin eggs, leggings made of reindeer fur, trousers and anorak, boots and liners, a knitted balaclava, a pair of skis, snowshoes, crampons, scientific equipment and a dog harness.

My task is to produce a detailed physical description of each object – what it looks like, what it’s made from, any marks or inscriptions, how big it is etc. Looking at the object and making notes and sketches is pretty easy; the difficult part comes when trying to translate what you’ve seen into a succinct description – especially as I feel that I’m lacking the necessary vocabulary most of the time to describe what I’ve seen. It’s particularly difficult when you have no idea what the object is (as with this ‘surveying instrument’ Y: 2005/9/4). With advice from Sophie and Christina I’ve also been noting down anything we might need to take into account when it comes to photographing the objects, such as how we might position them or whether they can be photographed on a mannequin etc.

Y: 2005/9/4. A 'prismatic surveying instrument' made by Kern & Co. of Aarau, Switzerland.

Y: 2005/9/4. A ‘prismatic surveying instrument’ made by Kern & Co. of Aarau, Switzerland.

While I’ve been doing this, Sophie and Christina have been carrying out a condition assessment of each object – recording the category of the object, the materials and the types of damage, and rating it for stability, need for treatment, need for repackaging, and overall condition. For me, it’s great to be working with them as they’re far more knowledgeable than I am, especially about materials, and it’s always good to have an extra pair of eyes.

A few days later, our two photographers came to the stores to have a go at photographing some of the objects. They brought along an amazing adjustable flexible table-top background (a thing of wonder!) which we just about managed to squeeze into the store (note for next time is that we can use the smaller table inside the store but are better off setting the bigger one up in a different space). This was a chance for them to see some of the material they’ll be working with, to think about where we’ll be able to take photos, what sort of background we want, and just to get a feel for how it’s all going to work. It was a great success and the pictures looked fantastic! (I should point out that all photos in this post were taken by me and, as such, are definitely not fantastic).


While it’s been good to work on a range of objects, we’re all agreed that the object study­–condition assessment–photography process will be a lot simpler, smoother and quicker if we work by object type (which is what we’re planning to do from now on). Many of the objects are stored by type, so it makes them a lot easier to access. I plan to do some preliminary research on each type of object (e.g. goggles) before we even look at them so that I’m aware of the key points in goggle design and the things I need to look out for and so that I have the necessary vocabulary to describe them (is it a nose piece, a nose wire, a bridge?). Although the condition assessing is about judging against a fixed set of criteria, rather than in relation to the condition of other objects, I think it will be easier for Sophie and Christina to work on the same types of objects rather than jumping from goggles to skis to boots. It will also be quicker for Chris and Tom to photography objects of the same size as they won’t need to keep changing lenses and positions of lights, and the ease of access to the objects should mean that we can get a flow of getting objects out, photographing them and putting them away.

So, like I said, I’m very nearly ready to get going properly and I can’t wait! Just got to finish that cataloguing template…


Getting to know the Antarctic

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Health warning: this post contains detailed information about cataloguing and classifying and is not for the faint-hearted!

I’m six weeks into my job on the Antarctic Cataloguing Project at The Polar Museum and am finally starting to feel that I’m getting to grips with the project and all its different elements. I’ve been doing quite a bit of behind-the-scenes work and trialling of this and that – including devising a standard template for biographical records for people, organisations and expeditions so that this information doesn’t get repeated in individual object records; creating a term list for Arctic and Antarctic expedition names so that they always appear in the same format; and measuring and describing some of the 27 objects in the collection from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 (Nimrod) and cross-referencing them with photographs from the expedition. I’ve concluded that a two-pronged approach to the project is probably the way forward – one driven by the objects and the other by the expeditions – and I hope the two will come together at some point! And I’m really hoping that, come the new year, I’ll be ready to get properly stuck in.

I’m also working on a standard template for object records, and am currently thinking about keywords – what sort of keywords have been used in the past, what keywords will be useful to us (internally), what keywords will be useful to the public (externally), and what’s the point of these keywords anyway? I’m struggling with the answers to the first three, but I think the reason we want to use keywords is that they provide quick and easy means of searching the collections and of grouping the objects together (whether it’s by expedition, place, object type, or a more nebulous type of theme etc.)

I’ve decided to focus in geographic keywords first, so I’ve been taking the time to get to know the Antarctic. I’ve been interested in the Antarctic for quite a few years but, to be honest, my geographic knowledge of the continent has never stretched much further than being able to point roughly in the direction of the South Pole and knowing where the Antarctic Peninsula is! So Step One was to get myself a map… much better!

wall map

My wall map.

Step Two was to try to understand how places in the Antarctic work – not only where they are, but how they are grouped together, and what the broader divisions/areas are, as well as the specific places. In short, is there some sort of hierarchy to Antarctic places – a polar equivalent of village, county, country? And I’ve discovered that the answer depends on the resources you use.

I’m a bit of a place-hierarchy obsessive, having spent the first year of my museum career on a cataloguing project which focussed on recording information about where objects were made, used and collected. Let’s imagine we have an object that was used here at The Polar Museum: we might know that it was used here, or we might know that it was used on Lensfield Road, or in Cambridge, or in Cambridgeshire, or in East Anglia or in England etc. This is why I love hierarchies – it’s great to be specific when you can, but in most cases you just don’t have enough information and need to be more generic. Another reason for favouring the generic is if an object has been used in several places in broadly the same area.

So I’ve been casting about to see whether there are any existing hierarchies of Antarctic place names and trying to understand how they work. While an existing hierarchy might not suit our needs exactly, it does mean that somebody has done the really hard part – structuring a hierarchy. In the past I’ve used the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Place Names and while (to my surprise) it does list quite a lot of Antarctic places, most places are only linked to Antarctica rather than to any hierarchy…

And then I discovered the ‘Universal Decimal Classification for use in Polar Libraries’! Exciting stuff! (Well, it is to those of us who love classifying things). It’s has been in use at the Scott Polar Research Institute since 1945 (with updates over the years) and is also used by other polar libraries, and seems to be perfect for what we want. It’s already used by the SPRI Library, is being rolled out in the Archives, and has been used in some Museum’s Arctic object records, so it makes sense to use it for the Antarctic object records too, as it provides a way to tie the Institute’s collections together and enable searching across the collections. It has taken me a little while to figure out how it works though (hence all the scribbling).

My UDC annotated map

My UDC annotated map

Unfortunately Step Three (the tricky one) is still to come – to work out how to put this information into the object records. A numerical code or a numerical code and text version? Should it show just the narrowest level in the hierarchy to be used for that record, or should it show all the levels, or a set number of levels? And this thinking about how to represent hierarchies in the object records doesn’t just apply to geographic keywords – they’re also issues I’m going to have think about when recording materials more subject-based keywords.


PS I promise not all of my posts will be about cataloguing and classifying!


A new project at The Polar Museum

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014


Hello! My name’s Greta. I joined The Polar Museum at the start of November as Antarctic Project Cataloguer, having spent the past three years working at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at the University of Reading, where I worked on a range of cataloguing and research projects – especially in relation to the traditional craft collections. I volunteered at The Polar Museum for a few weeks several years ago, so it’s really good to be back.

The Polar Museum has received £99,386 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project – a two year project to create a fully-researched online catalogue of the Polar Museum’s collection of material (approximately 3000 objects) relating to the science and exploration of Antarctica. I’ll be using photographic, archival and library material held by SPRI to contextualise the objects, and will also be cross-referencing the collections at the Polar Museum with comparable objects in national and international collections. Objects will be added to the online catalogue throughout the duration of the project, which is planned to coincide with the centenary of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 2017.

It’s still very early on in the project, and I’m still trying to get to grips with what it is I’m actually going to be doing over the next two years and how I’m going to go about doing it. I’ve been spending my first few weeks getting to know the Institute and its collections and, most importantly for my work, understanding the object database (MODES), how it works and what we can do with it. There’s certainly a lot to be done in the project – describing, measuring, photographing and condition-checking the objects; carrying out research in the Archives and Picture Library to find out more about the objects, the people who used them and the expeditions they were used on; and bringing all of this together in the database in a coherent way!

I’m hoping to blog regularly about the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, so please keep an eye on the blog to see how it’s all progressing.