skip to primary navigation skip to content


Conservation « The Polar Museum: news blog


The Inukshuk is Back!

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Some of you will have noticed the gap between the harpoon and the blubber pot on the grass outside the Institute in recent months. The person-shaped stone cairn, or inukshuk as it is more commonly known in the Arctic, has been in conservation for nearly a year. Now it’s back on display and looking better than ever.

Inukshuk unveiled after restoration

The inukshuk has guarded the West entrance to the Institute since the 1970s, when it was lifted into place with a crane and reassembled piece by piece using a grainy black-and-white photo taken in Canada where it was originally purchased. It was moved again to its current position in 2010 and put together in the same way, using lots of cement to fix each of the heavy pieces of pink granite in place. You might see in the before-picture here it had built up a rather unsightly waistband that we had cruelly taken to calling its ‘muffin top’.

Inukshuk at SPRI before damage

Sadly, in 2017 its powerful waistline did little to protect it from the attention of one excited visitor and the inukshuk broke in two! Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the sculpture itself was immediately boarded up to prevent any further damage—the pieces are too heavy to lift by hand. A talented team of conservators was then engaged to take on the job of rebuilding and stabilising it.

Conservators at Patina Art Collection Care worked closely with us to get an impression of the original vision of the Inuit sculptor, Aqjangajuk Shaa. Every effort was made to contact Shaa, but to no avail. Luckily, a thorough search of the archives unearthed more pictures of the inukshuk in its original site at Kinngait (Cape Dorset) in the 1960s, which did give some idea of how it once stood.

Inukshuk in Canada 1960s

We were surprised to learn that its right arm has been upside-down ever since it was first displayed here. It remained upside-down even when it was moved in 2010, and again in 2013 when the arm was damaged and reattached. We took advantage of the new repairs to correct this and also to ever so slightly reposition the legs to give the impression of movement, which was also more apparent in the early pictures.

It was great watching Dee and Ricky from Mtec using their crane to lift it back into place and to see it all come together over several days. The granite pieces were expertly drilled through where it wouldn’t be visible, so that metal dowels could be used to hold the sculpture together and fix it securely to the concrete base. Lyndsey and Andrew from Patina also thought very hard how to place the toes, which were previously swamped in cement. The joins are now altogether cleaner, more fluid and sturdier than they were before, and even the old break from 2013 was retouched so it can hardly be seen.

MTec begin the installation process

Sadly, we recently heard that Aqjangajuk Shaa (1937-2019) died in March this year, just as we were making arrangements for his inukshuk’s return. We hope you’ll agree that the inukshuk in its newly re-invigorated state is a fitting tribute to Shaa’s legacy as a celebrated artist, and will give plenty of joy for generations to come.

The MTec and Patina Art team

Ship-shape again! The fully conserved silver Terra Nova model revealed at last

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

This extraordinary solid silver model of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova was generously donated to the museum in 2010 by Scott’s descendants.  At that point it looked as if it had weathered a few storms:

the Terra Nova model after a few storms

The masts were bent and a lot of the rigging was broken or missing sections.  There was also a very distracting yellow coating over the metal which made it look almost more like a brass model than a silver one.

On closer inspection there were lots of old repairs to the model, either with solder, or with new wire rigging which didn’t match the old, or with original rigging wire repositioned or used to tie loose bits on.  Even the bowsprit was held on with a blob of Blu-tak inside the hull.  All in all it would be a daunting task to try and restore some of its original beauty.  And why did it look so battered in the first place?

The model was actually a present to Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s son Peter, given to him in honour of his father’s gallantry in 1913, soon after the news of Scott’s death was announced in Britain.  The subscribers of “John Bull Magazine” had a whip-round and commissioned the model for Peter, whom they called “John Bull’s boy”.  Peter was 4 at the time.

To a modern eye it seems extraordinary enough to make a ship model out of sterling silver, although in fact this was in vogue in the 1910’s and this one was made by the famous London silversmiths, Mappin and Webb.  It seems even more unusual to give such a thing as a present to a 4 year-old boy.  But the damage to the rigging, masts and bowsprit, not to mention the amateur repairs, all show that Peter must have played with the ship (and possibly dropped it), and that it was part of his life.  Peter’s family remember the ship being in their childhood home, and from there it was very kindly given to the museum.

When conserving the model we wanted to repair much of the damage without losing all traces of this history, which is what makes the ship unique.  The first stage was to remove the old yellow coating.  This was originally applied to stop the ship from tarnishing, but had become disfiguring in its own right.  Removing it was enormously time-consuming, and was done with the help of ultra-violet light, as described in an earlier blog post.

Once the coating was gone and the silver gently polished, repairs to the masts and rigging could start.  We had a choice to take the model to a specialist conservation silversmith, who could deconstruct the rigging and completely restore it.  But this would erase all the quirks introduced by Peter Scott over the years and lose an important part of the ship’s story.  So instead the repairs were done by me, as the in-house conservator at the museum, using less interventive techniques.

As a non-rigging expert, understanding the rig and repairing it was an intimidating prospect, so I enlisted help from Janet West, Emeritus Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute and a renowned expert on scrimshaw.  Understanding ship rigging is bread and butter to her and we spent invaluable hours looking at the model and comparing it to photos of the Terra Nova in Antarctica.  It turned out that, although the hull was a perfect replica of the ship (according to the original plans) the rigging was very approximate and could not have worked in real life.  To be fair to the model maker, it would be almost impossible to rig the model realistically because the number of criss-crossing wires would become overwhelming.

Talking with Janet gave me confidence to start repairing the rigging.  I began with the footropes which hold the sails furled and then entered a hugely enjoyable flow state repairing everything else.  I used very fine nylon thread, archival tissue and adhesive to tie and reconnect the fine wires together.  I repositioned some original wire that had been wound round things to get it out of the way and by the end found that there was actually much less missing rigging than I first thought.  This is the finished article:

the newly conserved model

The result now strikes a balance – the ship still shows evidence of its past but has regained some of its “wow factor” too.

Sophie Rowe

Solving the “Mystery of the Wilson sledge runner”

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

This object is the “Wilson sledge runner”, and admittedly it does not look very interesting in its own right:

But appearances can be deceptive, because the story goes that this fragment was actually part of the dramatic moment when Scott’s party, nearing the South Pole on 18th January 1912, saw the first signs that the Norwegians had been there already and had their hopes of being first to the Pole dashed.

The sledge runner was being used as a flag pole with a black marker flag and a note with a statement of the Norwegians calculations of their position.  Edward Wilson and Scott both recorded this moment in their diaries, and Wilson also sketched the site before collecting the flag, note and part of the sledge runner:

The story goes on to tell how the fragment was allegedly found with the bodies of Scott and his party, and given to Wilson’s widow, Oriana.  From her it was passed to her great friend Evelyn Ferrar in her will, and was then brought to the Polar Museum by Evelyn’s son Nick Forbes.

Nick Forbes asked the Polar Museum to examine the sledge runner to see if this story could be “proved”.  Apart from Scott and Wilson’s diary entries which describe the finding of the flag and sledge runner, the whole story was only preserved in Nick’s family as an oral tradition.  Perhaps the fragment was not the one in the story after all.  Proving something like this beyond all doubt would be impossible but it should be possible to tell how likely the story was.

When the fragment was examined in detail it quickly became apparent that it is part of a Norwegian sledge runner from the early twentieth century.  The object is a piece of tapering metal which was used as protective cladding on a wooden sledge runner to protect it from damaging sharp ice.  It is made from German silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel which was used for a short period in the early twentieth century as a rust-free and inexpensive alternative to iron cladding.  This important fact, as well as nail holes and other features of the object show that it is certainly from a Norwegian sledge from the right period. Amundsen was a Norwegian and would have planted the flag on the sledge runner in 1911.  So, mystery solved – or not?

Unfortunately the English team was also using Norwegian sledges, and Scott bought all the sledges for both the Discovery (1901-4) and Terra Nova (1910-13) expeditions from Oslo!  This means the fragment could actually be just a random piece of sledge runner from another of Scott’s journeys which has been confused with the “Wilson” fragment.  This is very possible because Nick Forbes’ family have been closely connected to the world of Polar exploration for generations, especially Scott’s Discovery expedition where Nick’s grandfather H.T. Ferrar was the geologist.

The clues to solving the mystery of whose sledge runner this really was took a long time to find.  I hunted through the Archives at SPRI looking for accounts of finding the bodies of the Polar party, along with their effects.  I tried to track the journey of the sledge runner from there to the Forbes family through notebooks, wills, letters and exhibition catalogues, but frustratingly it was never considered worthy of mention.  The flag and the note collected by Wilson at the same time were given to SPRI by Oriana Wilson herself in 1930, and interestingly these were never mentioned in any written sources either, but their provenance is not in doubt.  I crawled around in our stores measuring sledge runners from our Discovery and Terra Nova sledges, and eventually I even looked under the stairs at Amundsen’s delightful house near Oslo where one of the only surviving Norwegian South Pole sledges is stored:

I read many accounts of early twentieth century sledging.  In short, I became a sledge runner nerd!

The crucial evidence to solve the mystery is visible in the sledge runner itself.  On each side are parallel folds which show where it was wrapped around the wooden runner.  The distance between these folds is 10mm, which would be the thickness of the runner too.   The runners from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions are about 15mm thick and so much too thick to have fitted the fragment.  Meanwhile, Amundsen’s diary and his official account of his expedition show that he was obsessed with reducing the weight of all his equipment to the bare minimum.  He actually ordered his sledges to be broken up, pared down as thin as possible and then rebuilt, saving many kilos in weight.  The sledges which survive from Amundsen’s expedition show that the runners were about 40% thinner than those used by the English, and were about 10mm thick.  The nails used for cladding were also the same as those which were used with Nick Forbes’ fragment.  So the fragment could definitely have come from an Amundsen sledge.

Amundsen used thin temporary under-runners covered with metal cladding to protect the wooden runners in rough conditions.  In many cases the cladding was made of steel, but according to his own account the leading sledge in the South Pole journey had non-ferrous fixings because iron plays havoc with compass readings.

Amundsen described how his team broke their under-runners in half to make flag poles and skied off in different directions to plant them near the Pole – just to ensure they had definitely covered the territory.  A photograph of Wisting with his sledge taken near the South Pole in 1911 and now in Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo shows a whole under-runner fixed to the sledge, the same type as was later used to make the flag poles:

The weight of all the evidence taken together strongly supports the story of the sledge runner.  The full story of the authentication has been written up and is now published in the latest issue of Polar Record. It will be made available free of charge through the University Repository Green Access scheme early in 2018.  In the meantime the metal fragment has been kindly loaned to the Polar Museum by Nick Forbes and is on display there with the flag and note which were found at the same time.



Cloches for a bomb ketch, sloop and barquentine

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

Ships are very important in the history of Polar exploration and that’s why we have quite a lot of ship models in our collection.  We display as many as we can in the museum and library, but some are kept in storage as there isn’t space to put them all on show.  The models are extremely intricate and delicate, so we really need to keep them free of dust because cleaning them is pretty risky for the rigging!  Unfortunately even the smallest ship models are too big for our storage cupboards and end up gathering dust.

Inspired by my allotment I’ve come up with a nifty solution to this problem – cloches!  We have three models in storage which can be covered by a frame very similar to what I use for bringing on veg plants in spring.  These are the ships:


They are (from left to right) the bomb ketch HMS Terror, lost in 1845 during Franklin’s voyage to the Arctic and discovered just last month on the seabed; the sloop Gjøa, (now at the Fram Museum in Oslo) which was the first to navigate the Northwest passage successfully, under the leadership of Roald Amundsen in 1903-6; and last but not least, Shackleton’s three-masted barquentine “Endurance”.

Each ship has its own stand, but the cloches need to be much bigger to cover the ship with enough clearance all round.  So the stand is placed on a baseboard made from MDF, and restrained with little chocks glued in position to stop it sliding around:


Unfortunately the MDF is not archival, as it gives off acids which will speed up the degradation of the sails and rigging.  So it needs to be sealed up with aluminium barrier film.  This is the most time-consuming part of building the cloches, as the film has to be ironed on and it takes ages!  Some bits (like the chocks) are too fiddly for the iron-on film, so I use archival aluminium tape to cover those.  This is the Gjøa on the aluminium covered board:


The white bits are the aluminium tape.  You can just see the holes in the corners – this is for the cloche framework which goes on next:


The framework is made from wooden dowels which also need to be sealed with aluminium tape to stop acids being given off.  The glue I use to stick the bits together is archival too:


The last stage is sewing a textile cover with a flap opening for the cloche, from an archival fabric called Tyvek.  I could have used polythene but decided not to as it is rather static and also heavy and unwieldy.  The front of the cover is a flap to get the model in and out and the whole cover is attached to the baseboard with velcro to hold it in place:


The Tyvek is opaque so I have put a picture of the ship model on the outside of the cloche with it’s museum ID number.

img_0381         img_0384

Job done!






Plaster, poultices and Crayola crayons

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

Recently, I began treatment on a sculpted plaster bust by the Danish artist Eigil Knuth. Knuth was born in 1903 and spent many years of his life exploring Greenland, where he conducted archaeological excavations and scientific expeditions. From 1922 – 1924 he studied art at the Copenhagen Academy of Fine Arts, and he spent a further three years studying sculpture in Italy. In 1936 he crossed the Greenland ice cap and then spent the winter on the east coast at Angmassalik, where he made a series of portrait busts of Inuit people he met there. The Polar Museum has two of these busts in its collection; one of a child, and the other of a young woman:


In a treatment in 2014, the museum’s conservator Sophie Rowe did surface cleaning of the sculpture and removed some of the disfiguring dark specks on the plaster. She noted that the yellowish substance around the base looked like what was intended to be a protective layer of wax, but that the object had been left sitting in a bath of it for a long time and it had become a thick, disfiguring coating. Additionally, the hair style of the woman is constructed from two pieces of plaster that were previously attached together, but the joint has broken. The joint on the bun is also covered in this thick, yellow wax which makes it impossible to reattach the pieces with an adhesive:


Plaster can be a tricky material to treat because it is very porous, so it soaks up anything that is applied to it. Even if you are just cleaning with water, the water will soak in and set any dirt or stains even further into the plaster. For this reason, when cleaning plaster, conservators often like to use a technique called poulticing. Poulticing involves putting a solvent (like water, or alcohol) in a substrate like cotton wool, cellulose pulp, or a gel, and applying that to the surface. The solvent in the cotton wool will travel into the plaster, dissolve whatever is causing the stain, and then as it evaporates, carry the stain back out to the surface where the cotton wool is. Thus, instead of just moving around in the plaster, the stain is moved into the poultice, which can then be removed.  Here is a poultice on the hair piece:


Before I could use this technique on the object, I needed to find a solvent that would dissolve the wax but not the plaster, and which could be safely used in our lab. Luckily the wax was very thick on the base of the bust, and it was easy to take small samples of it.  I would have liked to run the samples through an FTIR, which is an analytical instrument particularly good for the identification of organic substances such as waxes, but I wouldn’t have access to one unless we waited several months. Instead I made an educated guess about the identity from a strong-smelling clue – the sculpture smelled exceedingly like a Crayola crayon! I did some research about what type of materials are in a Crayola crayon and what they are soluble in, and I did some solubility tests on my wax samples.  This is what they looked like through the microscope:

Evernote Camera Roll 20160418 121532   Evernote Camera Roll 20160418 121531

I even took a video to document the solubility to show to my advisor, Sophie, when we discussed the treatment:


We decided on a solvent system that we thought checked all the boxes (dissolved the wax, didn’t dissolve the plaster and was safe to use), and I got to work:


Thankfully, everything seems to be going as planned! Poultices can be really tricky to use successfully and sometimes you end up just moving a stain back and forth through a medium instead of removing it; and it can be slow going.  Here is a poultice turning pale yellow as the solvent evaporates:


And this is the bust partway through treatment, next to a picture of the sculpture before I started removing the wax:

_MG_5398     IMG_8660_ed

While there’s still some work to be done, it’s exciting to see the wax slowly disappear!


Megan Narvey


“Terra Nova” sails into the museum at last

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

The Polar Museum has 17 ship models which are mini replicas of vessels used in famous expeditions to the North and South. So I was surprised to discover that until very recently the Museum did not have any model of Scott’s ship “Terra Nova”. That is why there has been no display of this ship in the gallery – until now.

Polar Museum buffs might remember that we do have a model of the Terra Nova made entirely out of silver, very kindly given to us in 2010 by the descendants of Robert Falcon Scott. This needs highly specialized conservation work to repair it and we are actively fundraising for this to be done by a conservation silversmith. But until this work is completed it can’t be put on display.

However, we now also have a traditional wooden scale model of the Terra Nova, very kindly donated by Lindsey Westcott. Lindsey is a descendant of Robert Forde, who served as Chief Petty Officer on the Terra Nova Expedition in 1910-13, and took part in sledging journeys to the Cape in 1911.

The model is a 1:96 scale replica, made by Colin Freeman exactly according to the original ship plans which are held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We decided it would be a perfect addition to the ship model case in the museum gallery:


There was no spare space in the ship model display, so we decided to replace the model of the Gjøa, which was the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, sailed by Roald Amundsen. The ship models are all suspended from very fine steel wire in fitted metal cradles, which look a bit like birds when the model is taken out:


The Terra Nova hull is not the same shape as the Gjøa, so new cradles had to be made. Once again we called on the services of trusty mountmaker Bob Bourne to make fitted cradles for the new model. Then we swapped the two ships over:


Here are the Gjøa and the Terra Nova sailing past eachother on the museum trolley – something which never happened in real life.

There are numerous famous photos of the Terra Nova taken by Herbert Ponting and others, all in black and white. Personally I really like the splashes of colour on the model which remind you that of course the ship was not black and white in real life.  Also the fine detail is amazing:


Because of the way it was installed, we could not re-use the steel wires which were used to hang the Gjøa, so we had to get new wire. Finding the right thickness to match the rest of the display was tricky, until Bob sourced some very fine twisted steel wire in a fishing shop. Apparently it is the perfect thing for catching pike! The wires were threaded through the new cradle, and the Terra Nova could be hung in place:


The ship display now shows the Erebus, the Nimrod, the Fram, and the Terra Nova, and so reflects much more closely the stories of Franklin, Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen which are told in the museum gallery. So many thanks to Lindsey Westcott!


Introducing Megan – our new conservation intern

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Hello, my name is Megan Narvey and I am the new conservation intern at the Polar Museum!

Evernote Camera Roll 20160226 102044

I wanted to introduce myself as I will be at the museum for the next five months, and will hopefully be able to share some of the projects that I am working on.

My conservation training has been through the Institute of Archaeology at University College London. I earned an MA in Principles of Conservation there in 2014, and will complete the MSc in Conservation for Archaeology and Museums this autumn. The main focus of my degree right now is work experience. I spent two months at the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, Canada, where I did treatments on Canadian First Nations cultural materials like a Kwakwaka’wakw wooden figure and a Tlingit basket. Then I spent five months in the Antiquities department at the Fitzwilliam Museum here in Cambridge, where I helped to prepare for the major exhibition Death on the Nile which is on right now.

At the Polar Museum I will be doing some treatments on museum objects – I have already started work on an Athabascan beaded baby belt from the Great Slave Lake region in the Northwest Territories. I will also be doing a collections care project to create better storage for the museum’s large medals collection, and will help with all sorts of ongoing projects that will happen at the museum while I’m here (like helping to monitor for pests). The museum will also be a home base while I work on my Master’s dissertation project throughout the spring and summer.


In praise of blackout lining.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

I recently blogged about our project to improve conditions for our framed artworks.  Around 45 works have been removed from their frames and stored in more suitable dark archival storage boxes, while the frames have been packed away in the attic:


We have devised a system for numbering and labelling the frame packages and recording them in our database, so it is easy to find the right frame for each artwork if they need to be put back together for an exhibition.  The alternative would be rootling through over 100 bags in the attic, which would be a nightmare…

There are still about 30 artworks which need to be protected from light, but which can’t be taken out of their frames.  Maybe the picture is very fragile and it is protected physically by the frame, like this delicate painting of Henry Bowers on textile:


Or perhaps the artwork is mounted in an unusual way and cannot be easily removed from the frame, like this painting of Port Stanley by David Smith:


Sometimes the work is on loan and we don’t have permission to take it out of the frame, and sometimes it is just too big for our archival boxes.  These items all need to stay in the mobile art racking in their frames, but we can still shield them from excess light.  This is where blackout lining comes in!  For each framed picture I am making a small bespoke curtain from blackout lining, and attaching it to the storage racking above with Velcro.  There is a pocket on the front of each curtain for a label and photo of the picture underneath so they can be identified at a glance:

Regular readers might notice that we have used blackout lining before, to shield our Inuit artefacts from excess light on display during certain times of the year.  It is not a glamorous or high tech solution but it works!  And in storage we don’t have the problem of remembering to put the curtains up or take them down every day, as once installed they can just stay put.



Goodbye Ronja and hello kayaks

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Our lovely conservation student Ronja from Berlin has finished her placement with us now and gone home – but not before changing our Inuit kayak model display on her last day:

Installing_Kayaks (16)   kayaks

The kayak models are in a relatively bright location in the gallery so they need to be rested periodically to reduce light damage.  We found three models in the store to swap into the display, but they needed a bit of conservation treatment first.  One particularly tricky item was the drag anchor from one of the model kayaks.  A drag anchor was used by Inuit hunters when catching whales.  It was attached to a harpoon and would slow the whale down and tire it out after it had been hit, so that the hunter could follow it and eventually kill it outright.  Drag anchors have different designs, but this one is a bit like a tambourine without the jingly bits:


It is made from baleen (the filter strips in a whale’s mouth) coiled into a ring, with a piece of gut stretched over the top to make a drum shape, and stitched in place with sinew.  There are also very thin leather strips to make a line to attach to a harpoon.  Unfortunately all these materials are very attractive to insects, so part of the baleen has been eaten, making the whole structure very weak.  Meanwhile the gut has also split the whole way across and is very fragile, with more splits appearing, and the leather is broken in several places.  The damage to the drag anchor makes it difficult to understand how it would have worked in practice, but is also very hard to repair without causing more damage in the long run.

We really wanted to put the drag anchor on display as we don’t have any other version of this type of object in the collection.  Ronja came up with a very nifty conservation mounting system that would make it clear how the drag anchor should look, but without putting the fragile original materials under pressure by sticking lots of new materials to them.  First she made a patch to cover the hole in the gut skin top.  She tested lots of materials to decide what to make the patch from, including sausage skins!:

Gap fill testing (2)

Eventually she chose a rare Japanese paper called gampi paper.  This was very kindly given by Bridget Warrington at the Cambridge Conservation Consortium, where they sometimes use gampi paper to conserve ancient manuscripts.  Ronja painted the paper with watercolours to match the original drag anchor.   Here is the patch and the leather harpoon line positioned to show how the drag anchor should look:


Instead of sticking the patch to the fragile gut, Ronja made a soft fitted mount to hold it in place just under the original. The mount was made in two sections out of archival foam.  A piece in the middle had to be cut out to make room for the delicate leather strips attached inside the drag anchor, and there was a hole in the side of the mount to insert the harpoon line.  The cocktail sticks in the picture are there to help line the parts up correctly:

Installing_Kayaks (2)

Ronja also repaired the baleen ring to strengthen it, using more Japanese paper, this time a kozo paper.  Here you can see the white paper repair before Ronja painted it to match the rest of the object:


Now the models were ready to install.  Each kayak has a fitted metal cradle that screws into a brushed steel post in the display, and the model sits on top:

Installing_Kayaks (5)

Once the kayak itself was in position, Ronja placed the drag anchor on the back and arranged the harpoon line.  Then she arranged all the other accessories belonging to that model:

Installing_Kayaks (7)    photokayak

We are very pleased with the new kayak display – many thanks to Ronja and we wish her all the best!




Potty prototypes

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

The Polar Museum is full of curious objects designed to make living and working in the hostile polar regions easier.  In fact the collection started out more like a resource centre where prospective explorers could come and see equipment that others had used and share ideas (and perhaps even borrow something…).  Not surprisingly, some items were tried out once or twice and never used again, but we still have them in the collection, along with the comments that people made about them which are recorded in our accession register.

One of the fringe benefits of doing a thorough condition survey of our objects is that we get to see some peculiar  one-offs that we might never have noticed before.  One that caught my eye was this combined snowshoe-ski (Y: 2011/36):


This was an experiment by the Falkland Islands Dependency Service aiming to get the best of both types of snow footwear – but apparently “they worked in neither capacity”!

Another oddity is the “racket ski” (N: 127) originally designed in the 1930s by George Seligman, an eminent glaciologist, for use by porters in the Himalayas.  From the top it looks like a rather stubby ski:


But on the underside it has an unexpected covering of velvety fabric!


When you look closer you can see that there are actually two strips of fabric with the nap pointing in opposite directions.  This prevents the skis from slipping either forwards or backwards, as the bristly fabric pokes into the snow.  This technique was borrowed from the Lapps and the Inuit, who know a thing or two about snow travel, and used fur on the underside of boots and snow shoes in a similar way.

The telltale wire and small screws show where it was once hung up on display in the old style museum, for explorers to see the construction – many of our older objects have similar traces of historic display methods.  The other ski in this pair has the wire on the other side so the pair could be hung next to each other showing the top and underside.

The advantage of racket skis was that “they require absolutely no skill in use, and a man, quite unversed in ski-ing, can put them on and walk straight away with them, the only precaution necessary being to keep the points from digging into the snow….Racket ski are superior to snowshoes in that it is not necessary to lift the foot or to walk with feet far apart, and their smaller width makes traversing on steep slopes much easier. They are particularly valuable for use in the neighbourhood of camps and for taking observations, being far less cumbersome and less likely to get mixed up with tripod legs and the like than ordinary ski.”

These racket skis actually made it off the drawing board and were manufactured briefly by Lillywhites in London, but were apparently not widely used.

The most bonkers-looking “ski” in  the collection by far is this one:


It was made during the British Graham Land Expedition (Penola) in 1934-7 for crossing treacherous sea ice – and it too has spent time hanging on the wall in the old style Polar Museum:


It consists of a short bit of wood wrapped with fur, with a leather toe strap to hold a boot.  A pair of these would work by spreading the weight, and the fur was there to prevent slipping.  The ski is very thick and heavy but only 63cm long.  Personally I think you would have to be very brave or desperate to go out on treacherous sea ice wearing these.  Not surprisingly this particular design never caught on – but several slimmer versions without the fur and with more complex foot straps were developed and manufactured in the 1940’s.  So appearances can be deceptive!