Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge » SPRI Museum news skip to primary navigation skip to content


The Polar Museum: news blog

Welcome to the Scott Polar Research Institute Museum news section.

Introducing Megan – our new conservation intern

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.


Spotlight on Antarctic expeditions: The Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expeditions 1955–59

February 16th, 2016
Standard issue IGY clothing belonging to Joseph MacDowall, meterologist at later base leader at Halley Bay during the Royal Society IGY Expedition.

Standard issue IGY clothing belonging to Joseph MacDowall, meterologist at later base leader at Halley Bay during the Royal Society IGY Expedition.

In today’s instalment of lesser-known Antarctic expeditions, we’re taking a look at the Royal Society International Geophysical Year Expeditions 1955–59. The International Geophysical Year (IGY), which ran from 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, was the third International Polar Year, and took place against the backdrop of the Cold War. We’ve got several items of standard-issue clothing from the expedition in the collection, as well as a very tattered flag flown from 26 May to 1 August 1958 at Halley Bay, during which time there were four gales.

The IGY consisted of approximately 2500 scientific observation posts around the globe, including vessels at sea, and involved roughly 60,000 personnel (of which 10,000 were scientists) from 67 countries. More than 300 stations were established in the Arctic, and there were 68 stations running on Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands. The major fields of research where in the areas of outer space, the cryosphere, the Earth’s magnetosphere, the ionosphere, oceans and the Earth’s crust.

The British contribution to the IGY in Antarctica consisted of a series of expeditions between 1955 and 1959 supported by the Royal Society. The organising committee of the IGY had noted a gap in the network of planned stations in Antarctica, and recommended siting one on the Antarctic continent itself in the territory already designated as the British Falkland Island Dependencies. This was of strategic interest to Britain and, with the direct involvement of the Royal Society, the Treasury agreed to fund the project to set up a new geophysical observatory.

The 10-man Advance Party, led by Surgeon Lieutenant Commander David Geoffrey Dalgliesh, arrived in January 1956, took formal possession of the area for Queen Elizabeth II, and established the IGY station at Halley Bay, on the Brunt Ice Shelf of Coat’s Land on the coast of the Weddell Sea. During the 1956 winter they completed the construction of the station and initiated a pilot scientific programme.

The 21-man Main Party, led by Robert Smart, travelled down to Antarctica with the Main Party of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1955-58, arriving in January 1957, They had six months to build a major geophysical laboratory capable of meeting the UK’s commitment to the IGY – this included a generator shed, a non-magnetic hut, a balloon shed, a radio-astronomy hut and Decca radar. There were three groups of scientists – a meteorological and geomagnetic group, an ionospheric group, and a radio-astronomy group – and an auroral observer, as well as an appropriate team of technical support. By 1 July 1957, the scientific programme at Halley Base was well under way, consisting of meteorology, geomagnetism, seismology, glaciology and ionospheric observations.

In December 1957, the meteorologist Joseph MacDowall replaced Smart as official base leader – Smart was forced to return to the UK following life-threatening internal injuries resulting from a fall while skiing. For the remaining year, the scientific programmes continued and an all-sky aurora camera was installed. At the end of fourth expedition, Halley Bay station transferred to the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), becoming Base Z. By the time they left Halley Bay in January 1959, the Royal Society IGY Expeditions had generated about 10 tons of scientific records. The station continued to operate under the FIDS, conducting essentially similar research.

The Cold War super-power politics and competition between the USA and USSR resulted in the establishment of highly symbolic manned research stations during the IGY – at the South Pole by the Americans and at the Pole of Inaccessibility (the point furthest away from all coastlines) by the Soviets. The immediate legacy of the IGY included the establishment of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) on 3 February 1958, the signing of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959 and the Year of International Geophysical Co-operation (IGC) which ran from 1 January to 31 December 1959 and continued much of the IGY’s work.

With thanks to Barbara for doing the research into the expedition from which this very potted summary has been produced.



  • Bulkeley, R. (2010). Origins of the International Geophysical Year. In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.235–238.
  • Dodds, K., Gan, I. and Howkings, A. (2010). The IPY-3: The International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.239–258.
  • Headland, R.K. (2009). A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09. London: Quaritch.
  • MacDowall, J. (1999). On Floating Ice: Two Years on an Antarctic Ice-shelf South of 75°. Edinburgh: The Pentland Press.

Polar Book Group: Mills and Boon at the Poles

February 2nd, 2016

As well as non-fiction works, the Polar Library also has a fairly extensive collection of fiction based in or about the Polar Regions. While predominantly of the adventure or thriller genres, there is a surprising amount of romantic fiction written about the Polar Regions. Among these items, 3 particular books stand out – they are 3 stories from Mills & Boon set in various cold parts of the world.

Mills & Boon has published many stories since its beginnings in 1908 – at first a more general publisher, it started targeting its marketing at female readers and the publisher today is known as one of the leading lights in romantic fiction. The stories cover a variety of settings and situations, from historical romance, to the paranormal, to relationships between medical professionals. In the early 80s this also extended to the cold areas of the world.

Frozen_Heart Arctic_Enemy Northern_Magic

In Frozen Heart (first published 1980), New Zealand Journalist Kerin manages to be included in a trip to the Antarctic, ostensibly as Information Officer but actually to act as an undercover psychological observer. However, the base commander, Dain Ransome, is someone she previously inadvertently snubbed and who has certain ideas about a woman’s place in Antarctica. Tensions run high through various events, including a night alone in a blizzard and a long Antarctic night…

Arctic Enemy (first published 1981) sees Canadian journalist Sarah Grey take part in the maiden voyage of a ship newly built and designed to sail the dangerous Arctic waters. While the ship’s owner Tony Freeland is nothing but charming, she finds herself irritated by yet drawn to his cousin, Guy Court, partner in Freeland’s firm and a harsh uncompromising Safety Inspector. Tensions run high through various events, including a trip into the Arctic ice, a night in a blizzard and a storm in an iceberg filled sea…

Finally, in Northern Magic (first published 1982) Shannon Hayes flies to Anchorage, Alaska to join her fiancé Rick. However, when she arrives, Rick is nowhere to be found and his apparent new employer, Cody Steele, doesn’t know anything of Rick’s whereabouts. He does try to help her find him however and tensions run high through various events including a night in an Alaskan cabin and a perilous flight in the Far North…

As you may have gathered from the above descriptions, the stories portrayed in these books are very similar in terms of plot and characters – it is possible to trace certain common traits between the beautiful female leads and their tall, dark (mostly) and handsome counterparts. However, in each case, the author demonstrates an excellent knowledge of the chosen region: knowing the perils of frostbite and concussion, how polar explorers survive in a blizzard, what causes the Northern Lights and so on. While they aren’t the epic stories of explorers of old, they do give us a little insight into what daily life in these situations is like.


Polar Book Group: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

January 19th, 2016







A little while ago, our Curator, Charlotte, asked for suggestions for Polar-themed reading. The response was both enthusiastic and eclectic, and covered everything from fiction to science, and from cultural history to biographies.

This has inspired some of us to write about some favourite Polar books, and we’ll be posting about them here over the next few months – our own Polar book group! The first post comes from the SPRI Librarian, Peter Lund, and is about a novel that he first read over 20 years ago: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

If you would like to contribute a blog post or review about your favourite Polar book, please e-mail us at – we’d love to see them!


It was, I think, December 1993 when I walked into Waterstone’s in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and first picked up Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.  Forever settling down to read it in the midst of Christmas family get-togethers intrigued my family and friends – what makes this novel so compelling?

You get the chilling sense of atmosphere as well as a hint of Smilla’s displacement from Greenland from the opening lines:

“IT IS FREEZING, an extraordinary -180C, and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik – big, almost weightless crystals falling in stacks and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.”

Touch the language, breathe the description, then meet the bloody-minded, committed heroine, Smilla Jaspersen who engages you with her grit, panache and a style which is all her own. In the book’s first City-set section we are quickly drawn into her isolated existence, a Greenlander adrift in Copenhagen. The mystery of the death of Isaiah, a boy she befriended, son of her neighbour in her block of apartments is unveiled. We understand her need to investigate his seemingly accidental death, and her distrust of the authorities. During subsequent locations at Sea and on the Ice the mystery is cleverly developed, creating a masterpiece and the novel succeeds handsomely as a thriller.

Julia Ormond as Miss Smilla in the 1997 film adaptation Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Julia Ormond as Miss Smilla in the 1997 film adaptation Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

But what brings me to re-read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is much more than Nordic noir. I loved reliving the evocative description of place – be it Copenhagen at night, the base at Thule in Greenland or the glacial sense of ice and snow. I delighted in the many incidental scenes – how Smilla recognises a Volvo car shadowing her, her penchant for reading Euclid’s Elements to Isaiah, falling in love, her latent expertise in the physics of snow and ice. There’s the author’s casual, yet confident, grasp of technical details; Smilla doesn’t recognise any old rope, it’s:  “8mm Kernmantle double rope in bright alpine safety colours – a friend from the ice cap”.   Then there are the ironic throwaway lines at the end of some chapters bringing a sharp sense of humour. There’s so much to delight in reading and re-reading Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow.

In North Greenland distances are measured in siniks, by ‘sleeps’, the number of nights that a journey requires. It’s been many siniks since I first read Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow: it’s been wonderful to rediscover this novel in the Scott Polar Research Institute Library.


In praise of blackout lining.

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.



Spotlight on Antarctic Expeditions: The German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83

January 5th, 2016
Y: 83/3/1-5. Five bottles collected from the base of the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83. Perhaps they were part of the pyramid of bottles left at the hut?

Y: 83/3/1-5. Five bottles collected from the base of the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83. Perhaps they were part of the pyramid of bottles left at the station?

In our third instalment of lesser known Antarctic expeditions, I want to introduce the German International Polar Year Expedition 1882-83 – one of the earliest Antarctic expeditions represented in our collections. There have been four international polar years (IPY) so far: 1882-83, 1932-33, 1957-58 (combined with the International Geophysical Year) and 2007-08. The first IPY, which ran from 1 August 1882 to 31 August 1883, featured scientists from eleven countries running twelve expedition stations in the Arctic/sub-Arctic, and two in the sub-Antarctic.

The German IPY Expedition 1882-83 consisted of a main station in Moltke Harbour, Royal Bay, South Georgia, where eleven men over-wintered, and a secondary meteorological station at Port Stanley, Falklands Islands. The expedition, led by Dr Karl Schrader, left Hamburg on 2 June 1882. They spent three weeks in Montevideo where they enjoyed a holiday and took in the sights (!), as well as purchasing sheep, cattle and goats to supplement their provisions.

They left Montevideo on 23 July aboard the Moltke, arriving at South Georgia on 12 August. However, poor weather delayed landing and it was not until 22 August that they were able to start unloading the ship. After leaving South Georgia on 3 September, the Moltke called at Port Stanley to deliver meteorological instruments to Captain Seemann, who was running the sub-station there.

The expedition was supplied with prefabricated wooden huts for housing and observatories. Foundations 1.5m deep were eventually dug, and the walls of the main hut were insulated with peat from the island. However, severe weather meant constant repairs were necessary. They supplemented their supplies with seabird and penguin eggs, fish, watercress, and vegetable garden that they planted.

While in South Georgia, the expedition was to carry out the IPY’s programme of observations and measurements, the subjects and timings of which and the instruments to be used, were stipulated by the IPY’s international committee. The expedition was also supplied with additional equipment for observing the Transit of Venus, which occurred on 6 December 1882 and enabled the distance between the Earth and the Sun to be established while Venus passed between them. They conducted studies in meteorology, geophysics, glaciology, biology, tidal movements and other sciences. They also took the earliest photos of South Georgia, and conducted the first land-based study of the island, producing a 1:50,000 scale map of the Royal Bay area.

The expedition was collected from South Georgia by the Marie, which arrived earlier than expected on 1 September 1883. The station was packed up but much was left behind, including buildings, furniture, coal, food and a pyramid of empty bottles. The Royal Bay hut was used by later expeditions, but was burnt down in about 1915. The expedition reached Montevideo on 25 September 1883.

The objects we have from this expedition include five empty bottles (Y: 83/3/1-5), two ceramic insulators which would link to a central time clock (Y: 83/3/6-7), a metal ring possibly from a cooker (Y: 83/3/8) and a wooden peg for an unknown purpose (Y: 83/3/9).



  • Headland, R.K. (2009). A Chronology of Antarctic Exploration: A synopsis of events and activities from the earliest times until the International Polar Years, 2007-09. London: Quaritch.
  • Barr, S. (2010). The Expeditions of the First International Polar Year. In: S. Barr and C. Lüdecke, ed., The History of the International Polar Years (IPYs). Berlin: Springer, pp.54-58.


Are Polar explorers more likely to be born on Christmas day?

December 23rd, 2015

It is a natural human instinct to look for patterns. While entering the birth and death dates for all the people involved in Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions into a database, I couldn’t help noticing familiar dates. I spotted two people with the same birthday as me (Robert Selbie Clark and Henry McNish), as well as men born on my wedding anniversary (Huberht Taylor Hudson), my mother-in-law’s birthday (James Murray) … and even one prescient soul (Thomas Taylor) who was born on Antarctica Day some 130 years before the day was even inaugurated!


Significant birthdays: (left to right) Robert Clark, Huberht Hudson and Thomas Taylor.

However, I also noticed what seemed to be a disproportionate number of birthdays on Christmas day. Was this a real trend? How could I tell if it was? Are Polar explorers really more likely to be born on Christmas day? Or rather, are you more likely to become a Polar explorer if you have a Christmas birthday?

Of the 230 different people in our database, we have the full date of birth for 105 of them (46%). Four were born on Christmas day: Arthur Samuel Bailey (born in 1878, took part in the Terra Nova expedition), Walter Ernest How (1885, Endurance) and William Lashly and William Lofthouse Heald (1867 and 1875, both Discovery and Terra Nova). That’s not even counting the two near-misses who were born on Boxing day: Frank Debenham (1883, Terra Nova) and Leslie Thompson (1886, Aurora). In fact, 16 people were born in December – a lot more than in any other month. The graph below – which uses polar co-ordinates, appropriately! – shows this strikingly:


Distribution of month of birth for crew members on Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions. Graph: Tom Sutch.

Bailey, How, Lashly and Heald make up 3.8% of the 105 known birth dates – about 14 times bigger than the 0.27% probability that somebody will be born on any given day (1/365.25 = 0.0027). So you might think this is proof that polar explorers are more likely to be born on Christmas day – and even that there is some link between these two circumstances. Surely this is more than coincidence?

It is not actually that remarkable to find two people who were born on the same day, even among quite a small group. A famous maths problem asks how many people you would need at a party for there to be a 50% chance that at least two of them share a birthday. The answer, somewhat counter-intuitively, is 23 – that is, if you have a group of 23 people, there is an even chance that at least two of them will be born on the same day. By the time you have 50 people at your party, there is a 97% chance that there will be at least one shared birthday. (To put it another way, there is only a 3% chance that all 50 people will have a unique birthday.) Given our group of 105 people, there is a probability of 99.9999% that some of them will have the same birthday – it would be really remarkable if none of them did.

This is not quite the same as our problem, however. The birthday problem assumes that it doesn’t matter which day is shared, which hugely increases the chance that you’ll find two people with a birthday in common. To find out how likely it is that four Polar explorers will have birthdays on Christmas day, you need to use the binomial distribution. This tells us that the probability of at least 4 people out of 105 being born on Christmas day is 0.02154% – very unlikely indeed.

Christmas babies: (clockwise from top) William Lashly, Arthur Bailey and Wally How.

Christmas babies: (clockwise from top) William Lashly, Arthur Bailey and Wally How.

Before I get too excited about this, a word of warning: this is a relatively small sample, and the date of birth is only known for 46% of our 230 Polar explorers. If none of the others were born on Christmas day (quite possible given that you’re more likely to record your birthday if it is on an “important” date), then the probability of at least 4 Christmas-born explorers goes up to 0.39% – nearly 20 times greater (but still quite unlikely). I have also assumed in my calculations that there is an equal chance of being born on any given day. In fact, birth frequencies fluctuate slightly throughout the year, with the most common birth month in Europe being July. We can’t assume that this was also true in nineteenth-century Britain – or elsewhere, given that some of the men on Scott’s and Shackleton’s expeditions were born in other countries. Nevertheless, it looks as if the high number of Christmas birthdays is more than just coincidence.

Why is this? It is already well known that your month of birth can affect everything from academic and sporting achievement to health or choice of career. Maybe having a significant birthday (like Christmas day) makes you more likely to stand out among your peers, and to follow an adventurous career? Or perhaps babies born in the depths of winter have an affinity for bleak, icy places?! Whatever the reason, it seems that Christmas babies really are more likely to become Polar explorers.

Merry Christmas!





Object in Focus: carving in ivory of a polar bear hunting a seal

December 18th, 2015

willow3 willow2

The polar bear, the harbinger of Christmas consumerism and more recently the living symbol of climate change has a much older and more magical reputation in their native range within the Arctic Circle, born from their long established relationship with the Inuit people with whom they have shared their frozen world for thousands of years.


Carving of a polar bear hunting a seal, Polar Museum Y: 88/1/24.

Traditionally the Inuit carved with bone or ivory, and would make small objects such as this polar bear from Baffin Island, Nunavut (the largest island in Canada). We have several carvings of polar bears in our collections, all of which could fit into the palm of your hand and could be carried from camp to camp.  The Inuit lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving with the seasons in search of caribou, muskox, seal or fish.  The carvings were therefore of necessity small and easily handled, and could be viewed from any angle, they were not ‘scenes’ to be set on a shelf and admired (as with much of modern Inuit art), but instead were transportable objects, of arctic fauna, daily life and myths, created as teaching tools, toys, or for use in religious rituals.

So you can see just how small these carvings are, here’s the same bear with a penny for scale:


Carving of a polar bear hunting a seal, Polar Museum Y: 88/1/24.

…and here’s an even smaller one:


Carving of a polar bear, Polar Museum Y: 88/1/20.

…and here’s a REALLY tiny one:


Carving of a polar bear, Polar Museum Y: 74/9/4.

Culturally the Inuit believed in three worlds – living humans, animals, and spirits – with these worlds often colliding and becoming intertwined. Their religion was based on animism: the belief that all living and non-living things had a soul, and consequently their world was populated with Demons and Deities. They had shamans who acted as mediators between the spirit and the supernatural world, and who could summon spirit helpers, or ‘tornaq’, at will.  The Inuit believed that the greatest danger they faced was from the spirits of the animals they had to kill for food and clothing, or from the Demons and Deities whose spirits might take revenge if the animals were not treated with due respect after being killed.

The polar bear, in Inuit culture, was a mystical and spiritual animal, greatly respected for their cunning and for their prowess as a top predator.  But the reverence went beyond simple respect of their strength or hunting skills, for in Inuit mythology the polar bear was considered ‘almost man’ and it was believed that the spirits of polar bears and humans were interchangeable.  The polar bear was also imbued with many supernatural powers.  They were shape-shifters and could transform themselves into ‘human’ form by removing their bear skin, and becoming a bear again by putting it back on. They could also transform into birds or ice to elude hunters. The polar bear’s likeness could also be incorporated into a Tupilak, an avenging monster used by a Shaman to harm his enemies, a much feared curse:


Tupilak hunter and seal, Polar Museum Y: 2010/10/75.

The polar bear was the most prized of the hunt.  Legend has it that the polar bear spirit was the most powerful, dangerous, and potentially revengeful spirit after that of the Demon Goddess Sedna, Mother of the Sea Beasts:


Carving in serpentine of the sea goddess Sedna, Polar Museum Y: 2005/7/1.

The Inuit believed that if they worshiped the polar bear, he would allow himself to be killed by them, and then if treated with due respect, he would encourage living polar bears to allow themselves be killed by the same hunter – and so that hunter would be successful in future hunts. They had a special set of complicated taboos and rituals that  needed to be observed  in order to be respectful of the polar bear – more so that for any other animal as the polar bear’s spirit was considered very dangerous if offended, and may persecute the hunter or his family with illness or other misfortune. There were many gestures of respect and kindness, for example, the skin of the polar bear had to be hung in a particular place in the hunter’s home for a prescribed period of time;  the bear spirit should be offered appropriate spirit tools, and be given water to drink (as polar bears were thought to be perpetually thirsty).  It was not always easy to pay due respect as the gestures were many and complicated, and must be done in a prescribed way so as not to cause offence.

Just to confuse matters even further, it was believed that the polar bears’ spirits could also be benevolent towards man, if they chose to be – they might provide captured prey to those who were hungry, or would torment others who would not share their food with those less fortunate. Legend had it that the Inuit’s ancestors learned how to hunt seals by watching polar bears, and the polar bear would often be the tornaq for the Shaman, who would carry a carving of this animal about his person.

The polar bear then, powerful and mighty in the flesh, small and transportable in the hand, was the subject of a whole range of myths and legends in Inuit culture. Comfortable in the water as on ground, inspiring respect as much as fear, the polar bear was central to the Inuit’s belief system for thousands of years. Who would have thought that something so small held so much significance?


Goodbye Ronja and hello kayaks

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!




From Westminster to the Antarctic: meet our new Shackleton Education and Outreach Assistant

December 11th, 2015

Corinne picHello! My name’s Corinne Galloway. I joined The Scott Polar Research Institute at the start of November as an Education and Outreach Assistant for our By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project, having spent the last five years working at The Houses of Parliament where I worked in a variety of roles focused on public engagement and learning projects.

In 2014 SPRI received a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project, which will unite the collections at SPRI (Archive, Museum, Library and Picture Library) through new acquisitions and interpretation of material relating to Sir Ernest Shackleton.

It focuses on all three expeditions which Shackleton led to the Antarctic: the British Antarctic (Nimrod) Expedition (1907-09), The Imperial Trans-Antarctic (Endurance) Expedition (1914-17) and the Shackleton-Rowett (Quest) Expedition (1921-22), during which Shackleton died. It will also allow us to expand upon our existing material on Shackleton’s life outside of his major expeditions, including his family life and his involvement in Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition (1901-04).

My role in this project will be to help bring this to life for schools, colleges, and the wider public though a mixture of events, education and outreach sessions, and online resources.

So far I have been spending my first few weeks getting to know the Institute, brushing up on my Shackleton knowledge, and shadowing some of the education and outreach work developed and delivered by the Education and Outreach team, Naomi and Rosie. I particularly enjoyed watching a special Shackleton themed Little Explorers story session, especially getting to see the tactile map and knitted explorers!


After exploring Shackleton’s amazing history and the great collections that we have here at SPRI, I am excited to get started. We are hoping to blog regularly about the By Endurance We Conquer: The Shackleton Project, so please keep an eye on this blog to see how it’s all progressing.

You can also find out more about events commemorating the centenary of the Endurance expedition at SPRI and across the world at the Shackleton 100 website.