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Posted by Conservators Jun 25, 2014

Author: Sue Bassett

Date: 18 June 2014

Temperature: -31°C

Wind speed: 15 knots

Temperature with wind speed: -46°C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



Midwinter is upon us, for those in the southern hemisphere at least. For those of us in Antarctica, midwinter is traditionally a time of celebration and feasting. We've reached our shortest day—our darkest day—and now we move towards the return of the light and the return of the sun in a couple of months' time. Definitely a milestone to be celebrated!


But where did this 'tradition' begin, on a continent with a very short history? Certainly not with the members of the Belgian Antarctic Expedition who, in 1898, became the first expeditioners to winter in Antarctica after being trapped in the ice aboard their ship 'Belgica'. For them it was all doom and gloom, with tales of 'dreary, cheerless days', of hardship, extreme discontent, illness and tragedy. Midwinter was described as 'the darkest day of the night; a more dismal sky and a more depressing scene could not be imagined'. And, to add 'another cloud to the hell of blackness', their beloved cat, Nansen, succumbed to the long darkness at midwinter, and died.


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Nansen, the 'Belgica' cat


The midwinter tradition should probably be credited to Robert Falcon Scott, who on his first expedition just four years later describes the festivities of midwinter 1902 in some detail. There were decorations 'with designs in coloured papers and festooned with chains and ropes' and 'the tables were loaded with plum puddings, mince pies, and cakes'. There were speeches, presents, sing-songs, champagne, and great revelry, with which, Scott records, 'we agreed that life in the Antarctic regions was worth living'.


As we at Scott Base hung the decorations, opened gifts and tucked into our 9-course midwinter dinner, shared with some good friends from neighbouring McMurdo Station, we couldn't have agreed more. Salute!


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Scott Base midwinter dinner 2014


Recently, a nice coincidence occurred in the lab while we were beginning conservation work on a new series of objects from the collection at Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery Hut at Hut Point.

As I was documenting this French cognac bottle,

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Picture of  French cognac bottle, before treatment.

My colleague Sue, object conservator, came to me with an unidentifiable paper fragment that she found in one of the objects she was treating (a billy, repurposed from a food tin by a member of Captain Scott's party). As the paper conservator of the team, I am in charge of the conservation of every paper artefact.

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Picture of a billy, where the paper fragment was found.


But how big was my surprise when I realised that this fragment of paper was actually the missing part of the label from this bottle!

What are the chances of that happening? How incredible is it that on this particular day I actually had on my bench the bottle from which this paper fragment originated? Especially when you consider that 50 artefacts pass through the lab each week, every week! Thanks to this coincidence, we have been able to re-assemble and give back to an artefact a part of its history and identity that had been lost.

During the last 100 years, the environmental conditions within the huts have been harsh and damaging to the paper objects. Sometimes parts are lost, as the paper is very light and becomes very brittle and fragile in this environment. I felt a great sense of satisfaction in being able to re-construct the label on this bottle and keep its history and memory intact.


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Picture of a French cognac bottle, after treatment.


Author: Stefanie White

Date: 11 June 2014

Temperature: -22.4C

Wind Speed: 7.7 knots 40 NE

Temp with wind chill: -31.7C

Sunrise: N/A

Sunset: N/A



My grandmother, my mother and even my best friend have been heard announcing the old view that 'you can tell a man by his shoes' implying that shoes can portray a man's moral character. Today that view may be mostly obsolete, especially in the Antarctic.


In the Antarctic, where there is little room for fashionable and aesthetic footwear, our shoes and boots are practical. Designed for Extreme Cold Weather, they are big, sometimes knee high, and insulated with high soles and thick layers of fleece. With wear and tear, we repair them and with decreasing temperature and new demands, we alter them.

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Meg, Sue, Stefanie and Aline with their Extreme Cold Weather boots


This was also the case for Scott and his men. They patched, re-stitched and altered their boots often adding hobnails to increase grip for walking on ice and stuffing insulating sennegrass inside to help overcome freezing temperatures.


One may interpret that these men stayed true to their old boots, maintaining and caring for them. These men were professional and practical yet display chaotic domestic habits in the scruff and buildup of dirt on the boot soles. Perhaps, pronate distortions in the boots tell that they were sometimes stressed and exhausted with sore and cold feet.

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Above and below: Historic boots from Cape Evans with additional Sennegrass inside and hobnails in sole

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It was sometimes the case that the historic explorers wore less practical and fancier shoes. Uncovered from under Wilson's bed, in Scott's Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans, a black patent leather pomp, with a decorative grosgrain bow, was found. This rather fancy shoe is completely unsuitable for the harsh Antarctic conditions and may perhaps lend a tale about a man's more sensitive character. The owner of this shoe was a man with grounded feet; a man with a sense of vanity, style and perhaps even artistic humour.

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Black patent pump or court shoe with decorative ribbon


Overall, we can be sure of one thing: Practical and durable boots are a necessity for surviving the harsh Antarctic conditions and equally as important is  the superficial and impractical accessory that can sometimes lift a man's moral and make him feel at home.