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Antarctic conservation

83 Posts tagged with the conservation tag

Boxes repaired by Martin

Posted by Conservators Jun 12, 2011

Author: Julie


Date: 8/6/11
Temperature: -17.8
Wind Speed: 42 kts
Temp with wind chill: -35
Sunrise: August
Sunset August




C Michael Morrison.jpg



Repaired historic boxes in situ at Cape Royds © Michael Morrison


As Martin has written in previous blogs, his job is to repair deteriorated historic wooden food crates so that they are structurally stable.  If sections of the timber boards are missing, Martin remakes the missing sections and inserts them back into the box like puzzle pieces.  The fills make the boxes more weathertight, and, together with other structural repairs to the box interiors, allow the boxes to carry the necessary weight and to withstand extreme wind and temperature differentials.  As is considered ethical in the field of conservation, the fills amalgamate visually with the original box, but remain distinguishable as new material (they are marked on their interior faces).  In that way there is no confusion about what is original to 1911 and what AHT has added in 2011.





Photo 1 Box AHT9043 1.jpg

Missing section of timber replicated on box AHT9043.1. © AHT

Martin is using Scott’s Pine (Pinus sylvestris) for the box repairs.  The growth rings of that timber are very close together, making it particularly stable.  Additionally, Scott’s Pine is compatible with the species identified as having been used for the historic boxes, including spruce, pine, and fir. What Martin hasn’t talked about is how aesthetically striking some of his repairs are.  Over time, the new wood will weather to match the old, and the repairs will not stand out visually.  However, when Martin first repairs the boxes, the new and old wood contrast, and the effect can be quite beautiful, like elegantly crafted pieces of sculpture.


Photo 3 Repairs to box AHT9251 1.jpg
Repairs to box AHT9251.1: from an aesthetic standpoint, my favorite box so far.  © AHT


Sea Anchor

Posted by Conservators May 20, 2011

Posted by Sarah, conservator with the Antarctic Heritage Trust


Date: 18 April 2011
Temperature: -22
Wind Speed: 20 knots
Temp with wind chill: -28

Sunrise: NA
Sunset NA

Two items arrived on my desk at Scott Base a few weeks ago. The catalogue record described them as wind socks, but as soon as I opened up the box I realised that what I had were not wind socks.

The items are cone shaped canvas devices with a wooden loop at the large end. Three ropes are tied around the wooden loop and extend to a central point above the cone of fabric.  The material is far too heavy and there is no swivel point to allow the cones to catch the wind direction.

I had no idea what they could be used for. I wondered if they would have been used to dredge water or other items from the ocean, as they showed signs of being in salt water, and having just treated the plankton net, I was thinking they could be related to science.

The week I was treating these unknown items, we had a tour of the lab for staff from the American Base, McMurdo Station. It was then that a number of Americans on the tour suggested they could be small sea anchors or drogues.
Drogues used in the ocean, attached to a small boat to slow or help steady it and have been used since antiquity.

The shape, construction and size is certainly correct for a small boat.



Sea Anchors from Cape Evans © AHT


Author: Julie
Date: 11/5/11
Temperature: 17
Wind Speed: 11
Temp with wind chill: -24
Sunrise: August
Sunset August


On our work list is an object from Scott’s hut at Cape Evans described as: Wooden case, marked: To be sent away by August 20th 1910. Balloons for South Expedition, 2 large canvas items, disintegrating celluloid.  The box was assumed to contain Scott’s weather balloons.   Last week we brought the box inside to begin work.  Well… in the end this box contained 43 items, none of them weather balloons, and none of them celluloid.  Several are mysterious.  Amongst the contents, things that I am personally fond of include:

A sheaf of amber-coloured transparent sheets.  It’s not celluloid, cellulose acetate or cellulose nitrate, but it does react like sized gelatin.  We are not sure what this is.  It does not seem to be cooking gelatin.  It is not film.  Historic tracing paper? Any ideas?

A felt-covered aluminum canteen with a cork stopper, with as-yet unidentified crystallized contents.

Several sections of ‘London Magazine’, including a racy story about Peggy who is about to marry a man who had a fling with her Aunt Bella, and Bella is scheming to break up the engagement. I’ll never know the outcome asI can’t turn the page!

11 small cotton ration bags, some containing dried figs, raisins, and cocoa.  Elsewhere in the box were plum pits, tea, biscuits, and canned goods.

Disintegrating gelatin sheet.jpg

Disintegrating amber-colored sheets in situ in the box © AHT/Sarah


Canteen London Magazine food bags.jpg


Freezing Antifreeze

Posted by Conservators May 10, 2011

Posted by Jane


Date: 4th May 2011
Temperature: -32°C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -45°C

I have been working on a can of what we believe is antifreeze from Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. It was probably brought for use on the Arrol Johnson car, the first vehicle in Antarctica.

I wanted to find out what I could about the liquid in case it had any health and safety implications in the lab or in the hut. I also wanted to add as much information to the records as possible for future reference. We are limited in how much we can find out here as we do not have the equipment to do sophisticated analysis. I was able to carry out a few simple tests, but these have not provided us with any conclusive answers.


Image 1 resized.jpg

The can of anti-freeze from Cape Royds, after conservation © AHT

I ruled out alcohols and salt solutions straight away as these would have evaporated off. The liquid is oily brown and I initially thought it was ethylene glycol, a substance still used as antifreeze today. It has a sweet smell which is characteristic of ethylene glycol.

I put our local environment to use in my efforts and tried to freeze the liquid. Outside it was -35°C but the liquid did not freeze, although it did become quite syrupy. Our base mechanic gave me a refractometer which he uses to test the antifreeze in our  vehicles. We found that if it is ethylene glycol, it is at least 70% pure and will prevent freezing down to at least -50°C.
Impressive for antifreeze that is over 100 years old!


Image 2 resized.jpg


The handwritten label from the can which reads ‘a little of this amongst the water helps prevent freezing’ © AHT

If anyone out there has any ideas about what our antifreeze might be, please send us a comment.


Mysterious white powder

Posted by Conservators May 4, 2011

Posted by  Julie

Date: 26/4/11
Temperature: -20
Wind Speed: 22
Temp with wind chill: -40
Sunrise: August

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Americans invade the conservation lab and Sarah keeps them enthralled with fun facts about old textiles.  © AHT/Julie

There is a good deal of interest in our conservation work from the Americans working four kilometers away at McMurdo Station.  In response, one night after dinner the AHT conservators ran tours through the conservation lab for a total of about 30 visiting Americans.


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Tin of mysterious white powder. © AHT/Julie

One of the objects we showed on our tour was a tin from Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds.  Full of white powder with a little handmade scoop (made from the lid of a ‘round fifties’ carton of cigarettes), the tin has a handwritten label that is only partially legible.  We asked the Americans: can you read this label?  It was a genuine question as we hadn’t completely deciphered it ourselves. - We had done some chemical tests on the powder and it was not reacting as it should have based on our guesswork.

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Detail of label. © AHT/Julie

The Americans came through!  A couple of people on the tour read the label as, ‘French chalk’.  (French chalk is another name for talcum powder.)  Mystery solved!  Talcum powder could have had a number of uses: not only was it used as a skin and foot powder, it could have been used as a lubricant for machinery (it is helpful in the repair of tyres) and can also be used to remove grease.


Boxes 3. Installment

Posted by Conservators Apr 20, 2011

Posted by Martin


Date: 20.4.2011
Temperature: -23degree C
Wind Speed: 5knots
Temp with wind chill: -30 degree C
Sunrise: 10:49
Sunset 14:54

Photo Description & Credit 1: Snow drift in front of container line ©
Photo Description & Credit 2: Snowed in box

Well, rather than another box installment, this could more fittingly be called ‘Boxes Stalling’. About a week ago we had a storm that really earned its name. Gusts up to 65 knots and enormous amounts of snow blown around the base and dumped in various places.

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Snow drift in front of container line © AHT/Martin

Eager to get to my next historic box, once it was over, I found myself shoveling snow for the next hour. In order to get to our outside storage container door, I had to cut a trench into a big snow drift right in front of the container line. I got my box in the end, worked on it, but then had to store it over night.




Snowed in box © AHT/Martin

Being sure that all the wild weather was gone I put it into an open crate just outside our back door, only to find it in the morning completely buried under another lot of snow. Rescuing it yet again, I reminded myself that you never, ever trust the weather in Antarctica. Luckily these historic storage boxes have been in this climate outside Shackleton's Nimrod Hut for about 100 years and have become quite used to it.         


Posted by Jane



Last week we decided to inspect the cross on Observation Hill before we lose the sun completely. We waited for a day with good weather. Friday was the perfect day - the sun was shining and there was barely a cloud in the sky. It was a good decision as the weather became quite stormy the following day.

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The AHT team on Ob Hill - Jane, Martin, Sarah and Julie (in Dr. Wilson style heroic stance) © AHT/Jane

The hill is quite steep in places and there was plenty of snow covering the ground so I climbed in a rather unelegant fashion up the slopes like a mountain goat about to fall off the side of a cliff.

At the top, the view was remarkable. The Transantarctic Mountains across the sound appeared as though a painting and McMurdo, which usually looks like a dirty mining town, looked slightly more attractive than usual with a light dusting of snow.

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Looking out over the Transantarctic mountains ©AHT/Jane

The cross was erected in 1913 and still looks the same even though the paint has now all but gone. It still sits on top of Observation Hill looking South toward Minna Bluff and the Pole in memory of Scott, Bowers, Oates and Evans.


Date: 13/04/11
Temperature: -19.2°C
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -26°C
Sunrise: 09.36
Sunset 16.09


Posted by Conservators Apr 15, 2011

Posted by Julie


A can of pemmican from Captain Scott’s Cape Evans hut  © AHT


In “The Worst Journey In the World.” Apsley Cherry-Garrard describes a vaguely masochistic experiment undertaken during an already torturous winter expedition: “By taking individually different quantities of biscuit, pemmican and butter we were able to roughly test the proportions of proteids, fats and carbohydrates wanted by the human body under such extreme circumstances.” He reports that Bowers, eating excess pemmican “was all right (this was usual with him) but he did not eat all his extra pemmican.  Bill could not eat all his extra butter, but was satisfied.  I got hungry, certainly got more frost-bitten than the others, and wanted more fat.  I also got heartburn.”  The conclusion?  Pemmican: better than biscuits!

Lance making pemmican_small resized.jpg

Lance checks the drying beef and berries © AHT/Julie

Luckily for us, our excellent cook, Lance, decided to make us some pemmican, using a secret recipe which I promised to never divulge.  Okay, I’ll tell you.  Slice thin some lean, grass-fed shoulder roast, and salt and pepper liberally.  Dry the meat along with some wild blueberries for 15 hours in a warm oven.  Pulverize.  Render some fat.  Strain the fat.  Mix it all together, and let it firm up.  Cut into squares or roll into balls.  The recipe concludes, “Pemmican will keep almost forever.”  (Ha – we conservators will be the judge of that.) Being vegetarian, I of course can’t comment on the taste.  Okay, it was delicious.

Date: 11/4/11
Temperature: -20
Wind Speed: 30 knots
Temp with wind chill: -37
Sunrise: 09:19
Sunset 16:28

Sledging rations on Scott’s 1910-1912 expedition included canned pemmican, a mixture of fat, dried meat, and dried fruit ground together.

Posted by Martin Wenzel

Date: 6.4.2011
Temperature: -23 Degree C
Wind Speed: 5 to 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -35 Degree C
Sunrise: O8:39
Sunset 17:10


As they say: “You can never have enough clamps”. It is certainly true while I am conserving hundreds of wooden food storage boxes here at Scott Base in Antarctica. After transporting them from the expedition bases of R.F.Scott and E. Shackleton to Scott Base, we have temporarily stored them in unheated containers outside the base.



Box before treatment © AHT / Martin


From there I take them one by one into our heated lab space and work on them as quickly as possible. In order to avoid splitting, distorting and delaminating, it is important to reduce to a minimum the time they are exposed to the warm and dry atmosphere inside.  It almost becomes a game to try to do simultaneously as many gluing steps as possible.




Clamping © AHT / Martin

Once the clamps are off after about 2 to 3 hours, parts get reassembled, nailed joints strengthened and contents returned. Depending on the condition, a box will be out of the lab the same day, stored again at -20 to -30 degree C and waiting to be transported back to its original location.  



Treated box © AHT/ Martin


Disappearing Sun Haikus

Posted by Conservators Apr 1, 2011

Authors: Julie, Sarah, Martin, and guest bloggers


Date: 30/3/11
Temperature: -22
Wind Speed: 18
Temp with wind chill: -38
Sunrise: 08:47
Sunset 19:06

We are impressed by the quantity of poetry written by all those scientists and explorers, the early heroes of Antarctic exploration.  Following in the footsteps of the giants of polar exploration, as the sun disappears, we too, write poetry.


Sunset  © AHT/Jane


Disappearing Sun Haikus
Seems kind of dark out
That is one awesome sunrise
I need more coffee       -- Julie


I’m completely lost
Why is it so dark out there
Where the heck am I?      -- Sarah


Faulheit, wer weiss es
Vielleicht nur ein bisschen Ruhe
Wann kommst Du wieder?      -- Martin


Orange blue orange
Blue orange blue orange blue
Orange blue orange     – Anonymous Scott Base resident


As we spin along
The plane of the ecliptic
The earth hides the sun.      – Anonymous Scott Base resident

Talk like a penguin
Roll like a cute baby seal
Look up and it’s dark      -- Anonymous Scott Base resident


Hey look, our new friends!
Venus, Canopus, Rigel,
Alpha Centauri…        -- Anonymous Scott Base resident


Farewell to the Sun
Ceaseless day is gone,
Farewell to the dusk and dawn
And the warmth and light.
Welcome never-ending night,
Sky, stars and the Moon…
A farce, a plight, doom and gloom?
Or just a magic,
A new fairytale to bloom…
The tale of the SUN,
The balance of Yin and Yang…     -- Anonymous McMurdo Station Guest Poet

Sunset Sestina
That time of year again.  Our round, most constant sun
Disintegrates in atmospheric ripples, green
and blue and red and yellow, paints new shadows, pours
itself into the blazing clouds, illuminates
the smallest ridges, gives an edge of glory now
to every passing step on this, our icy world.

This moment of our day is only that.  The world's
adventure takes us farther into darkness; Sun
will vanish in mere days, a week at most.  But now
there's wonder to be found in every bit of green
that shimmers.  The projection that illuminates
our wall shows sunspots, smokes and quivers as it pours

into our lucky eyes.   Can we say it pours
into our hearts as well?  Why ever not?  The world
is like that.  We decide what sun illuminates
our hidden places; we decide to let this sun
be more than just a splotch of light, be growth and green
things, fruits and flowers, a riot of colors inside us now.

You can't assume we all are eager for this now.
“Stay, sun.  Don't go, not yet!” we say, as daylight pours
away, swirls too swiftly down the drain.  Green
flash?  That's nifty, yes, but must it mean the world
is racing into night?  Life without the sun?
A scary thought.  Yet even fear illuminates

the inner landscape.  We expect illumination
here, and grumble when it doesn't strike.  But now
we must forget all that.  The circling of the sun
reminds us that it's time to sleep.  Our efforts pour
into another day of work: building worlds
from boxes big and small, harvesting the green-

house, gathering data, cleaning floors.  Some are green
with envy, hearing of our lives.  “Illuminate
us too,” they cry.  “Tell us how it is.  Our world
is so mundane.”  A plan: next year we'll trade, not now.
Venus floats in the bright blue sky.  The light that pours
upon the plains is glowing fragments of the sun.

We think about the world, the places filled with green,
the rocks, the friends, the sun; these threads illuminate
this frozen here, this now, across which sunset pours.

-- Victoria Grace Landgraf   2006



Corn and flour

Posted by Conservators Mar 28, 2011

Posted by Julie


Date: 23/3/11
Temperature: -13.5
Wind Speed: 15 knots
Temp with wind chill: -28
Sunrise: 7:58
Sunset 19:59

Martin has blogged about how food crates were used as architectural building blocks at both Cape Royds and Cape Evans (see last week’s blog).  Stacked into walls, crates of dry goods – predominately corn and flour – remained frozen until needed and also provided additional shelter, a practical system.

As Martin writes, many of those boxes will be conserved over the winter, but then we will return the food boxes to their original locations – i.e., outside, where they will remain exposed to harsh conditions.  This situation presents us with a conservation dilemma.  We are all aware that if the boxes disintegrate in spite of our conservation treatments, one-hundred-year-old corn and flour will leak into the environment. To make things worse, some of the corn and flour is already significantly mouldy.  Mould samples have been tested in previous seasons, and we are confident that the existing mould does not pose a current health hazard (though we continue to take health and safety precautions as we work).  However, we do not know what will develop in the future.


Corn and flour resized.jpg

Corn and flour drying, before reinsertion into conserved wooden boxes.   © AHT / Julie

We are charged with preserving the original configuration of the artefacts, but also with preventing the introduction of materials that could be hazardous to the Antarctic environment or wildlife.  In the end, we have settled on a compromise.  As Martin repairs the wooden boxes, we are drying the food in large trays, removing any mouldy contents, and then repacking the food into the conserved boxes in sealed, doubled plastic bags.  The introduction of the plastic bags alters the original contents of the boxes, but the bags should prevent hazardous leakage into the environment.



Posted by Conservators Feb 16, 2011

Posted by Martin

Date: 15.2.2011
Temperature: -9degree
Wind Speed: 10 knots
Temp with wind chill: -14 degree
Sunrise: N/A
Sunset N/A

Transitions are usually accompanied by a whole range of emotions. It is no difference here at Scott Base during what is one of the most significant transition periods in the Base calendar. The group of 30 staff members, who run Scott Base, NZ's Science station in Antarctica, have worked and lived together for almost 5 month and seeing two thirds of them leave while the rest stay here to winter over has quite a numbing effect. Excitement to go home is mixed with sadness to leave close friends and reflections of what the long, dark and cold winter might bring.


Our small group of conservators has come into this atmosphere and we are all making our own little transitions while at the same time starting to connect with the winter crew. Personally, I am still getting used to living in a warm, comfortable Base after having camped out on the ice close to Captain Scott's Terra Nova Hut for the past 6 weeks. There I have been part of the AHT summer conservation team working on site with artefacts and the fabric of the building. Running water, a proper bed, indoor workshop however are all luxuries I am quickly getting used to again.  



Base staff on their way to the ice runway  © AHT /Martin

Last Saturday all the changes around the base were signified by the lowering of the summer flag from the flagpole in front of the base. Then the base was officially handed over to the winter manager and the much smaller winter flag raised. The late Sir Edmund Hillary started this tradition when he established the base in 1957 and it certainly helps to shift the focus of our winter crew to the time ahead.



  Summer flag being lowered © AHT / Jane


Posted by Julie

Date: 14 February 2011
Temperature: -9.6
Wind Speed: 12
Temp with wind chill: -15

In the winter, the Antarctic Heritage Trust conservation lab gets moved.  Summer AHT conservators work in a lab constructed from three shipping containers located away from the main building at Scott Base, Antarctica.  This allows the team to work out of the way of the scientific research activity on base in the summer.

In the winter, base activity goes to a minimum, so the AHT team can move into the main building. Not only does this make for more comfortable working conditions – conservators have stories about things freezing to the floor of the lab in the winter -- this means the outlying buildings do not need to be heated, saving on electricity usage.  (100% of the electricity at Scott Base is now wind-generated:



The forklift brings the fume extraction unit into the winter lab space.  © AHT / Julie

Everything in the lab is moved, including the fume extraction unit, solvent storage cabinets, bookshelves, and all tools, equipment, and supplies. This year’s move was accomplished in virtually one day with the help of several people on base, a forklift, numerous runs back and forth in a truck, and a “quad bike” (a four-wheel cycle) fitted with a trailer. The objects/textile conservators moved into a room normally used for research event logistics, and Martin, the conservation carpenter, has set up a workshop in a “cage,” or fenced-off area normally used for supplies storage.  (We promise to bring him food in the cage, and to let him out sometimes.)


Jane and Sarah begin unpacking in the winter lab space.  © AHT / Julie


We are now up and running in our winter space. We have lost our views of Mt. Erebus and lounging seals, but we have gained running water and closer proximity to both coffee and the toilets.


The Huts  15 years on

Posted by Conservators Feb 9, 2011

Posted by Sarah

Date: 29 January 2011
Temperature: -9
Wind Speed: 0 knots
Temp with wind chill: -9

It was with great anticipation that I flew out to Captain RF Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition 1910-1913 hut at Cape Evan and Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 Nimrod Expedition Hut at Cape Royds on Saturday.  I have been working as a conservator at these huts since the 1997. Since my last trip in 2006, an enormous amount of work has been undertaken by the building conservators to shore up the huts and remove ice and snow from under the hut, to improve the internal environments. Additionally, thousands of artefacts have been conserved and placed back on display.

The visual and environmental changes inside the hut were very noticeable. The huts no longer have ice fingering its way up the wall with wet beads of corrosion glistening in my torch light. Instead the huts have a drier, more lived in feeling.  The picture shows one corner of Shackleton’s 1907 Nimrod Expedition Hut, 10 years ago the walls and floor under these beds was damp and moldy, now it is quite dry.

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Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 Nimrod Expedition Hut at Cape Royds © AHT / Sarah

I’m an in no doubt these changes will have an enormous impact on the longevity of these very special places, and it is fantastic that the Antarctic Heritage Trust  has had the resources to carry out the necessary work.



Posted by Conservators Feb 9, 2011

Posted by Julie


Date: 2/2/2011
Temperature: -10.4
Wind Speed: 9.5
Temp with wind chill: -15

At breakfast the morning  when we were scheduled to leave, Jane said, “I don’t feel like we’re going to Antarctica.”  Guess what – Jane’s psychic!  We checked in and were given a short briefing, we boarded a C17 US military plane, and we flew five hours to Antarctica wearing our extreme weather gear.  And then we circled around… and around… and around… After about an hour of circling it was no big surprise when we were told that due to weather conditions on the ground, we were not going to land.  And so, we turned around and flew five more hours back to Christchurch – i.e., we were “boomeranged.”

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Jane and Sarah react to the announcement that we’re going back to Christchurch  © AHT/Julie


There aren’t many windows in the belly of a C17 (it’s like a machine room with wings, and the noise is deafening), but there are a few portholes.  We took turns at those windows and got a look at Antarctica: blue water with tabular icebergs and “pancake ice” on the approach, and then blindingly white mountains with blue and purple shadows on the continent (the photos don’t do it justice).  At one point we were invited up to the cockpit for a few seconds, where we had a panoramic view of Antarctica from the air.

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Antarctica from the cockpit of the C17 © AHT/Sarah


The next morning was déjà vu.  We got ready to leave again, but with one difference: when we asked Jane how she felt about the flight, she said she felt good about it.  Guess what, she was psychic again!  After flying back to Antarctica for five hours, we suddenly banked, put down the landing gear, and landed on the ice airstrip.  It was a beautiful day on the ground, and on our short drive from the airfield to Scott Base there was even a group of Emperor penguins near the road.

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