Tamsin at Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut at Cape Royds, 1999 . Photo: Tamsin Falconer
By Tamsin Falconer, Project Manager
Prior to working in museums I had the privilege of working for Victoria University’s world-leading Antarctic Research Centre. As part of my job I went to Antarctica to support climate change research. And on days off, I was lucky to be able to visit three of the most famous historic huts. The huts are known as Scott’s Discovery Hut, Scott’s Terra Nova Hut and Shackleton’s Nimrod Hut, after the leaders and ships of the expeditions that built them.
In one of his poems, Bill Manhire reflects on the profound banality that we find in extraordinary places, by lifting the comments from the visitors’ book at Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds. Anyone who has browsed a visitors’ book will immediately recognise the comments as universal.
VISITING MR SHACKLETON
for Chris Cochran
Cool! Wow! Beautiful! Awesome!
Like going back in time.
Amazing! Historic! Finally
I am truly blessed.
Wow! History! Fantastic!
Shackleton’s the man!
Like going back in time.
Wow! Cool! Historic! Yo!
Awesome! Privileged. Unreal!
And Thank you, God. And Happy
Birthday, Dad. And Thailand.
One of the most interesting features of the huts for museum people is that they have no physical interpretation whatsoever. No labels, no intro panels, no fire exit signage, no modern lighting – nothing. They’re the ultimate immersive environment. As the poem suggests, many visitors comment that they feel as though the original inhabitants have only just walked out, not that they left a hundred years ago.
Most museums and historic places would feel the need to provide context and history, which we refer to as interpretation. But these huts are different.
So, given that there is no physical interpretation, how do visitors know what they’re looking at? One thing is that Antarctica (and the huts in particular) don’t get incidental visitors, everyone is an intentional visitor who knows where they’re going and some (or a lot) of the history of the places they’re going to. The stories are not quite universal, but they’re part of the common oral history of Antarctica. Secondly, a guide is compulsory, so you get verbal information. Though I have to say that the guides were mainly tasked with ensuring we cleaned the grit off our boots and didn’t sit on the bunks or help ourselves to a can of historic kippers.
And the huts are immersive – the smell of the seal and lamb carcases in the summer when they get a bit above freezing – the soot on everything – sketches and photos on the walls beside the bunks – the stuffed penguin on the laboratory bench. The custodians, the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) – have put immense amounts of effort into stabilising the buildings and the artefacts to ensure they don’t degrade.
I feel totally privileged to have been there and experienced that. It was transporting.
But it’s also a kind of historical erasure. By presenting the huts as though the inhabitants just left, the history of the intervening century is gone. When they were first rediscovered in the 1950s – they were jammed full of ice and the contents had to be chipped out of the ice. This happens when a building is left untended. Early visitors used the bunks – I’ve met someone who had slept in Shackleton’s hut when he was a young student. And as I mentioned, the AHT conservators have done vast amounts of work preserving things so that they don’t look preserved. It’s the kind of thankless task where your best work is unnoticeable!
So that’s got me thinking. When does history finish and preservation and interpretation start?