Default hero image

Breaking the ice: Conserving the Antarctic buildings

The heroic age of polar exploration is rightly named; epitomised by Amundsen and Scott racing to the South Pole in 1911 and later in 1914 the Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton that saw the loss of his ship, the Endurance, and subsequently the most enduring story of human heroism as he led all his men safely to South Georgia and rescue. Albeit 100 years ago the heroic age inspires young and old still today. These Polar heroes are part of the school curriculum and deeply embedded in our national psyche.

One 7 year old at a presentation I was doing to a local school asked me how they (Shackleton) escaped if they had no phone to call for help. It is truly a remarkable thing, how did they do it? How did Hurley extricate from that desperate situation several hundred A4 size fragile glass negatives? So many remarkable stories that live today and inspire us to do better, to try and challenge ourselves. The story of Henry Worsley perishing during his solo attempt to traverse Antarctica in January reminds us that even with modern technology and knowledge it is still a heroic endeavour to tackle the poles, the south especially.

The United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) works to conserve Antarctic buildings and artefacts, and to promote and encourage the public’s interest in its Antarctic heritage. Besides its flagship site at Port Lockroy the Trust conserves five other British historic sites on the Antarctic Peninsula. The Trust supports sister organisations to look after heritage sites in other parts of Antarctica. These buildings are our history, they would be Grade 1 listed, blue plaque bearing, national monuments and every other accolade a building could have if they were on British soil. Further still, many contain original artefacts of when the huts and bases were in operation providing a rare snapshot into the history of our countries endeavour. The buildings face many challenges. Like other historical buildings we treasure they were not designed and built for a specific design life, rather more temporary, modified, and adapted and refit as necessary. They are on the 7th continent the place with the lowest temperature ever recorded on the planet of -89.2°C and where wind speeds frequently exceed 100mph throughout the year when its blowing ‘a hoolie’. The action of high UV levels under the ozone hole during summer and the freeze thaw of moisture within building fabric materials all create one of the most challenging environments for a building to endure in. The artefacts have and continue in some cases to be exposed to extremes of temperature and humidity as well as indoor air quality problems and the degrading effects of light. All these challenges are issues where knowledge and research is growing in how to manage and conserve through endeavours of the Trust and through connections to expert organisations including the BRE.

The Trust fulfills an important and creatively active educational role in promoting Antarctic public engagement and supports institutions who have a connection to Antarctic heritage through its collections or through education and outreach. School children all over the country are inspired by the education resources of the Trust. Families and individuals are inspired by the breath-taking exhibitions that tour the land revealing new dimensions to our inspiring polar heritage.

The Trust’s Patron is HRH The Princess Royal and its Vice Patrons are Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Dr Dafila Scott and they are supported by many enthusiasts for the Polar Regions. In the 1990s I worked as glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey which saw me complete two summer field seasons in Antarctica. My first deployment saw me transit through a field station hut called Damoy on the Antarctic Peninsula in which I stayed for a few nights until the weather conditions were suitable for us to leave. In the cupboards were Bourneville chocolate bars that had labels from a previous generation, and tins of rations such it felt I had gone back to the heroic age in a time capsule! Damoy is now one of the buildings that is looked after by UKAHT. I am delighted to be able to help raise some funds for this heroic charitable Trust. I am truly hooked on the Polar regions and my love of history and its storytelling convinces me that their work most continue to be able to conserve, protect and bring to life the stories and locations of our explorers, they inspired me and have done so for tens of thousands since and tens of thousands more in the future. There is spirit inside every one of us, it needs the spark of inspiration to unlock it.