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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The Cape Evans hut

Two weeks ago, I went to the Scott Centenary Weekend at Plymouth.  It’s a hundred years since Captain Scott’s last birthday (, but his work continues to bear fruit. For example, one of the exhibition stalls explained how field data collected by Scott and his team helps to calibrate climate change indicators: bryozoans (a kind of plankton) are smaller than a hundred years ago because with rising temperatures, less oxygen is dissolved in the sea.  Other stalls displayed the cerulean and ivory sweeps of Antarctic paintings, polar expedition gear (from hand-steamed wooden skis to today’s fibreglass and laminate kit and everything in between) and Antarctic history resources.

On the Sunday, I helped with the ISCE2012 stall. I watched the supplies of limited edition ISCE chocolate steadily get more limited, and I met a fascinating mix of people including casual passersby and dyed-in-the-finnesko ( adventurers. I learnt from one of Britain’s last full-time dog sledders that the dogs were ideally kept as undomesticated as possible, to keep the vigour and dominance hierarchies of the packs dynamic.

The far-right of the ISCE2012 stall. The bust is by Kathleen Scott - Capt Scott's wife. She trained with Rodin.

I managed to go to one of the many talks put on. Robert Headland spoke on the project to conserve Captain Scott’s Cape Evans hut. The conservation pendulum has swung from the laisez-faire approach of the 60s/70s (mass cringe at a slide showing a tourist eating one of Scott’s leftover biscuits) to more recent protectionism (the World Monuments Fund Top 100 Most Endangered Sites list of 2008 included the hut

Robert Headland was on the pragmatic middle ground. One thing I took from his talk is that thoughtless inattention to historical context can wrongly influence our understanding of historical figures and their actions. For example, we judge early polar explorers’ characters from their photographs. We admire their marmoreal stillness and stoical bearing. But photographic exposure times upwards of 30 seconds encourage pensive poses more than exuberant ones (try it  and see).

Another big point was the role of serendipity in the conservation project – unsurprising, given the extreme weather conditions. For example, a few years ago a blizzard set back a repainting deadline, but at the same time solved a salt build-up problem. Some of the conservation apparatus is unobtrusive (the steel beams shoring up wooden ones are hidden from view), but some is necessarily visibly modern (fleets of triangular wind deflectors stop the hut from being buried in snow drifts).

Robert Headland’s talk was thought-provoking and reminded me of another talk I’ve been to recently. It was by Julian Worrall at the V&A, titled ‘Architecture As Performance’. His talk was focused on Japan, but seemed very applicable in the Antarctic context. He said that the average building in Japan lasts just 26 years (before demolition/destruction in a natural disaster) but the average age of a Japanese person is 43 years, so buildings in Japan are seen more as make-shift theatres where lives are played out. People, not buildings, register as monuments.  In comparison, Western architecture is approached more reverentially, since buildings are expected to outlive their inhabitants.

The link with Scott’s hut is that I wonder what approach best fits a continent with no indigenous culture. The hut is a landmark and a marker for human endurance, but at what cost should a monument be preserved? Is the hut just an expensive geegaw or is there merit in diverting funds towards its upkeep? And given the perishability of materials in the Antarctic environment, how much of the original hut do we expect to remain in ten; fifty; a thousand years?


  1. Hello! What a lovely blog. Not counting your chickens, but you probably want me to start knitting your all-in-one arctic suit huh? With optional animal tail.

    I don't mind the idea of Scott's hut chipping away into disrepair, but then maybe I don't get the whole arctic romanticism thing. Scott's hut is like a smudgy tattoo on the clear skin of the arctic: discuss.

    I think I told you about the Herzog film about the arctic before, did you manage to see it?

  2. Hi Polly

    How kind! Maybe a navy dazzle camouflage motif (, and a couple of pockets for hot water bottles - ta v. much.

    I can see where you're coming from with the 'clear skin of the Antarctic', though in reply, penguin guano stains have been mapped from space to track colony movements ( Pristine nature's not so pristine.

    I think I was trying to get at two points towards the end really. One is the huge expense involved in conservation in wind-swept refrigerator conditions. Two is the old 'ship of Theseus' puzzle ( if they replace every plank in the hut (which they'll have to, in time), is it still the same hut? I sound negative about this conservation project, but really, I'm on the fence with the hut: it's a unique document.

    I haven't seen the Herzog film yet, sadly. I think I'm worried it'll be another Aguirre, The Wrath of God, which was alarming.

    Best wishes


About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.