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Person works on wood floor.
Photo Credit: Alasdair Turner
Gordon Macdonald, lead conservation carpenter for the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust from Vancouver Island, Canada, works on a wood plank at Discovery Hut where the team removed about 20 tons of ice from below the floor.

Antarctic environment tough on both historic structures and conservators

Intrusion from ice and snow was still a concern a century later as the Trust conservation team went to work during the 2013-14 summer season on the hut, located a 15-minute walk from the U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station External U.S. government site and only a couple miles more from New Zealand’s Scott Base External Non-U.S. government site.

“All of the buildings have suffered from moisture and ice accumulation under the floors, distorting the structures and increasing the humidity inside them, which is bad for the artifacts of course,” says Macdonald, who has worked on the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project on-and-off for the last decade.

Macdonald estimates as much as 20 tons of ice was trapped below the floor’s two layers of tongue-and-groove boarding. The best way to remove it? Chipping and hauling it out by hand.

“It’s fastest and easiest for us to remove ice physically,” Macdonald says, rather than thawing the ice and removing the meltwater.

People wrap up a bundle.
Photo Credit: ©Antarctic Heritage Trust/nzaht.org
Objects conservators Josiah Wagener and Nicola Dunn work on fodder bales at Robert F. Scott's hut at Cape Evans.
Bits of old metal line a shelf.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A few small artifacts, including rusted nails, were found during the conservation work at Discovery Hut.
Tattered pieces of clothing sit in a tray.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
A few personal items from the early explorers were found during the conservation effort at Discovery Hut.

Macdonald is also working to straighten the walls, which are bowing out due to the intrusion of ice. To prevent that from happening again, Mark “Tank” Adams, a conservation carpenter from the United Kingdom, is installing a polycarbonate dam in a waist-deep ditch the men have dug around the outside of the building into the concrete-hard permafrost.

Like his fellow carpenters, Adams grew up fascinated with the tales of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

“I was interested in Scott and Shackleton since I was a kid. The opportunity to work down here is pretty incredible,” says Adams, who restores castles and other historic wood buildings in the UK dating back as far as the 13th century. “I think as I got older, you realize how touch and go it really all was. It was risky business. There was no chance of rescue. If you messed up, that was it.”

Shackleton got within about 112 miles of the South Pole in 1909 before turning back, weakened and near death by the time he returned to the relative safety of Ross Island. Scott wasn’t so lucky: He and four compatriots paid the ultimate price in 1912 when they perished on the return journey after reaching the bottom of the world about six weeks behind Norwegian Roald Amundsen.

Macdonald describes a similar interest in polar history.

“The parts of the map with a lot of white or beige have always drawn me, so the opportunity to come down here and work on this project was absolutely, mind-blowingly fantastic. I feel really fortunate to be a part of this,” he says.

The job is not an easy one. The conservation team works 12-hour days, rarely with a day off, for several months at a time. The Discovery Hut restoration project offers a bit more comfort than those at Royds or Evans, where the team members work out of a field camp and sleep in tents. Nearby Scott Base offers the comfort of a hot shower and cooked meal at the end of the day for the Discovery Hut crew.

“It’s just a different working environment than what we’re used to working with in museums,” says Nicola Dunn, lead objects conservator for the summer season. She had previously wintered over at Scott Base in 2006 and 2010 where a team of four conservators works each year to conserve objects removed from the expedition bases by the summer team.

“I wanted to see the other side of the project and the other side of the environment as well,” she says. “It’s been fantastic. I’m really enjoying it – despite the numb fingers and toes.”

Meek, Dunn and fellow objects conservator Josiah Wagener from the United States spent several weeks organizing the Discovery Hut collection before heading to Cape Evans where they processed more artifacts for the Scott Base 2014 winter team to restore.

“I wanted to come to Antarctica. It’s the last frontier in a sense, and I love the stories about the early explorers – some of the crazy things they did,” Wagener says. “It seemed like it would be a good adventure to come down and step a little bit in their footsteps.”