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Protecting the heritage of Discovery Hut, Hut Point Antarctica

by Robert C. Brears Blog

One building that became a testament to scientific endeavour is Discovery hut at Hut Point, on Ross Island. Discovery hut was Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition base in Antarctica – established by the National Antarctic Discovery Expedition 1901-1904.

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Protecting the heritage of Discovery Hut, Hut Point Antarctica

Early Antarctica expeditions to the Ross Sea area of Antarctica between 1895 and 1917 – the Heroic-era – left behind buildings, shelters, camp sites and many artefacts. Today they provide us with a record of early human endeavours in the harshest continent on Earth. Antarctica is the only continent in the world where the buildings of the first inhabitants remain and so they are priceless examples of Antarctica’s ice heritage.

To ensure these buildings are preserved for future generations the Antarctic Heritage Trust was established in 1987 to co-ordinate the restoration and on-going protection of the historic sites in the Ross Sea region and raise funds for this purpose. One building that became a testament to scientific endeavour and is safeguarded by the Antarctic Heritage Trust is Discovery hut at Hut Point, on Ross Island by McMurdo Sound: Robert Falcon Scott’s first expedition base in Antarctica – established by the National Antarctic Discovery Expedition 1901-1904.

The expedition included a major scientific programme and was a landmark in British Antarctic exploration with Scott returning to the UK as a national hero.

The heritage of Discovery Hut at Hut Point

Hut point, Ross Island was named by the Discovery expedition who established their shore station there for the objective of conducting exploration and scientific observations as well as reaching the South Pole. After failing to find a suitable site in King Edward VII Land, Scott decided to winter in Ross’ McMurdo Bay with the ship Discovery moored on the south side of Hut Point on 9 February 1902.

Immediately preparations were made for wintering with an awning fitted over the ship’s upper deck while around 200m away the frozen ground was excavated for the foundations of a 9.3 x 9.1m wooden building bought in Australia. Similar in design to Australian outback houses, the prefabricated building was intended to be used for accommodating the landing party and provide shelter should Discovery break away from her moorings.

The building had a veranda around three of its sides, double-thick walls and insulated flooring. The windows were double-glazed and six skylights with shutters were installed for lighting. Despite all the insulation, the building was too cold for comfort and so to conserve coal for heating the building was not used for accommodation. Instead expedition members remained on the ship that was, despite the dampness and ice formation in the cabins, comfortable.

In 1908, the Nimrod party gained entrance to the hut through a window and found the interior to be mainly snow-free. The party made good use of the hut, stacking it with boxes of provisions for warmth. On Scott’s second expedition, it was intended that the building be used for a wintering party in 1911 but sea ice prevented Terra Nova from getting close enough to offload its supplies.

Nonetheless, a shore party did clear the accumulated ice around the hut and again portioned the building with cases. The party also installed a brick blubber-burning stove while the veranda on the south side was enclosed to form stables. The hut was extensively used by the Ross Sea Party in 1915-1916 with the party’s dog handler quoted as saying the hut had ‘’a fair quantity of grub and plenty of cigars’’. In April of 1915 when members of the party were waiting for the sea ice to become firm enough for their return to Cape Evans it was recorded in a diary that when the candles ran out the improvised blubber lamps were in full force with the smoke being so terrific each person breathed it out while their clothes oozed with blubber, resulting in the building becoming blackened with soot.

When the Ross Sea party occupied the building again from mid-March till mid-July 1916 they began to run out of seal blubber and so began chopping up parts of the building for fuel. At the same time the hut became half-filled with snow with the crew huddled around the brick blubber stove during the day for warmth while at night they slept in their clothes in old sleeping bags that rested on planks raised above the floor by wooded provision cases.

For the next 30 years the hut remained uninhabited, filled with ice, until it was visited by the U.S. ice breaker Burton Island in February 1947. With the establishment in the summer of 1955-56 of the Air Operations Facility of Operation Deep Freeze, a tent was set up adjacent to the hut. Dog kennels, the remains of the heating stove, sledges, mutton carcases and a flag pole were among the artefacts still to be found laying around the building.

In January 1956 around 90 artefacts including provisions, a sledge and sleeping bag were taken back to the UK by Lt.Cdr. Michael J. Foster Royal Navy, a UK observer with Operation Deep Freeze. The flagpole meanwhile was retrieved in 1955-56 and presented to Sir Edmund Hillary to stand in front of New Zealand’s newly-built Scott Base as a memorial to Scott and others who endured so much during the early days of Antarctic exploration.

Protecting the heritage of Discovery Hut

As the foundations of the United States’ McMurdo Station began to take shape the US Commander, Rear Admiral George Dufek, USN decreed the historic building to be treated as a shrine and monument to human endeavour and prohibited anyone from going near it or taking anything from it. By now there were moves underway to start preserving this hut and others, however restoration work on sites at Cape Evans and Cape Royds in the summer of 1960-61 came first and it was not until later that New Zealand and United States agreed that steps should be taken to restore Scott’s Hut at Hut Point.

In 1964, volunteers from the New Zealand Antarctic Society began work on the hut removing years of accumulated ice and uncovering many hidden artefacts including an original script a play the men performed in1902, letters, emperor penguin skins, chess pieces carved by the men from broom handles and even scones left behind the stove. Later on the New Zealand Antarctic Society carried out restorative work until 1987 when the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s conservation programme began and Scott Base winter-over staff assisted in maintaining the hut and clearing infiltrating snow.

The Antarctic Heritage Trust’s role in protecting Discovery Hut

Since 2006, the Antarctic Heritage Trust maintains a year-round presence in Antarctica employing teams of international heritage and conservation specialists working in custom-built facilities in what is considered one of the most challenging heritage conservation environments on Earth. At Discovery Hut, the Trust’s conservation work focuses on safeguarding the hut and its associated artefact collection. However, this requires significant effort as the hut is damaged from over a century of severe Antarctic environmental conditions and needs to be protected in the future against the ongoing impacts of these conditions.

A comprehensive Conservation Plan has been prepared for the site and the 350+ associated items that form the artefact collection. Recently a two-year programme of work ran during the 2013-2014 season with key conservation activities including stabilisation, weather proofing and repair of the building; the conservation of the artefact collection which took place at New Zealand’s Scott Base during the winter of 2014; and the removal of contemporary building materials introduced during the modern period and their replacement with historically-correct materials. 

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