Cricket Harbeck spent six months at the South Pole as part of
the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s international team to
preserve the artifacts of South Pole explorers 100 years ago.
In 1910, British
Royal Navy Capt. Robert Falcon Scott left New Zealand for his final
exploration of Antarctica on the "Terra Nova," a former
whaling and sealing ship. Scott and his party were determined to be
the first to reach the South Pole, knowing it would be a race for
glory pitting their expedition against that of Norwegian explorer
years later, in August 2010, Milwaukee conservator Cricket Harbeck
boarded a C17 cargo plane in Christchurch, New Zealand, and headed for
Antarctica as a contractor for the Antarctic Heritage Trust, sponsored
by the Natural History Museum in London. She was part of an
international team charged with helping to preserve Scott’s
expedition base, as well as that of British explorer Sir Ernest H.
last 15 to 20 years, it’s been a hobby of mine to read about these
early explorers; it just seemed remarkable," Harbeck says. She
was aware of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, and, because she is an
objects conservator in private practice, she had the freedom to apply
for its 2010-11 preservation team.
project, she says, "was perfectly in line with the kind of work I
do, which is working on historic material." During the past 12
years, she has been working on an archeological excavation in Turkey,
and she also works as a conservator for private art collectors to
preserve and protect sculptures, paintings and other precious objects.
Conservancy combines art and science, she says.
essence, our goal is to preserve and restore artwork or cultural
materials with an eye toward doing the best thing for that
object," she notes. "Another component of conservation is
analysis. We often do analysis to figure out how something’s made or
what restoration materials were used in the past. Our real motive is
to look at how and why things deteriorate, and how we can mitigate
Trust opportunity, she says, "satisfied a lot of different
interests of mine. One is traveling, another is meeting people from
different countries, and another is to be where history happens and to
experience that environment."
When the C17
landed in Antarctica, temperatures were negative 30 to 40 degrees
Celsius, Harbeck says, with 24 hours of darkness. The team completed
survival field training, including how to set up their polar tents,
use survival gear, and live in an unforgiving environment. People
working in the area, she adds, do not take unnecessary risks.
always very keenly aware that things can go bad very quickly. Whether
you’re taking a simple walk and you fall into the ice or into a
crevasse, you’re aware of how quickly the weather changes, how
quickly you can get frostbite or frostnip, and how quickly you can get
lost," she says.
several of his men died in one of the Antarctica’s brutal blizzards
in 1912, after reaching the South Pole only to learn that Amundsen had
been there weeks before. Following Amundsen’s triumph, Shackleton
attempted to be the first to cross the continent from sea to sea, but
his ship became stuck in pack ice and was slowly crushed. Shackleton
and all of his men survived.
Harbeck says the
huts used as bases by Scott and Shackleton remained untouched and
largely forgotten until the 1960s, when interest in Antarctica was
revived. Although the Trust was formed in the late 1980s, it was 2006
before the restoration work began in earnest. Because the huts were
quickly left behind when relief ships came to bring the explorers back
home, most of the contents of the structures are still there, frozen
still have a lot of food items, clothing, beds, sleeping bags, (the
explorers’) warm boots, and a lot of their tools," Harbeck
says. The stables where they kept their ponies and dogs still exist as
well. There are handwritten notes and graffiti on the walls, and the
instruments used by the biologist, geologist and other scientists on
the expeditions are relatively intact. A fully functional darkroom
used by Scott’s photographer, Herbert Ponting, still remains, along
with a swath of canvas where Ponting premiered the early film footage
he was taking to document the experience.
are still there, the smells in the stable and the smells in the
galley. At one point, they were burning seal blubber for fuel to warm
the huts, and you smell that, too," Harbeck says. "I knew
all that stuff was down there, but I was really taken aback at how
intimate and personal it was. You definitely feel their
Harbeck says she
looked at many of the drawings and watercolors of the surrounding
terrain created by Scott’s second-in-command, Dr. Edward Wilson,
"and the same features are still there, the same icebergs and the
She says she
never got tired of the landscape, "even though it was cold, we
always just wanted to be outside and be a part of it." Near the
Shackleford hut, a rookery of Adelie penguins made for noisy
neighbors, and curious Emperor penguins sauntered up to watch her
The team, which
included another conservator and seven carpenters, worked in the field
from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Harbeck says, and camped in their
individual polar tents. During Antarctica’s summer months, groups of
researchers studying wildlife or the glaciers or climate change were
working in the area as well. They also kept company with a crew from
the BBC that was producing a film commemorating the 100th anniversary
of the Scott expedition.
time that we were back living on base we’d have a lot of interaction
with everybody," she says. "It’s a little bit like being
in college again, it’s more dorm-style living."
to Milwaukee in February with a keen appreciation for the courage of
the original Antarctic adventurers and their role in history.
"Actually working at these sites, getting a feel for the men who
lived there, and getting a feel for the history and the environment, I
just remember feeling many times, ‘This is why I do it all,’"
Harbeck says. "This really made me think about how lucky I am in
many ways and just how remarkable people are and how important it is
to keep that history." m