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Frozen in time
Conservator helps preserve past as part of modern-day Antarctic expedition team


October 2, 2011

Milwaukee’s 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 Roald Amundsen.

One hundred 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. Shackleton.

"For the 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.

The Antarctic 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.

"In 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 that."

The Heritage 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.

"I was 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.

Scott and 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 in time.

"The huts 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.

"The smells 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 presence."

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 same glaciers."

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 work.

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.

"During the 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."

Harbeck returned 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


This story ran in the May 2011 issue of: