Southern exposure at Auckland Museum

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright visits Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Skua off Cape Royds with McMurdo Sound and the Royal Society Range in the background. Photo / Jane Ussher
Skua off Cape Royds with McMurdo Sound and the Royal Society Range in the background. Photo / Jane Ussher

Portrait photographer Jane Ussher (MNZM) was invited to Antarctica as part of the Antarctic New Zealand 2008/09 Media Programme. While there, she photographed the historic huts that served as bases for Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton's pioneering expeditions.

Auckland Museum and the Antarctic Heritage Trust have assembled artefacts from explorations around 1902 onwards (some never seen before) from their collections to accompany her images.

The first item to view is a poignant first class train ticket that was never clipped: the explorer never made it home. Nearby, the blown-up photograph of a giant wooden cross has endless views across Antarctic snow and ice-scapes.

These, and the muted whites, blues and browns of the grainy photographs, set the scene for what is a sombre and intimate showcase of a special time in polar history. These explorers were risking everything to understand one of the last frontiers on earth (and win the glory of reaching the South Pole first).

The very long wooden skis and small round snow shoes for the dogs and ponies are beautiful pieces of craft, but rudimentary equipment compared to what today's explorers use. The men even experimented with a hot air balloon called Eva (unsuccessfully).

On a more lighthearted note, there is a copy of the South Polar Times, a hand-typed and illustrated paper the men put together. With caricatures of officers and whimsical observations on life in Antarctica, it is humorous and upbeat. Knowing as we do the cruel fate of the authors, reading it is a sombre eerie experience.

The huts themselves hold some of the most inspirational and harrowing stories. Each photograph and accompanying object offers an intimate look at life for the men. A box of untouched cigars with a photo of evening slippers (yes, they dressed for mess, apparently) allude to diary stories about after-dinner Tennyson versus Browning competitions. Menus filled with an unrelenting rotation of seal, mutton or penguin make you realise how hard life was during winter.

In the multimedia room, an ice storm soundtrack signals the start of a sensory journey that lets you immerse yourself in the landscape and the huts - there are images from projectors shown in front and on both sides of you. It's an innovative way to display Ussher's gorgeous images and bring them to life.

When I think of Antarctica, it's always the still images of icy landscapes I envisage. But the soundtrack over the top of these images shows just how noisy the swirling wind whipping the snow would have been, along with the squawking seabirds and penguins.

There's a narrative running throughout the presentation. A rugged-sounding man describes the way things were for the explorers. We learn that the huts "represented security". Making it back to base must have been emotional for even the most hardened outdoors man.

At times during the presentation, it feels like you're sitting in the huts surrounded by the rusty old tins of food. Domestic items such as close-up photographs of buttons, combs and toothbrushes show the practical yet homely side - it's as if you could just reach out and take the kettle off the old stove top.

For the kids, during the school holidays there will also be a special "explorer" on hand to tell amazing tales of adventure (Sept 29 to Oct 5, 10am-noon and 1pm-3pm daily). He will be asking children to help him fix his technical equipment and assist in making crucial decisions for his journey ahead.

My five-year-old daughter was mesmerised by the images, but her favourite part was the penguins. My eight-year-old son was full of questions about the expeditions on the way home and it definitely sparked further interest about the polar journeys of Scott and Shackleton.

Take an expedition to the museum

The exhibition is open until October 5. Free with Auckland Museum entry.

Jane Ussher's book Still Life: Inside the Antarctic Huts of Scott and Shackleton, images from which form the basis of the exhibition, can be bought in the museum shop (the foyer of the main entrance).

Head down this weekend and pick up a bargain at the old shop's closing down sale (next to the coffee shop at the rear entrance).

For session times to see experts talking about conservation, as well as "smart talk" interviews with Jane Ussher and Nigel Watson from the Antarctic Heritage Trust, see the museum's website.

On the site's iHeartRadio Stream, listen to an enhanced audio experience featuring rarely-heard archival footage.

aucklandmuseum.com

- NZ Herald

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