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January 26, 2009

Return to Christchurch

By 3 P.M. today, we’d been transported to Willy Field by “Ivan the Terra Bus.” I was officially en route back home.


No Antarctic blog is complete without mention of Ivan. That’s partly because of his irresistibly photogenic monster tires, but also because he’s the official passenger shuttle between McMurdo and the airfield. He’s slow, but he’ll make his destination regardless of weather and terrain. When Ivan’s unavailable, a Delta 2 bus of lesser steroids takes his place.


I was excited about flying a C-17 Globemaster III for a change. It’s more spacious than the LC-130 Hercs I’d been taking till now, and faster as well.


The jet-driven C-17 makes the McMurdo-Christchurch flight in about 5.5 hours versus
the propellor-driven Herc’s 7.5 hours.


But as long as this landscape lasts, I’m in no hurry.

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:55 am

McMurdo Wrap-Up

Today brings my project’s chapter on the Ice to a close. I’ve been packing, shipping material home, and saying goodbyes. I depart McMurdo for Christchurch this afternoon, and in a couple days I’ll continue home to San Francisco where the artwork chapter of my project begins.

For my final post from McMurdo, I thought I’d post an assortment of photos taken throughout my stay that describes the polar community’s endearing humor, creativity, inventiveness, quirkiness, and inimitable character.


McMurdo is not without entertainment. There are radio programs, movie nights, DVD rentals, and an annual film festival. Less conventional pastimes include South Pole Station’s 300 Club and Scott Base’s Polar Plunge. Their printed announcements are great entertainment too.


Burning Man is so Northern Hemisphere.


Beware ye who enter the Waste Barn…


… or cross the footbridge between Crary and B-155. I must have crossed over a couple dozen times before noticing the lurking troll beneath.


The first polar bear has been spotted in Antarctica…


…and reports of an elephant at the South Pole are true.


Detail of a door in the carp shop, the building with the most character — and characters — in town. (The same building with the polar bear and gun-slinging penguin on its exterior.)


Michael Deany organizes MAAG, the McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery, an annual event inviting participation from the entire community. Submissions range from paintings to sculpture to installation art and live performances.


A sampling of MAAG art.


It took me a while to get this one. But of course… missile toe.


These prints are by David Craig, a young Massachusetts artist who overprints polar map and chart imagery to create textured, multilayered compositions. He’s working at McMurdo’s power station in saving toward art school. These pieces were my favorite in
the show.


Music is huge at McMurdo. Between Icestock, the Waste Barn Party (shown above), Gallagher’s Pub, Southern Exposure and the Coffee House, there’s always a guitar in hand.

Hmm… I’m missing this place even before I’ve left it.

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 10:04 am

January 25, 2009

Mining the Crary Library, Again

While discoveries are being made in the Lab downstairs, I’m making my own in the Crary Library upstairs. Readers may remember my first installment of inspiring visuals from the collection a couple weeks back. Well, I’m back with some new discoveries, this time off
the Rare Books shelf on a tip from my friend, artist, and Crary IT manager Karen Joyce.


These Emperor penguin embryos appear in the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey / Scientific Reports No. 10, published in London for the Colonial Office by her Majesty’s Stationery Office in 1954. The striking black & white plates and captioned tissue interleaves make it as much an art book as a science publication.


Crary has volumes upon volumes of the richly illustrated Discovery Reports published by Cambridge University Press. Subjects range from “Seasonal Formation of Laminae in the
Ear Plug of the Fin Whale” to “The Plankton Diatoms of the Southern Seas,” shown above.
This issue is from Vol. XVI, 1937.


Also from Discovery Reports, a meticulously rendered Raja magellanica from the issue:
“Coast Fishes: Part II. The Patagonian Region.” Cambridge University Press, 1937.


How did the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden find its way to a polar library?
The bulk of the book, interestingly, chronicles the botanical findings of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition. The wear, tear and repair on this book suggests it was well-loved and much-referenced since its publication in April 1938.


Antarctic lichens flourish in Plate 58 of the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden: Ascus, Paraphyses, and mature spores of the Buellia floccosa and Buellia olivaceobrunnea.


These final three spreads are from the book Edward Wilson’s Birds of the Antarctic. It showcases more than 300 of Wilson’s drawings and paintings created as zoologist, medical officer, and official artist on Robert Falcon Scott’s two Antarctic voyages. There are 60 pages of color and 42 pages of black & white illustrations along with detailed notes and related extracts from Wilson’s diaries.


Wilson’s first voyage was with the British National Antarctic (Discovery) Expedition of 1901-04 during which he completed 200 colored sketches of the Antarctic landscape and animal life, some first appearing in the home-grown South Polar Times. He also gained notoriety on this expedition for having accompanied Scott and Ernest Shackleton on a grueling trek that set a new record for southernmost travel at the time.


Wilson returned to Antarctica with the Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-13. The book reproduces Wilson’s original record of the winter sledging journey to Cape Crozier to observe the breeding habits of the Emperor Penguin, a trip that came to be known as The Worst Journey in the World for the punishing elements the team endured. The very worst, however, came the following year when he perished with Scott and his comrades on their return from the South Pole.

Today, Wilson’s accurately illustrated topography and wildlife prove valuable to scientists studying ways in which the Antarctic climate and ecosystems have changed over the last century. The book’s reproductions are vibrant and crisp, culled from the collection of original illustrations at the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge, England. The Crary Library’s copy is the first U.S. edition, edited by Brian Roberts and published by Humanities Press, New York, in 1968.

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:59 pm

Crary Lab

The Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, commonly known as Crary Lab, is pretty much my favorite place in McMurdo. It’s the primary laboratory and research facility for Antarctic scientists, so there’s always cool stuff to see and be inspired by. The people who work here — both science grantees and staff — are super-passionate about their work and excited to talk about their projects. I feel fortunate to have a workspace here in the midst of the action.


The building is named in honor of geophysicist and glaciologist Albert P. Crary (1911-1987), the first person to set foot on both the North and South Poles. The structure consists of five pods (sections designed to facilitate research in specific areas) built in three connected ‘phases’ numbered I through III from top to bottom. I and II are visible in the photo above.


Crary has 46,000 square feet of working space for its labs, analytical instrumentation, and staging areas. It also supports special activities such as environmental monitoring, snow and ice mechanics, and meteorology.

Phase I has a two-story core pod and a biology pod. There are environmental rooms, chemistry labs, ice and rock sectioning rooms, specialty microscope and water areas, and intriguing display cases near the main entrance.


These cabinets of curiosities contain penguin eggs, meteorites retrieved from the continent, petrified wood from millions of years ago when Antarctica was part of Gondwanaland, preserved biological specimens in jars, and skulls of different types of seals.

The one on the left is a Weddell seal pup, and the one on the right is a leopard seal.


The signage tells us that this toothfish was collected in the summer of 1999-2000 in 450m of water adjacent to the ice runway in McMurdo Sound. It weighed approximately 85 lbs. and its thinness of bone results from having been cleaned in the water by amphipods.


Phase II is home to earth sciences and atmospheric sciences. The collection of U.S. Geological Survey maps here from years past are a treat to behold. Another collection to get lost in are the Mt. Erebus eruption videos shot by a camera at the summit, peering down into the crater. The clips reside on a dedicated computer with a “greatest hits” folder for easy access to the fieriest spectacles. Many of these are from the second half of 2005, when this southernmost active volcano (right here on Ross Island!) experienced one of its liveliest seasons in 165 years.

Having read the sign, I figured it safer to photograph the door than what’s behind it. Good thing, because it turns out that a powerful green laser beam shoots upwards into space from Crary to monitor the size of the ozone hole.


The best way to photograph the laser, it turns out, is from the outside in the dark of winter’s precipitation when the beam is most visible. Here is Antarctic veteran Seth White’s photo under just such circumstances. Thanks Seth, for sharing this very cool photo of the Light Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) system in action.


Phase III has an aquarium room with wet labs and running seawater. Here, Crary technician Rich Jenkins introduces me to the critters in the touch tank. The tank’s rotating population includes nudibranches (“naked” snails without shells), anemones, giant sea spiders, isopods, crinoids, urchins, sponges and starfish.

In a corner of the tank, a giant sea spider harasses an isopod. Although the small crustacean possesses an armored, spiny body, it falls prey even to fish.

The sea urchin is less likely to be picked on.

Behind me are Phase III’s tanks in which live animals are held and equipment is tested before use in the field. By this time of the year though, the big tanks are emptying out as the diving season winds down.

Next: New discoveries at Crary Lab.

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 5:30 pm

January 24, 2009

Scott’s Discovery Hut, Part 2: The South Polar Times

Robert Scott’s Discovery team suffered during their two years at Hut Point. There was snow blindness, frostbite, and Shackleton himself was sent home with a debilitating case of scurvy midway through the expedition. But in spite of the suffering, or perhaps because of it, the men devised ways to entertain themselves throughout the ordeal, especially throughout the dark winter months.

Among these diversions was a play called “Ticket of Leave” staged in the frigid Discovery Hut. A brief account of the production can be found here along with an amusing photo of the troupe in costume, including the two “ladies” of the play. The hut was subsequently dubbed the ‘Royal Terror Theatre.’

A production of an entirely different kind was that of The South Polar Times, a newsletter edited by Shackleton during May–August 1902, preceding his affliction. This one really piqued my interest as a creation at the crossroads of art and science.


There was no printing press; the ‘publication’ consisted of a single typewritten copy passed hand-to-hand. The pages contained news, poetry, puzzles, scientific essays on geological, climatic, and biological topics, and not-so-scientific musings on the taste of penguin meat. Items were profusely illustrated with drawings, paintings, satirical cartoons, charts, maps,
and detailed zoological diagrams pasted into place to create pleasing layouts.

The page on the right, above, is titled “Events of the Month,” recounting the outset of the Discovery expedition. Among the entries: “April 6. An exciting seal chase;” “April 11. His Majesty the King became Patron of the Expedition;” “April 13. Windmill collapsed;” “April 18. Meteorological observations begun on the floe.”


The entire crew was invited to contribute words and pictures, and talent was evident among them. Most prominent is the art of Dr. Edward Adrian Wilson, the expedition’s junior surgeon, zoologist and official artist. His whale illustrations above are among 200 colored sketches of the Antarctic landscape and animal life he completed during the expedition, and he would return with Scott on the Terra Nova Expedition to render many more. Look for more on Wilson in the Crary Library post I have planned for the next day or two.


Left, Charles Royds, Royal Navy officer and First Lieutenant of the RRS Discovery who Cape Royds was named after. As of this writing, it’s unclear who drew these fabulous caricatures and most of the rest of the art — with the exception of Wilson’s recognizable style. I’ll be investigating art credits for the SPT in the weeks to come and will report my findings here.


‘Cutlets’ was the nickname of Reginald Koettlitz, the expedition’s chief surgeon and doctor.


Shackleton’s editorship of The South Polar Times was a natural; he had a fondness for literature and poetry, and enjoyed composing verse under his nom de plume, “NEMO.” The SPT‘s success quite likely gave him the impetus to plan the printing of Aurora Australis for his Nimrod party’s winter-over at Cape Royds in 1908.

Although not originally intended for publication, a collected South Polar Times was eventually compiled on the Discovery’s return home. The 3-volume anthology was printed in limited editions by Smith, Elder and Co. of London, 1907-1914. The first two volumes were issued in 250 numbered copies each, and the third in 350 numbered copies.

In the preface to volume 1, Robert Falcon Scott writes:
“The owner of these volumes will possess an exact reproduction of the original ‘South Polar Times’ which appeared month by month during the winters of 1902-3, produced as they were for the sole edification of our small company of explorers in the ‘Discovery’, then held fast in the Antarctic Ice. No attempt has been made to re-edit the text or to supply explanatory notes, and therefore it would be unfair to those who were responsible for it to omit mention of the circumstances under which the original volumes came into being. In March 1902 we were busily preparing for our first Antarctic winter as we watched the sun sinking towards its long rest. We knew that daylight would shortly disappear for four whole months, and our thoughts turned naturally to the long dark period before us and the means by which we could lighten its monotony. And so it was in this month that we met in council around the ward-room table to discuss the first Antarctic Journal; then and there we christened it, suggested its general lines, and appointed Mr. Shackleton as editor to guide its destiny. Our Journal, we decided, should give instruction as well as amusement; we looked to our scientific experts to write luminously on their special subjects, and to record the scientific events of general interest, while for lighter matter we agreed that the cloak of anonymity should encourage the indulgence of any shy vein of sentiment or humour that might exist among us. Above all, the ‘South Polar Times’, as we had determined to call it, was to be open to all; the men as well as the officers were to be invited to contribute to its pages.”

Filed under: Antarctic History and Exploration,McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:59 pm

Scott’s Discovery Hut, Part 1


Hut Point is a short stroll around the harbor basin from McMurdo. Its summit is marked by
Vince’s Cross, a memorial to a lost crew member of Robert Scott’s Discovery expedition of 1901-04. I’ve been out there a couple times now, enjoying the light at different times of day. Even in a single visit, one vantage point can appear like twilight…


…while another offers broad daylight — which in fact it is, around the clock throughout the Antarctic summer.


At the foot of the windswept hill sits Robert Scott’s Discovery hut, the earliest of Ross Island’s three historical heritage sites. This was Scott’s base for his first attempt to reach the South Pole. Although he and his party members Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson didn’t make it that far, they did set a new record (82 degrees latitude) for southernmost travel at the time.


The Discovery ship’s crew erected the prefabricated hut in February 1902. It wasn’t entirely successful. Its Australian outback-style design was ill-suited to the elements and a lack of insulation kept most of the party living on the icebound ship just offshore.


Still, it served as space for storage, social gatherings, and scientific work. It was home to early advances in the study of earth sciences (notably understanding the Southern Hemisphere’s weather patterns), and of geology and zoology in the McMurdo Dry Valleys and the Cape Crozier Emperor Penguin colony. It was also from here that Scott’s discoveries of King Edward VII Land and the Polar Plateau via the western mountains route were launched.


The hut and much of its contents are still coated with black greasy soot generated from seal blubber burnt for heat, light and food. Heating the space must have been an uphill battle; it feels colder inside than outside.


Both Scott and Shackleton re-used the hut on later expeditions as a staging post, rendezvous point, and safe refuge. The date on this crate, for example, reveals activity eight years later by Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition based at Cape Evans. Items were swapped between huts up until 1917, after which they lay dormant and literally froze in time. Seal blubber hangs preserved on hooks, garments hang from clotheslines and artifacts still line the shelves, similar to (but sparser than) Shackleton’s Nimrod hut that I visited a few days back.


Like Shackleton’s hut, Scott’s Discovery hut is maintained by the Antarctic Heritage Trust as part of the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project. All four sites under the Trust’s care are listed in the World Monuments Fund 2008 Watch List of the World’s 100 Most Endangered Sites, and hold Antarctic Specially Protected Area status under the Antarctic Treaty System.

Filed under: Antarctic History and Exploration,McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:24 pm

January 23, 2009

McMurdo’s Golf Ball

I’ve been offered a few extra days in McMurdo past today’s originally-scheduled return to Christchurch. I’m elated. It makes up for my delayed arrival, restoring my planned time on
the Ice. There’s still much to see, and the Golf Ball beckons.

Everyone here knows the Golf Ball; it’s visible from just about everywhere in town. Its real name is the NASA/McMurdo Ground Station. Technician Nik Sinkola offered a small group of us a tour, and a truck got us to the top of the hill in a matter of minutes.

The views back out towards McMurdo Sound are amazing. Observation Hill dominates the vista on the left, and mainland Antarctica lies beyond.

Inside the dome, an imposing 10-meter antenna tracks polar-orbiting scientific and mapping satellites that zip around the Earth nearly every 90 minutes. When the heavy dish swings into a new position, look out. It moves extremely fast for its size.


Nik introduces the big dish in the video. He is employed by Honeywell Technical Solutions which NASA contracts to manage the facility. He and his colleagues spend most of their time back in town at the Joint Spacecraft Operations Center (JSOC) from where they operate the antenna and process the collected data.

Thanks Nik, for the cool field trip.

Filed under: McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:52 pm

January 22, 2009

Cape Royds: The Penguin Colony

It’s a short walk from Shackleton’s hut to the most southerly penguin colony in the world. Adélie penguins dot the coast for as far as the eye can see, yet the colony of around 2,100 nests is far smaller than its northern neighbors.

The size of the Royds colony varies from year to year depending on sea ice conditions. In 2000 for example, 4,000 nests populated this area until a giant iceberg calved off the Ross Ice Shelf. It grounded about 40 miles (60 km) north, preventing the sea ice from breaking up. Without access to open water, many penguins left for colonies more convenient to foraging.

The last two years have been good again at Cape Royds for proximity to open ocean and successful reproduction rates. But colony growth remains in limbo till the new Adélies start breeding between the ages of 3 and 5.

I had the pleasure here of meeting David Ainley, one of the world’s most respected ornithologists. He’s been studying penguins for over 40 years and is currently tracking the birds’ response to climate change. It’s believed that penguins’ sensitivity to environmental change offers clues to how global warming is affecting the planet.

Dr. Ainley and his team have a special interest in population dynamics. They monitor and compare movement within and between Royds and other Adélie colonies. They hope to find what determines colony locations, what the physical environment’s effects are, what accounts for differing colony sizes and their growth rates, and how competition between penguins affects colony size.

Among their tools is a Penguin Cam in operation since 2006. It’s especially useful in monitoring the birds that return to molt each year in February, by which time scientists have left Cape Royds for the winter.

On our stroll amidst volcanic hills, Dr. Ainley expressed concern about the industrial fishing industry’s impact on the penguins’ food web. I learned that the imminent depletion of the Antarctic toothfish — an upper-food-web predator popularly marketed as ‘Chilean sea bass’ — threatens to upset the entire Ross Sea’s marine ecosystem. The implications of spoiling the planet’s last such pristine waters are significant, as Dr. Ainley describes on his website penguinscience.com.

Around us, penguin mummies and skeletons abound. Freeze-dried carcasses get drilled through by relentless wind storms, eventually reducing them to bones.

The first-ever study of Adélie penguins happened right here at Cape Royds a hundred years ago by James Murray, the Nimrod expedition’s biologist. The following passage from Murray’s obituary in the Glasgow Herald in 1916 provides a wonderful snapshot of the biologist in the field:

“Like other naturalists, Murray notices the resemblance of penguins to human beings. He was convinced that the penguin had powers of speech, and he describes a palaver he witnessed when an ‘old man’ bird made a long speech in a muttering manner, short sounds following a group of four or five. Murray, to whom the speech was addressed, confesses that he did not understand a word of it, but the penguin was very patient and repeated it all over again, with no better results.

“One can imagine the great joy that must have come over Murray’s heart when he discovered that the frozen freshwater lakes at Cape Royds contained a fauna and flora akin to that which he first studied in Campsie Glen, for many lichens were found in them, a few mosses, and large numbers of infusorians, rotifers, and water bears. He also demonstrated afresh the strong resistance which rotifers have to extremes of temperature.”

The rotifers referred to — the resilient Bdelloidea — are those that James Murray describes in his essay “Life Under Difficulties” which, to bring my Cape Royds tale full circle, was his contribution to the expedition’s book Aurora Australis.

January 21, 2009

Cape Royds: Shackleton’s Hut

Today I visited Cape Royds, about 20 miles (32 km) north of McMurdo Station. The helicopter ride offered spectacular views of the rugged Ross Island coastline, McMurdo Sound, and Mount Erebus, the world’s southernmost active volcano.

Royds is the site of the ‘Nimrod’ hut, Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 British Antarctic Expedition headquarters where Aurora Australis was written, designed, printed, and bound in the course of a harsh winter a hundred years ago. It was an important destination for me — a pilgrimage even — given the book’s centrality to my project.

Here is the hut in 1908, as drawn by George Marston for Aurora Australis

…and here it is today, remarkably intact thanks to consistently sub-freezing temperatures and its designation as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area under the Antarctic Treaty System. The hut is one of four historic sites under the care of the Antarctic Heritage Trust which ensures their preservation and legacy for future study.

It didn’t take long to find the wooden Venesta cases I’d come to see. Shackleton and his men offloaded no less than 2,000 of them from their ship Nimrod, dozens of which still remain stacked in and around the hut. There were plenty of boxes for the Nimrod crew to recycle, not only as Aurora Australis book covers but also as book shelves, supply cases, shoe boxes, platforms, supports and furniture.

Stacked provision cases also served to create separate living and working areas. The since-dismantled 6×7-foot letterpress cubicle was among these, situated where the cot juts out from behind the curtain on the left. This tight space was known as ‘The Rogues’ Retreat,’ also accommodating a large sewing machine and bunks for the printers Frank Wild and Ernest Joyce.

Looking back towards the entrance, the foreground cot marks the same spot. The printing equipment was long since returned to England but unused reams of the book’s ‘Abbey Mills Greenfield’ watermarked paper remain on a dark shelf along the north wall.

The paper is among 5,000+ hut artifacts conserved as part of the Ross Sea Preservation Project led by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. This shows the bottom of a paper ream before and after treatment for acid, mold, and moisture damage.

Even in extreme instances such as this one, treatment helps slow down the deterioration process.

Much thanks to Antarctic Heritage Trust Secretary Fiona Wills for permission to reproduce these photos. More of the Trust’s preservation efforts are described in fascinating detail on the London Natural History Museum’s Antarctic conservation blog.

Food containers too are conserved as tangible relics of expeditions. The extensive variety of prepared and preserved foods circa 1907 is impressive. They include dried spinach, mint, stewed kidneys, ox tail soup, India relish, mutton cutlets in tomato sauce, Irish brawn, marrow fat, stewed rump steaks, tripe, concentrated egg powder, kippered mackerel, minced collops, and red currants to name a few. There’s also the Antarctic classic, pemmican: dried meat mixed with fat, available in varieties for men and dogs.

A medicine cabinet sits alongside the south wall; carbolic acid marked ‘poison’ differentiates it from the neighboring cases of food.

The hut is exquisite for its authenticity. Original socks still hang from clothes lines; tattered gloves lie on cots, newspapers languish where they were left.

Relics also dot the hill behind the hut, down towards the icy shore. They’re rusted through, perhaps too decayed to be saved.

Nearby, a plank photographed by my friend Holly Troy reads “Ship Nimrod Lyttleton.” Lyttleton is the New Zealand port from where the expedition was launched. Painful as it is to see these artifacts eaten by the elements, Antarctic Specially Protected Area status prevents others than conservators from disturbing them.

At expedition’s end, Shackleton wrote about his departure from Cape Royds: “We all turned out to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence…but, on the other hand it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories…We watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that some day they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus”.

Shackleton never returned to Cape Royds in his lifetime. Afterwards is anyone’s guess. One thing for sure: if ever a place effectively evoked its former inhabitants’ ghosts, this is it.

January 20, 2009

Aurora Australis

Back in this blog’s first post, I introduced Aurora Australis, the first book ever published in Antarctica. I talked briefly about its significance to my project and promised more information on the edition’s creation. Here it is, as a prelude to tomorrow’s visit to Shackleton’s Hut at Cape Royds where this book was born.

Aurora Australis was created during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-09, also known as the Nimrod Expedition. The voyage was led by Ernest Shackleton with the aim of making the first successful journey to the South Pole. He made it to within a hundred miles of his goal, setting a new record for southernmost travel. The expedition’s other accomplishments included the discovery of the location of the South Magnetic Pole, first traverse of the Trans-Antarctic mountain range, first travel on the South Polar Plateau, discovery of the Beardmore Glacier, and the first ascent of Mount Erebus.

These feats were achieved in teams. The Southern Party shown above made the attempt on the Pole. Left to right: Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall, and Jameson Boyd Adams.


Before departing England, Shackleton conceived the idea of printing a book as an activity to occupy his men during the dark, cold winter months in their Ross Island hut. They hauled what Shackleton describes as a “complete printing outfit” to Antarctica including a hand-press similar to the one shown here for printing movable metal type, and an etching press to print the illustrations. The composing stick on the left is used for setting type prior to positioning it in the press.

Aurora Australis is an anthology of the party’s personal writings, poetry, and narratives both fiction and non-fiction. Shackleton edited the 120-page book, wrote its two prefaces, and contributed an ode to Mount Erebus under the pseudonym “NEMO.”

George Marston (left) was the official expedition artist. He created and printed Aurora Australis‘s title pages and twelve illustrations by algraphy — printing from aluminium plates. Frank Wild (center) and Ernest Joyce (right, foreground) printed the text with the benefit of only 3 weeks’ training in lieu of the usual seven years of print shop apprenticeship.

The book was bound by Bernard Day, the electrician and mechanic, seen here taking the first motor car in Antarctica for a spin on the sea ice. (The car, built and donated by Arrol-Johnston company of Paisley, Scotland, ultimately failed to perform in the cold and the snow.)

Day fashioned wooden covers from provisions cases, made spines from harness leather, and bound the perforated pages with green silk cord. Only about 25 of approximately 90 printed copies were bound. These are often referred to by the writing on the packing crate boards — the Huntington has the ‘Blueberries’ copy for example, while the National Library of New Zealand has the ‘Julienne Soup’ and ‘Beans’ copies.

In the book’s prefaces, Shackleton describes the adverse conditions under which the book was produced. James Murray, the expedition’s biologist, elaborates further with this fantastic account in his book Antarctic Days:

“The reader, contemplating the finished work, would have no glimmering of suspicion of the immense difficulties under which the work had to be produced.

It was winter, and dark, and cold. The work had to be done, in the intervals of more serious occupations, in a small room occupied by fifteen men, all of them following their own avocations, with whatever of noise, vibration and dirt might be incidental to them.

The inevitable state of such a hut, after doing all possible for cleanliness, can be imagined. Fifteen men shut up together, say during a blizzard which lasts a week. Nobody goes out unless on business; every one who goes out brings in snow on his feet and clothes. Seal-blubber is burned, mixed with coal, for economy. The blubber melts and runs out on the floor; the ordinary unsweepable soil of the place is a rich compost of all filth, cemented with blubber, more nearly resembling the soil of a whaling-station than anything else I know.

Dust from the stove fills the air and settles on the paper as it is being printed. If anything falls on the floor it is done for; if somebody jogs the compositor’s elbow as he is setting up matter, and upsets the type into the mire, I can only leave the reader to imagine the result.

The temperature varies; it is too cold to keep the printer’s ink fluid; it gets sticky, and freezes. To cope with this a candle was set burning underneath the plate on which the ink was. This was all right, but it made the ink too fluid, and the temperature had to be regulated by moving the candle about.

Once the printers were called away while the candle was burning, and nobody happened to notice it. When they returned they found that the plate had overheated and had melted the inking roller of gelatinous substance. I believe it was the only one on the Continent and had to be re-cast somehow.

So much for the ordinary printing. The lithography was still worse. All the evils enumerated above persecuted the lithographer, and he had others all to himself. The more delicate part of his work could not be done when the hut was in full activity, with vibration, noise and settling smuts, so Marston used to do most of his printing in the early hours of the morning, when the hut was as nearly quiet and free from vibration as it ever became, and there was a minimum of dust (at least in suspension in the air).

I had the opportunity of observing his tribulations, as, for similar reasons, I found the early hours best for biological study. At these hours the number of loafers round the stove (drinking tea) might be reduced to three or four, or even fewer.

I do not pretend to know the nature of the special difficulties that the climate introduced into lithography, but I know this, that I’ve frequently seen Marston do everything right—clean, ink, and press—but for some obscure reason the prints did not come right. And I’ve seen him during a whole night pull off half a dozen wrong ones for one good print, and he did not use so much language over it as might have been expected.”

Last summer I had the opportunity to leaf through the Huntington Library’s copy with Gloria Kondrup, director of Art Center’s Archetype Press in Pasadena. We marveled over the materials and craftsmanship of the book, especially given Murray’s description of the ordeal.

Shown above are Marston’s prints Night Watchman and At the Edge of the Crater.

We also perceived Japanese artist Hiroshige’s profound influence on Marston’s style. Side-by side comparisons of the two seem to bear this out.

On the left, Marston’s Under the Shadow of Erebus; on the right, Hiroshige’s Mount Fuji Viewed from Inlet.

On the left, Marston’s Each Sheltered Under One of the Novel Umbrellas; on the right, Hiroshige’s Shono from the 53 Stations of the Tokaido. Marston’s reverence for the ukiyo-e master was shared by many European artists of the time, notably the French Impressionists such as Monet, and Van Gogh who copied two of Hiroshige’s prints that he owned.

Aurora Australis was not offered for sale to the general public; all the copies were privately distributed among friends and benefactors. The small edition size prevented wide readership until the first facsimile edition was published in 1986 — minus the wooden boards. Today the entire book can be accessed online page by page at the State Library of New South Wales site.

Filed under: Antarctic History and Exploration,Aurora Australis Book,McMurdo — mbartalos @ 11:09 pm
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