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Great Scott!

Here’s one From the Vaults: welcome to the first in an ongoing series of pieces on heritage and conservation, and how culture and its past, present and future is so essential to human beings’ understanding of and connection to themselves and the world about us. 

Hot off the press is the revelation that a perfectly preserved watercolour of a New Zealand tree creeper, painted in 1899, was recently discovered among a portfolio of papers retrieved from a hut in Antarctica. 

Yes, blink and rub your eyes, but it was just one among 1,500 items from over a century ago uncovered in an historic Antarctic hut that had been hidden for decades under mounds of penguin guano. Located at Cape Adare, the hut and its precious contents are now being restored at Canterbury University, New Zealand, by experts from the Antarctic Heritage Trust, before being returned to Antarctica. As Nigel Watson, the Executive Director of the trust, says: “The hut at Cape Adare is incredibly important because it’s the only example left, on any continent, of humans’ first building. It’s something we take really seriously, to want to conserve and maintain for future generations.” 

So what is a tree creeper and who painted it? At first it was a mystery, but the artist was finally identified by his distinctive handwriting as Dr Edward Wilson, the lead scientist and a key member of the team on both Scott’s expeditions to the Antarctic in 1911 and 1912. He died with Scott and three others in 1912 as they battled to return from their trip to the South Pole. Probably painted in Europe while he was convalescing from TB at the turn of the last century, we don’t know when or why he would have taken his beautifully observed, delicate watercolour of the tree creeper, a small New Zealand bird, with him.   

How had the painting survived in such excellent condition? While watercolours are damaged by light, being tightly packed between other sheets of paper in the dark and cold for over 100 years was actually an ideal way to store it, although we’re not so sure about the penguin poo…! 

You did spot the link to Restore in the word ‘conservation’, didn’t you? We are experts in meeting the stringent conditions required for storing and conserving precious items. Not just archive documents, tapes and films but also, under our Heritage Storage Scheme housed at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, irreplaceable books, parchments, artefacts, paintings, furniture and scientific equipment all created and produced by our ancestors. When you feel the emotional connection and meaning that these things hold over us – much like the connection with Scott of the Antarctic, above – we know why we continue to hold these things dear… 

More next month.