Gateway Antarctic city Christchurch leads polar education

UC polar historian and Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow Dr Ursula Rack travels to three countries with strong connections to the southern continent, and reports on how they remember, celebrate and communicate their Antarctic histories. Polar history comes alive in Christchurch, New Zealand, with a variety of public educational and academic resources.

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Dr Ursula Rack speaks about her research during the session “The role of Polar museums and advanced science” at the SCAR POLAR2018 conference in Davos, Switzerland.
Dr Ursula Rack speaks about her research during the session “The role of Polar museums and advanced science” at the SCAR POLAR2018 conference in Davos, Switzerland.

Christchurch is justifiably proud of its strong relationship to the southernmost continent, and punches above its weight in communicating research about Antarctic history to the public, says Dr Ursula Rack.

UC polar historian Dr Rack travelled to Washington DC, Columbus in Ohio (USA), Bremerhaven (Germany), Cambridge and London (UK), all cities with strong connections to the Antarctic, thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship. She reported back on how these countries remember, celebrate and communicate their Antarctic histories.

“New Zealand, and especially Christchurch, is doing well compared to other countries like the US. Columbus (Ohio) has the Admiral Byrd Archive, but outside the archive there is no sign of Antarctic history. In Washington DC there are archives but outside these locations there is no general Antarctic history visible.”

Lincoln Ellsworth’s Polar plane in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Lincoln Ellsworth’s Polar plane in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.

Compare this to Christchurch’s statue of explorer Robert Scott, which stood proudly and prominently in the central city from 1917 and was reinstated after significant earthquake damage in 2017.

The situation was better in Europe. “In Bremerhaven, Germany, a great effort is visible at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for more awareness of Polar history. Since 2012 an archive has been established that takes these efforts to a new level.”

Cambridge and London stood out. “The Scott Polar Research Institute has not only a very rich archive but also a Polar Museum which is one of the few “pure” polar museums – most of the time these museums are only a part of bigger museums like maritime museums.”

London’s National Maritime Museum opened a new permanent Polar Worlds exhibition in September and the Royal Geographical Society’s rich archive informs historic projects such as the unprecedented international Weddell Sea Expedition.

Back in Aotearoa New Zealand, the Canterbury Museum, Antarctica NZ and the popular International Antarctic visitors Centre in Christchurch, as well as the Lyttelton Museum (currently being rebuilt), provide a variety of public educational and academic resources. They are important, not just for keeping polar history alive, but for the economic value for New Zealand and Christchurch, in particular, that current research attracts -$124m of value to Canterbury in 2016 according to a report prepared for Antarctic NZ, which also identified 900 firms supplying goods and services to the four national Antarctic programmes based in Christchurch.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship has already helped Dr Rack to secure research funding; the Harriette Jenkins Award from the Graduate Women New Zealand. In addition, as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and an Institute Associate at Scott Polar Research Institute, along with positions at many local institutions, Dr Rack now has her future sights set on gaining funding to research a significant gap in our Antarctic history – the little recognised contribution of women and Māori to polar exploration.

Read Dr Rack’s full report “Frozen history: How different countries research, collect and communicate their Antarctic history”

Read more: UC Antarctica researcher wins Winston Churchill Fellowship

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowships
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowships, administered by the Department of Internal Affairs, help New Zealanders to travel overseas to learn from others and study topics that will be of personal benefit, help them advance their occupation, trade, industry, profession or community and New Zealand in general. Fellows return to New Zealand with new knowledge, skills, inspiration and networks to share and support development in their field.