Captain Scott Artifacts

A few days ago I watched a programme about the efforts underway to preserve Captain Scott’s hut in the Antarctic. Frozen, literally, in time, the conservation of all the items in the hut have revealed small details of the life of the men on the expedition.

An early user of the power and funding of sponsorship, Scott’s provisions show astute marketing of Huntley and Palmer biscuits, Colman’s mustard and the like; things which are still broadly recognisable to us.  By dismantling the bits and pieces of equipment still there, the curators have discovered personal modifications and details that flesh out the story of the men on the expedition.

After glacier walking..... Now that's what I call a Tricouni.

The programme was fascinating and the presenter Ben Fogle provided an unexpectedly questioning point of view.  Personally delighted to be allowed to visit the remote hut, he did raise the debate about the value of conserving, at such great expense, things in a location hardly anyone will ever visit.  His conclusion was that all the things are there, and it is a fitting place to leave them.

Watching the programme set me off thinking about two quite different things, which I think may have little in common other than the starting point.  Let’s see.

The accumulation of things, random day to day objects, taken for granted at the time, in normal circumstances would have been discarded and forgotten, as no-one at the time would have thought they were interesting enough to keep.

We rarely appreciate how things are changing until we look back five years or ten or more.  Remember cars from the 1980s? When BMW changed from boxy to smoother and rounded?  Recall when Wagon Wheels shrank in size?  Or when Kitkats came wrapped in silver paper?  When beer cans didn’t have ring pulls?

Not long after it was opened by the National Trust for Scotland,  my mother and I went to visit the Tenement Flat in Glasgow.  I love the description on the NTS’s website of the property…..   ‘The Tenement House is an authentic 19th-century Glasgow tenement house and was the home, for over fifty years, of Miss Agnes Toward, an ordinary lady who kept all sorts of things others would have thrown away.’

It is chock full of completely ordinary things that no-one else would have kept; and Miss Toward had kept it all in lovely condition.  She had been a hoarder, but it hadn’t overtaken her.  She was neat, tidy and thrifty, and operated on the basis that she’d keep all these things because you never knew when you might need them.  I remember my mother remarking on an egg shaped thing which had been popular in the 1940s for aiding the neat repair of silk stockings.

From memory there were four rooms all manned by veritable ladies of a certain age, eager to share their own memories of using various bits and pieces themselves in their youth.  And there was one young lad volunteer who had been allocated the bathroom to mind.  We felt a bit sorry for him and spent longer than was probably quite normal in admiring the high level ‘St Mungo’ cistern on the toilet.

The second tale comes from the story of Captain Scott, or more specifically, Captain Oates, him of the ‘I’m going out, I may be some time’ stiff upper lipped bravery.  When I was at junior school we had an outing to Selborne, the village home to 18th century naturalist Gilbert White .  The Gilbert White Museum, an 18th century vicarage, I think, also houses some rooms for the ‘Oates Collection’.  My memories of it all are rather sketchy, a sled and and some baggy anorak type things ring vague bells (if they had the penguins that are in the photo on the website then, I think I would have remembered them.)

The real memory comes later.  When we got back to school we had to write a story about our trip.  The following day mine was read out; the teacher remarked particularly on the beginning where I had noted that it was a very old looking house and I had expected it to be old inside too, but when we went through the front door the sound of the receptionist typing on a ‘modern’ typewriter shattered my illusions.  She asked the class who else had noticed the noise.  No-one had.

I realised then that I might be an unusually noticing kind of person, and that sometimes it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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  1. margaret nickels

     /  April 30, 2011

    If you have any hints on where the line is between preserving , saving and hoarding please let me know! True it is amazing to look at ordinary everyday objects once in common use but now long forgotten or radically changed….. but where does one keep them and what if I just think its a heap of old rubbish! I really love looking at the kitchens in NT houses because there one does see more run of the mill things which one can even imagine people using in the past .

    • I think the key is to get other people to do the saving, storing and hoarding for us, so we don’t have to live with all that stuff!


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