Inside the Collection

A Curator in Antarctica

Summer in Antarctica is smelly, noisy and cold. The temperature hovers around 0°C and on most of the rocky sites there is an overwhelming smell of digested krill or diesel. You may wonder why on earth someone would want to visit.

For me the choice to travel to one of the world’s harshest climates was prompted by my acceptance into a women’s leadership initiative. My journey south was the culmination of a year long program as a part of the second cohort of Homeward Bound.

Photograph of Nina Earl on plateau in Antarctica
Taking in the view. Photo: Oli Sansom

As a participant in Homeward Bound, I travelled with 78 other women working in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine). On the voyage we talked about our work, science and the health of this planet. We discussed our journey as women in our industries and what our hopes for the future are.

Photograph of participants of homeward bound
Landing on the Antarctic continent, with the Ushuaia in the background. Photo: Oli Sansom

For me, experiencing Antarctica was unlike any other place I have visited in the world. Surrounded by a neutral landscape, every little indication of human presence was keenly felt and our red jackets seemed to stick out against the colour palate of the continent.

Yet despite the inhospitable environment a diversity of life thrives, dependent on the oceans that surround the continent. We were lucky enough to see whales, seals and penguins but the highlight for me was being down in the zodiacs as a pod of Orcas swam around us.

A Humpback feeding of the side of the ship
A Humpback feeding of the side of the ship. Photo: Oli Sansom

Being a visitor to this wilderness of ice shifted my view of myself and my world. Its isolation provided a space to delve into deep and challenging issues without the distractions of daily life.

For me, this involved some serious thinking about the leadership role I could play as a woman and a scientist in the museum world. To be a better role model and leader I feel I need to be sharing my passion for science in museums. By making my work visible to the next generation of aspiring scientists and young women, they will gain an understanding of how a science degree can merge with a creative job. And, I hope, opening up possibilities and options allowing them to realise that the future of their lives and careers can be determined by them.

Homeward Bound participants sledding
Homeward Bound participants enjoy some downtime on the Antarctic continent. Photo: Oli Sansom

I also thought more broadly about how we navigate some of the challenging issues facing us today. As museums we have an opportunity to be leaders in the dialogue around issues of gender equality and climate change. In a world of ‘fake news’ and distrust of authority, museums have the capacity to create safe spaces for the sharing and advancement of knowledge. As individuals and institutions, we should be leading the dialogue on these topics. By thinking about creating an intentional environment for learning we can create exhibitions that will engage our communities and encourage them to think about the big issues.

Nina Earl holding a sign that reads Climate Action Now
An inquisitive penguin comes to look at the sign we were using to shoot a climate action campaign. Photo: Oli Sansom

Moving forward I am challenging myself to reimagine our museum spaces as places for dialogue and to think intentionally about how to position ourselves as thought leaders in our communities.

Photograph of Homeward Bound participants
Homeward Bound participants watch a colony of penguins on the rock slope. Photo: Oli Sansom

You can read more about the program here and my experience here.

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