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.

A single person stands at the edge of a plateau, some distance from the photographer. The foreground shows snow marked by pink algae growth. The background shows the ocean with icebergs floating in the water and snow covered mountains covered in low hanging cloud.
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.

A wide-angle photograph showing participants of homeward bound in their red jackets awaiting briefing on the rocky snow-covered shore. Small ice bergs can be seen in the water near the shore. The ship Ushuaia is in the middle ground. The horizon shows a large ice shelf. The scene is bright and sunny.
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 whale is poking its mouth out of the water at the lower right corner of the photo. On the left people lean over the ships side to take photos. Snow covered mountains can be seen in the background.
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.

The photo shows a snowy slope with a white sky behind. People are sliding down the slope on their bottoms. They all wear the red Homeward Bound Jacket.
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 crouches on the rocky ground holding a sign that reads Climate Action Now. Laying on the ground around her are bags and jackets from other people. Standing in front of her looking at the sign is a penguin chick. It has fluffy grey feathers covering it’s back.
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.

A group of seven people in red jackets stand in the centre of the photo. They are in the middle of two rocky slopes that rise to the left and right. There are some large rock spires standing upright on each slope. The slop to the right has a small colony of penguins. There is a slight pink tinge from their poo on the rocks.
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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