National Archives of Australia

Issue 4 October 2011

Traversing Antarctica: the Australian experience

A new exhibition developed by the Archives – Traversing Antarctica: the Australian experience – celebrates the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Douglas Mawson in 1911–14. It also charts Australian involvement in, and fascination with, Antarctica up to the present day. The exhibition itself is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, a huge amount of work was undertaken by Archives staff, as well as third party contributors. Archives curator Jane Macknight highlights the behind-the-scenes contributions of Archives staff in developing Traversing Antarctica.

One hundred years ago, Sir Douglas Mawson led the first Australian expedition of scientific exploration to Antarctica. Traversing Antarctica charts a course through the scientific exploration and politics of subsequent expeditions to the modern era of the Antarctic Treaty System, international climate science and the enduring value of the Antarctic environment. The story comes to life through original documents and objects, innovative touch-screens and evocative imagery. Developed to appeal to a wide range of visitors – from professionals with a special interest in Antarctica to families and school groups – a sensory experience is on offer, including the sights, sounds and smells of Antarctica.

Aurora Australis entering the fast ice near Mawson Station, 17 March 2007. Photographer: Hosung Chung. AAD: IA10977

Curatorial and research staff

The curator, with the help of researchers, is at the heart of an exhibition project, providing the vision and refining the concept and content. Staying with the exhibition throughout its life, the curator will also deliver interpretive programs to the public. Typically, the curator and researchers will spend more than a year working on a large travelling exhibition such as Traversing Antarctica.

Archives researcher Amy Lay and conservator Sally Kneebone assess documents for inclusion in the exhibition, 2011. Photographer: Emily Hanlon

Reference and examination staff

Reference staff are a key part of the research effort, helping the curator and researchers to access the Archives’ vast holdings. For Traversing Antarctica, six months of research was carried out by staff in the Archives’ Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart offices. Approximately 400 files were examined by specialised staff to ensure they could be released to the public under relevant legislation. With an average file size of more than 200 pages, at least 8000 pages were turned as part of the Traversing Antarctica research effort.

Conservation staff

Archives conservation staff were involved from the start of the Traversing Antarctica project, ensuring records were treated appropriately, particularly those requiring special handling and storage. Conservators also assisted with final object selection, and the preparation and mounting of objects for display.

Conservation staff must deal with a range of issues when preparing paper-based documents for display. For example, appropriate temperature and humidity controls must be in place. Light can pose a great risk for paper-based objects. Many of the documents on display in Traversing Antarctica were produced with inks that are very likely to fade if exposed to excessive amounts of light. To protect these documents, special display cabinets were designed to limit light exposure. Conservators will rigorously monitor these documents. They have also developed a replacement schedule for documents considered at risk of deterioration.

Traversing Antarctica also features a significant amount of film of the early years of operation of the Australian Antarctic Division, which is now part of the Archives’ holdings. This film was preserved by Archives staff working in the film preservation unit.

The roof of the main base hut with snow and rocks in the foreground, Cape Denison, 1911. Glass plate and lantern slides from the collection of biologist and taxidermist Charles Francis Laseron, some of which are used in Traversing Antarctica, required special handling and storage by conservators. Photographer unknown. NAA: M584, 23

Imaging staff

All records displayed in Traversing Antarctica are also placed in digital format on the Archives’ online research database – RecordSearch. Even if just one piece of paper (a letter or file note, perhaps) is selected from a file of 300 pages, Archives imaging staff must digitise the whole file. In preparing Traversing Antarctica, no fewer than 250 files were digitised, quality checked and made available online.

For Traversing Antarctica, imaging staff also prepared high-resolution digital scans to enable accurate conservation monitoring of records, produced facsimiles (where records could not be displayed in their original form), and arranged the printing of high-quality digital reproductions for display.


Exhibition text must not only be factually accurate, it also needs to be presented in an engaging way. Generally the curator, with the help of researchers, will write the text for an exhibition. Education staff may also provide expert advice. In Traversing Antarctica the curator also consulted with experts at the Australian National University, Australian Antarctic Division and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to ensure accuracy. All of the text is then reviewed by an Archives editor to ensure consistency and clarity.

Project management

Finally, the project manager pulls together the project team, plans timeframes and budgets, liaises with third parties, solves problems and generally keeps the project on track. They ensure that the exhibition is delivered according to the approved concept, within budget, on time and to a professional standard.

While Traversing Antarctica involved a significant number of staff from the Archives, it would not have been possible without collaboration with, and commitment from, the Australian Antarctic Division and the Western Australian Museum. The Australian Antarctic Division provided significant support, including expert advice and access to their object and image collection. The Western Australian Museum brought the exhibition to life through their innovative exhibition design.

Traversing Antarctica opens at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart on Friday 2 December 2011, before travelling to the Archives in Canberra in March 2012.

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