National Archives of Australia

Issue 7 August 2012

Journeys to the ice: uncovering the unexpected

The National Archives’ collection is filled with fascinating treasures and unexpected finds. Melanie Harwood introduces staff member Amy Lay who, as a researcher at the Archives, discovered remarkable records for the exhibition Traversing Antarctica: the Australian experience.

As a young girl, Amy Lay became intrigued by a crystal chandelier in her grandmother’s Melbourne home. This moment of reflection would help define her future career, and ultimately lead her to Canberra.

Twenty years on Amy is living a recently realised dream, working in a national cultural institution. As a researcher at the National Archives of Australia, she delves into the historical holdings of the Archives, exploring a rich collection of documents, photos and unexpected items dating back to Federation.

Amy Lay in the exhibition in Canberra. Photographer: Melanie Harwood

Antarctic discoveries

Amy spent an engrossing six months researching the National Archives exhibition Traversing Antarctica: the Australian experience. Currently on show in Canberra, the exhibition will tour Australia and was developed for the centenary of Australia’s first Antarctica expedition led by Douglas Mawson.

Steam Yacht Aurora photographed on the edge of the ice shelf off Queen Mary Land – with a group of penguins in the foreground (lantern slide attributed to Frank Hurley). NAA: M584, 2

Delving into the Archives’ rich records about the Antarctic was a journey of discovery for Amy.

Too young to be familiar with telegrams or radio messages herself, Amy’s favourite item in the exhibition is a telegram from Mawson. ‘He’s the master of the understatement,’ she says. ‘He’s been on this incredibly harrowing, intense journey, lost two of his colleagues in tragic circumstances, and the telegram says he is, “unavoidably detained for another year … unfortunately Lieut Ninnis and Doctor Mertz both lost their lives”.’

Written 75 years before Amy was born, this and other radio telegrams from Antarctica are an unusual find. ‘How they ended up in the Archives is amazing in itself,’ enthuses Amy. One of the telegrams from Antarctic expeditioner Cecil Madigan to his fiancée is a simple message about the weather.

‘The messages were sent through because the Postmaster-General’s Department thought the radio connection might be cut off’, Amy says. ‘But no one had paid for them. The department kept the messages so that they could chase payment later from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition … and they were eventually transferred into the Archives.’

Radio telegram from Douglas Mawson to Professor Edgeworth David, 1913. NAA: MP341/1, 1915/2307

Following the trail

Under the guidance of exhibition curator Jane Macknight, Amy uncovered a fascinating array of items – from elephant seal breeding notes in code books to film footage of a wondrous white landscape taken by Frank Hurley.

Amy’s passion for her job is obvious. ‘I feel incredibly fortunate to be working at the Archives. I have become a detective, which is both the challenge and the excitement of the job. You think you have found a windfall story, and you get to the end of a lead without it yielding as much as hoped for. But along a side-track you find something unexpected, and equally fascinating.’

Traversing Antarctica shows how surprising the Archives’ collection can be. While you might expect to find official records, diaries and photos, Amy also uncovered dinner menus, beautifully designed invitations to homecoming events, and files recording such Antarctic perils as a seal bite to the rump.

The menu for a dinner held in honour of the 1929-31 British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE). NAA: A461, Q413/1

Reflecting on history

For Amy, there is an obvious link between the ice crystals of the Antarctic, and the vintage crystal chandelier she remembers from childhood. ‘It’s all about history,’ she says. ‘The essence is the same. I’m always intrigued by where has this item been, or who has already worn this, and what historic events occurred at the time.’

The chandelier that so fascinated Amy was given to her grandmother by a friend clearing out her own lavish house. ‘Inside an ordinary 1950s suburban house it looked so beautifully out of place’, explains Amy.

With three years at the National Archives in various roles and also continuing postgraduate study, currently she is exploring vast immigration files, preparing material for a new website and another exhibition.

‘I always get annoyed when someone says, “What’s the point of learning history?” If you know where you’ve been, you can work out where you are going,’ according to Amy.

And it seems at the National Archives, Amy Lay has found her own spot in history.

Traversing Antarctica is showing at the National Archives in Canberra until 9 September. The exhibition’s next stop is the Western Australian Museum – Maritime, Fremantle, from 3 November.

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