One of the highlights of any trip to South Georgia is a visit to Grytviken and the South Georgia Museum. At the heart of the old abandoned whaling station, overlooked by mountains and facing out to the wide sweep of King Edward Cove, few museums have a more spectacular location. On our most recent visit, we talked to curator Jayne Pierce of the South Georgia Heritage Trust about what it’s like to work in the southernmost museum in the world.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the museum?
The story of the museum begins in 1989, during the operation to clean up South Georgia’s abandoned whaling stations. The original plan was to locate the museum at Stromness station, however Grytviken was eventually chosen, being the site of the original 1904 whaling station that pioneered the Antarctic whaling industry. The project was taken on by Nigel Bonner, the former deputy director of the British Antarctic Survey, who had lived and worked here in the 1950s and 60s.
It was decided that the museum should be located in the whaling station manager’s house, or ‘Villa’ as it was known during the whaling days. Shackleton’s Endurance expedition spent a month at South Georgia on their way south and its members were frequently entertained here.
The Villa was totally derelict when renovation began in 1991, but the first tourist ship visited on 23 January 1992. There were just 6 small cruise ships in that austral summer, but this year we are expecting 115 ships to visit Grytviken during the 2022/23 season.
The South Georgia Whaling Museum, as it was then known, initially focussed on whaling and sealing. The name changed in 1998 to encompass all aspects of South Georgia’s rich heritage and natural history, and it is now known simply as the South Georgia Museum.
In 2006 the South Georgia Heritage Trust took over the management of the museum. One of the principal aims of the Trust is to make the collection more accessible and so increase its educational potential worldwide. The museum and its collection are owned by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which has invested considerable resources into restoring and improving the buildings, and making the whaling station safe for visitors.
How did you become the curator here?
When I was young, I always loved penguins and wanted to travel to the Antarctic to see them. I later read lots of books about polar explorers and fell in love with a notion of working and exploring such a unique environment. Frustratingly, when I graduated with a Geology degree in 1992, fresh faced and looking for adventures, a lot of geological opportunities were not open to women. In a bizarre series of life choices, I inadvertently discovered the inner world of museums and the work of being a curator. I went on to spend 20 years working with some fantastic collections in London. In 2019 I was looking for a change and spotted the advert: ‘Museums seeks Curator’. It was an exciting moment and I felt very emotional, as I realised here was the opportunity to work and travel to somewhere I have always dreamed of going, in a role that I was fully experienced to do.
When does the museum open its doors to visitors during the Austral summer?
The museum opening is very much tied to the austral summer and the tourist ship schedule that is managed by IAATO. This is also determined by when the museum team can get to South Georgia. We normally travel with the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands fisheries patrol vessel Pharos and slot into their schedule. We fly from the UK on the RAF airbridge via the Falkland Islands then take the Pharos SG to South Georgia that normally takes about 4-5 days. The museum is normally open from early October to late March/early April. The beginning and end of the season sees less daylight and often snow and cold temperatures.
This year we arrived early in the year, in mid-September. As we haven’t had a normal season since the outbreak of covid we wanted time to organise the museum and the SGHT shop in plenty of time before the tourist season got underway.
Where do you live during the season?
The museum team normally live in Grytviken, in a cosy little house called Drukken Villa next to the museum. The house has all your normal mod-cons and feels very homely. This year there are 5 staff on the museum team. The museum team live on South Georgia for about 6 months between October and March, during the austral summer season. Grytviken can feel very busy when the tourists visit but at the end of the day, all is silent again and the wildlife run the place.
Grytviken is separated from the main King Edward Point base by a 1km track around the cove. The KEP base is a working research station for the British Antarctic Survey, about eight BAS staff and two government officers are normally based there.
What qualities do you need to be a curator in South Georgia?
Being a curator on South Georgia has many similarities to museum work across the globe, but the main difference is that you sign up to live here too. It is more than just a job and the work/life boundary is very blurred.
The day-to-day routine can be very familiar, caring for and managing objects, writing exhibitions and spending time in dark cupboards! However, when you look out of the office window you are reminded that it is quite unique. The setting and the wildlife that makes everything different. The number of animals can be overwhelming, even in such a busy tourist area such as Grytviken. We have large museum objects on our ‘front lawn’, for example a large anchor, a mast from a sailing vessel and several large sealing pots, used to cook down seal blubber and in peak summer season these objects are overrun by fur seal pups and elephant seal pups. All looking for somewhere quiet to snooze. Sometimes we’ll also get large male seals blocking the doorways, tracks and walkways – which is not an issue I’ve had to deal with in other museums I’ve worked in!
We offer tours of the whaling station to the tourists and during peak breeding season you must always have your wits about you! When walking anywhere around the site we always give wildlife space and avoid interfering with any breeding bird nests in the area, while at the same time making sure the humans stay safe. We have to contend with grumpy terns if we venture too close to nests and often the fur seals take up residence in the whaling factory, creating booby traps around the old machinery. We also give tours in all weathers – if you don’t like the cold or the wet then this is not a job for you.
Living on the island can be a challenge. It isn’t always easy, but the joys are vast and it is a privilege to be able to live here, to watch the change in the seasons and see first-hand the shift in breeding animals. It is something we get to experience that a short visit doesn’t allow.
What items in the museum mustn’t we miss when we visit? And what are your some of your favourites?
The museum is full of unusual objects. Being located in the centre of a whaling station is not something people are familiar with. At first glance some objects and images jump out as being barbaric and scary but there are human stories here that many visitors can connect with. We feel it important that the controversial history of whaling is told.
My favourite objects are ones that look unremarkable but make a powerful connection. On one wall we have a short account called ‘A Whaler’s 10 Commandments.’ It starts in an expected way, ‘Thou shall not steal,’ but then goes on, ‘Thou shall not complain about the mail, Thou shall not turn thy nose at meat balls’. It makes me laugh, I love it. We still complain about the same things here today – the mincemeat we get here is just disgusting!
One of my other favourites is a humpback whale foetus. It is remarkable and instantly recognizable. I have worked with a lot of natural history collections and never seen a specimen like it. It is only 4 months old from conception. The whale hunt tried to avoid taking pregnant females, but I can’t see how that could have been easy to do. Consequently, many pregnant females were taken during the whale hunting days, which had a significant effect on whale populations today. We have some remarkable images in our archives of humpback foetuses that are 5m in length. Whalers would have collected specimens like this and taken them home as presents or souvenirs.
Lastly, I think our taxidermied wandering albatross is probably the most popular objects with visitors. It is certainly the most photographed. We have a wonderful specimen that is mounted on its side and at floor height, so you get a real sense of scale which is often impossible to appreciate when they are flying out at sea.
Is there a shop? We love a bit of souvenir shopping!
There are two tourist ‘shops’ on island. One is located in the museum and is run by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. The shop sells tshirts, books and postcards plus various souvenirs, with profits from going towards conservation and heritage projects on the island.
The second is the government run Post Office. Again, there are cards and postcards plus stamps so you can send a letter home from the island. Tourists need to be quick at writing to get it in the post box before being whisked away again on the ship. The post office also has a good selection of maps and guidebooks.
Finally, what’s one question that visitors never ask but you wish they did?
I think my question would be ‘What is the future of South Georgia?’
The Government of South Georgia, the British Antarctic Survey and the South Georgia Heritage Trust work very hard to protect the wildlife and maintain conservation of the ecosystems around us. In a bid to prevent invasive species, every tourist must clean their boots and scrub their gear before they can step foot on the island. The ships get checked for invasive rats and other stowaways. BAS are constantly monitoring wildlife numbers, populations changes and krill cycles. It is a hard battle to maintain resources to continue all this work, and we can only do this together. The local community work together to provide a way for tourists to visit the island, for scientists to monitor the wildlife and the government to monitor biosecurity. At the next level, the key stakeholders work together to protect and conserve the unique environment to the best of their abilities, with limited resources and funding. But nothing can be done in isolation. The global community also have a common interest to protect and conserve. The visitor video that is shown to all tourists as they enter South Georgia waters describes a ‘ecosystem in recovery’ and it is vitally important that we continue to ensure that recovery continues.
If you can’t wait for your ship to call in at Grytviken, take a virtual tour of the museum here.
To learn more about the work of the South Georgia Heritage Trust, visit their website.