“I THINK OF ANTARCTICA every day,” writes Leslie Carol Roberts. Anyone who has been to this fantastic, far-off continent knows exactly what she means — Antarctica is like a dream, a lost lover, “our imagined territory.” Roberts is, she freely admits, a “polar junkie,” drawn physically and emotionally to Antarctica and also drawn intellectually to the question of how the continent takes shape in the cultural imagination.
Roberts’s love affair with Antarctica begins in 1987 when, as a newspaper reporter, she joins the environmental group Greenpeace for a trip to the Great White South. As the crew loads the ship in New Zealand, she slips off to visit the Lyttelton Historical Society Museum, an old-fashioned, quirky archive of all things Antarctic, overseen by the eminent Antarctic historian, archivist, and gentleman Baden Norris. A friendship is born, which Roberts rekindles fifteen years later when she returns to write her book. The charming, understated Norris and his museum work become the perhaps unintended heart of this narrative of how history gets made through the collection and display of artifacts that tell particular stories.
New Zealand has more Antarctic museums than any country in the world, and they are located in Christchurch and the nearby seaport of Lyttelton — it was from this nondescript little town that the wooden ships of the twentieth century’s Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration sailed off for icy adventure. Christchurch’s museums became the repositories of gear donated by these early explorers. Items on display include: Sir Robert Falcon Scott’s last train ticket, purchased in Australia where he traveled raising money for his expeditions; the pocket knife Norwegian Roald Amundsen used to cut the first flagpole erected at the South Pole; stuffed penguins and sled dogs; mannequins sporting the old-fashioned Burberry anoraks. One of the most poignant artifacts in the Canterbury Museum is the “Little Comet” stove that had been aboard the James Caird, the now iconic lifeboat in which the genius navigator Frank Worsley and other members of Ernest Shackelton’s 1914 expedition sailed across the Drake Passage to find rescue for the rest of the men left behind after their ship had been crushed by ice.
The task of Roberts’s book is to tell “little known” Antarctic accounts — those “ground up under the tractor treads of history.” Though many of these stories will already be well known to those interested in Antarctica, what this account does do is bring to life and light the historic port of Lyttelton, allowing us to see the major role it played in the making of Antarctic myth. Most importantly, Roberts introduces readers to the intriguing Norris, a man entirely dedicated to preserving the artifacts and thus shaping the narrative of one specific place on Earth.