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Material from the Antarctic Collections

State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
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Reviewed by:
Kirsten McKenzie
University of Sydney
November 2003

This site contains about 100 photographs, 25 scientific drawings, and 15 documents associated with the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, 1911-1914, led by Douglas Mawson (1882-1958). There is also a link to the database that contains the complete collection of images from the expedition—over 2,000 in all. Mawson declined to accompany Robert Scott on his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole in 1910 in favor of mounting an expedition focused on scientific investigation. Of great importance to this site was the inclusion of James ‘Frank’ Hurley (1885-1962) among the members of the expedition. Hurley established his formidable reputation as a still photographer and documentary filmmaker on this voyage to Antarctica. Hurley’s most famous work is perhaps that associated with the Shackleton expedition of 1915, but his immense skill as a photographer was already evident in 1910.

The site is easy to navigate and offers three content sections: “Antarctica Timeline,” “Digitized Collections,” and “Antarctica Links.” The last section provides a gateway to 10 external sites, most of which are concerned with contemporary Antarctic exploration and research. “Antarctica Timeline” provides the only background material available on the site. It provides brief details on subjects such as “Imagining Terra Australis,” “The Age of Discovery,” “The Heroic Age,” and “The Age of Technology and Politics.” Information is mostly confined to listing expeditions, including dates, the names of those leading the expedition, and their fates. This material can be accessed sequentially or by clicking on the timeline below the text.

All the primary material is available in “Digitized Collections” in which nine collections are arranged in Web books. They include more than 60 images from the expedition, two images of the flags carried by the expedition, two charcoal drawings of Aurora polaris phenomena, and 14 drawings and observations (including maps). Three sections of the “Digitized Collections” include written records. Two contain menus and toast lists from celebrations held during the expedition, such as the midwinter dinner held on June 22, 1912. The third contains four letters relating to the inclusion of Frank Hurley in the expedition, including one from his mother attempting, without her son’s knowledge, to persuade Douglas Mawson that her son was not healthy enough to qualify. Given the rigors of the expeditions that Hurley survived, and his death in 1962 at the age of 77, her contention that “I am certain he is not strong enough for the position” is imbued with all the irony of hindsight.

The primary materials can be displayed as thumbnails or full-size images. Where written content appears, a transcription is also available. While the site is not searchable, this is not a major disadvantage given the material. The content lists provide good overviews.

In the teaching of world history, this site might be used comparatively in conjunction with others that deal with questions of exploration, discovery, and scientific endeavor. The site is also an excellent showcase of early 20th-century photography, particularly under the harsh conditions of polar life. It is informative not only of contemporary technology and scientific interests, but may also be used to discuss the culture of exploration, both in terms of the interaction between members shown in the photographs and through the toasts and menus preserved in the written records. The site does not contain detailed background material. The Ice and the Inland: Mawson, Flynn, and the Myth of the Frontier1 is particularly recommended as it places Mawson in another important context—that of frontier mythology and settler societies—useful for teaching world history.

1 Brigid Hains, The Ice and the Inland: Mawson, Flynn, and the Myth of the Frontier (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002).

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