On the north shore of Ross Island, Antarctica, sits Mt. Erebus, the second highest volcano on the continent. The active volcano is neighbor to Scott’s Hut, now a unique museum literally frozen in time and the least visited museum in the world.
Erected in 1911, to house British Naval Officer Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole, the fifty by twenty-five-foot hut incredibly rests in the same condition as it was over a hundred years ago, preserved by the freezing temperatures of the Antarctic. Last used and then abandoned in 1917 by British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, we still see the original enamel mugs hanging from the shelves, and boxes of provisions and some personal effects left in the hut.
Scott’s Hut was prefabricated in London before being erected in Lyttelton, New Zealand, then shipped to the north shore of Cape Evans on Ross Island. His twenty-five member expedition included scientists, photographers and brave explorers, going where few modern men had gone. The formally titled British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 to 1913 was known more familiarly as the Terra Nova — new land — expedition.
The goal was to be the first to find the South Pole. By cruel fate, they got there to find they had been beaten by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, just five weeks prior. Scott and his team did find, however, evidence of plant fossils, which confirmed the one time forestation of Antarctica, and that it was once joined to other continents.
Tragically, on the return journey Scott and two of his team members died in March 1912, from starvation, exhaustion and cold weather. Several of the surviving team members stayed in Scott’s Hut during the winter of 1912, trapped by the impassable weather, in order to search for the bodies the following spring. However they had to abandon their search in 1913, after failure to find the bodies.
Canned food still sits on the shelves, including boxes of Henry Tate and Son’s sugar, a source of energy for the explorers, and boxes of Fry’s concentrated cocoa. A copy of the London Illustrated News from the time sits atop a desk in the corner, and the darkroom of photographer Herbert Ponting is in the same condition he left it, chemicals and trays in place.
Until 1956 the hut remained untouched, and pretty much unseen, but then American explorers dug it out of the snow and ice. Now, Auckland, New Zealand based architect Pip Cheshire and his team have led the conservation of what has become a museum, perhaps the world’s oddest, maybe smallest, and certainly hardest to reach. Maintained by the Antarctic Heritage Trust of New Zealand, the goal is to stabilize the hut for at least the next 35 years. Warming temperatures have begun to melt some of the ice that held everything perfectly in place and prevented deterioration. It also exposed artifacts until recently hidden, like photographer and zoologist George Murray Levick’s notebook, which is remarkably readable and has since been digitized for prosperity, including, one is glad to note, his extensive observations of penguins’ sex lives.
Although bacterial decay is a minor problem in the hut, the tins of food have been preserved by the below freezing temperatures. Not that we recommend eating any of it, just to be clear.
Visiting the hut museum is a process, as you’d expect. First, it requires a ticket with Oceanwide Expeditions on a ship that sails through the southern parts of the Antarctic Peninsula. On the expedition through the Ross sea, you visit a number of islands and make a stop at the historic Shackleton hut, and then Scott’s eerily preserved one. Travel includes being on a helicopter. In other words, you don’t just turn up.
The next 31-day expeditions are scheduled for early January and February 2020, and start just south of $28,000 (making it also the world’s most expensive museum, now that we think about it). One could travel on one’s own ship, one supposes, but that would be suicide. So forget it — the logistics are everything, obviously. But — forgive us for spending your money — this has to be one of the great trips anyone could ever take, and by being one of the few people to visit this museum, you’d touch one of the rarest touched spots on the planet, and have a sense of what being an Antarctic explorer was like.