Over the next couple of months we are particularly pleased to host a series of blogs from former undergraduate students of St Andrews. Courtenay Elle Critchton-Turley (2012), Matthew Moran (2013), Melody Wentz (2014) and Sophia Mirashrafi (2016) are just a few of our students who have gone on to undertake postgraduate degrees in archaeology/museum studies/conservation. In this series of posts, they will discuss their work and how it relates to material culture, digitisation and accessibility.

Matthew Moran graduated from the School of Classics in 2013. He went on to complete an MLitt in Museum and Gallery Studies and graduated in 2014 with a distinction in his dissertation. Matthew has since worked in a number of museums, including what must be one of the most remote examples in the world: South Georgia Museum. We hear from Matthew how important laser scanning has become for the island.

South Georgia
South Georgia

South Georgia is a remote and mountainous sub-Antarctic island 900 miles west of the Falkland Islands and 900 miles northwest of the Antarctic peninsula. The island is around 100 miles long and between 3-20 miles wide, with no permanent resident population other than a few million seals and penguins – just a team of scientists, support crew, government officers and heritage workers, whose total number can be as few as 7 in the winter before burgeoning up to 35 in the summer with visiting researchers. My own journey required an 18 hour RAF flight to the Falkland’s Mount Pleasant with a refueling stop at the equator on Ascension Island, before a four day sail to Grytviken, South Georgia.

South Georgia Museum
Figure 1 South Georgia Museum in front of Mount Hodges. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite being one of the most inaccessible places on the planet, a flourishing Antarctic tourism industry means the island receives over 70 visits from cruise ships and over 8,000 day-visitors during the milder summer months. On every visit each vessel must call at the port of entry at Grytviken and King Edward Point, so a visit to the local museum is almost compulsory for all new arrivals, often inundating the museum with 100 to 200 visitors at a time.

The South Georgia Museum is housed in the 100 year old wooden villa on the abandoned whaling station at Grytviken. The museum is maintained to an excellent but low-tech standard. There are no interactive or digital exhibits, beyond TV screens and CD players – but this is deliberate: internet access is limited to a satellite link shared by the whole island, whose bandwidth is equivalent to a slow dial-up connection. Often the radar dome is covered with snow, or there’s extensive cloud cover, or it just drops out for weeks at a time, leaving the island with no internet connectivity at all, and even if the museum did purchase a swanky digital interactive, at the first inevitable failure the required expertise or spare parts could take six months or more to reach the island at eye-watering cost.

Add to this the fact that Antarctic cruises start at around £10,000 per person, South Georgia’s human heritage seems disastrously inaccessible to all but the most energetic and wealthy individuals. However, this is not the case. Firstly, despite the enormous inconvenience of using a web-based Collections Management System with such a poor connection, all accessioned items are uploaded onto eHive. EHive allows the public to view all the museum’s collection online and browse at their leisure. This is the best way to increase accessibility to the collection on an extremely limited budget and was a conscious decision to try and give the collection greater exposure.

Furthermore, for the last few years the South Georgia Government in partnership with the Norwegian Government, has been working with New Zealand based company Geometria to conduct 3D laser surveys of the island’s dwindling human heritage.  A tripod-mounted laser scanner rotates around an axis while firing off a laser, retrieving data on a time delay (dependent on distance) as well as colour. Multiple scans are taken from an area and combined into a data map containing millions or billions of data points which are reconstructed into 3D space.

There were around six whaling stations operating on the island between 1904 and 1965, all of which have now been scanned. The elements have taken their toll and they are now rapidly disintegrating into nothing. So much has been lost already, such as the Grytviken cinema, which slowly folded in on itself until it completely collapsed in the early 2000s. Bjorn L Basberg’s excellent archaeological survey, conducted in the 1990s and published in 2004, is already out-of-date, so quickly are the structures disappearing.

South Georgia cinema
Figure 2 Grytviken cinema in the early 1990s. Now nothing remains but concrete foundations. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, even to visitors to the island, the whaling stations are strictly off limits with the exception of Grytviken – asbestos is ubiquitous, structures are on the verge of collapse, and in high winds ‘flying tin’ can seriously injure or kill the unwary.

This is where these high resolution colour 3D survey scans come into their own. Not only are they an amazing resource for future research, a snapshot of a vanishing landscape, they also allow the general public a real glimpse of something truly inaccessible. A selection of the finished renderings were put on display in a gallery adjacent to the museum in 2015, so that visitors to the island could get a real sense of the island’s unreachable human heritage. They are set in the landscape: the visitor can get a sense of the stations as they fit in the surrounding area, with vast looming hills and snow-covered moss adding to the sense of loneliness and isolation which is so important to any interpretation of human presence on South Georgia.

See one of the 3D survey scans of Leith Harbour Whaling Station here.

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