The first proposal to establish a museum on South Georgia was made in 1989 by David Wynn-Williams, a British Antarctic scientist. At that time, it was proposed to house the museum in the abandoned whaling station in Stromness. However, Grytviken was ultimately selected as a more suitable location, due to its proximity to the pier at King Edward Point and in recognition of the fact that it was the first whaling station built in South Georgia. The museum’s first project group was led by former British Antarctic Survey Deputy Director Nigel Bonner, who lived and worked on South Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s.
The museum was located in the building known as the Manager’s Villa, which had deteriorated considerably in the years after the whaling station closed in the 1960s and was badly dilapidated. In 1990 and 1991, extensive remediation work was carried out throughout the Grytviken site to remove asbestos and other hazardous materials, and the museum building was renovated during this time. The cleanup team was able to recover and transport heavy equipment from whaling stations around the island, including the first object registered in the museum catalog, a rare 50-mm bottle-nose cannon.
The renovation of the Manager’s Villa continued in 1991 and 1992 with the installation of the first exhibits by Nigel Bonner and Ian Hart. The South Georgia Whaling Museum, as it was then called, opened to visitors in January 1992. In this first season, 480 visitors signed the museum’s visitor book between January 23 and March 5.
In 1994, Robert (Bob) Burton took over as director of the museum and remained in office until 1998. During this time, significant improvements were made to the fabric of the museum, along with the “little villa” next door and the church. In addition, many other objects were added to the collection.
Burton passed away on January 15, 2022. He was associated with the island for more than six decades, having first visited in 1964. Burton received the Morag Husband Campbell Medal from the South Georgia Association in 2018 in recognition of his lifelong contribution to the island.
The most notable couple in the museum’s operation were Tim and Pauline Carr, two sailors who arrived in South Georgia in 1992 aboard their yacht Curlew.
Both immediately fell in love with the island, its wilderness and its natural beauty. This passion for South Georgia ensured that it would be their home for the next 24 years before they left for New Zealand in 2006.
They worked in the museum as janitors and later became curators. Under their leadership, the museum expanded its scope to show more of the island in addition to whaling. New exhibits on the discovery and exploration of South Georgia and its natural history and stewardship were added. The museum has been expanded with other exhibitions, including those on the island’s military and maritime history. Pauline Carr passed away in New Zealand in 2019.
In 2006, the museum was renamed the South Georgia Museum and management was turned over to the South Georgia Heritage Trust. During the trust’s tenure, there have been significant improvements in the care, documentation, interpretation and maintenance of the collections, largely due to the hiring of professional staff, including a permanent full-time curator. Recently, the museum has developed an online database of the collections.
The GSGSSI has continued to invest in the grounds and buildings of the museum. Significant work was done on the villa during the 2006/07 season, including the installation of a new roof, new windows and replacement floors.
In addition to the objects in the villa, the museum includes an outdoor display of exhibits that are too cumbersome to bring inside. These include several harpoon guns, one of which, a Bofors gun, is believed to date from the 19th century and may have been the original gun of the first catcher used in South Georgia, the Fortuna. In addition to numerous whaling cannons, the museum houses a Gjelstad whale claw (used to pull whales up the stern slip onto ships) and a steam-powered bone saw. Also worthy of note in the outdoor exhibits are the large cast iron kettles that used to stand on the beach at Grytviken. These cauldrons, in Norwegian gryter, were used to extract oil from the skin and blubber of seals and penguins. Grytviken means “boiler cove” in Norwegian.
Much has changed in South Georgia since the museum’s inception. In addition to a well-documented resurgence of wildlife and the eradication of many non-native invasive species, the number of visitors to Grytviken has increased significantly. During the first summer of operation in 1992/93, only six small cruise ships visited Grytviken and thus also the museum. By the 2019/20 season, that number had grown to nearly 80 ships carrying more than 12,000 passengers.
The GSGSSI and the South Georgia Heritage Trust continue to work together to ensure that the museum meets the needs of a growing number of visitors while mitigating the impact of increased visitor traffic on the fabric of a historic building.
The South Georgia Museum in Grytviken is owned by the GSGSSI and operated by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, a registered charity in Scotland. The museum plays an important role in protecting the cultural and historical heritage of the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
Heiner Kubny, PolarJournal
South Georgia Museum Website
Virtual tour of Grytviken