South Georgia is not only a natural paradise, but also a paradise for historians. For decades, the island was also the center of industrial whaling in the South Atlantic and Antarctica. This important, but also sad history is on display especially in Grytviken, today the administrative center of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but also an open-air museum about the history of the region maintained by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the regional administration. Now visitors can visit a new highlight of the museum and dive deep into the daily life of South Georgia whalers.
The largest building of the former whaling station Grytviken, the main store, was officially released after five years of extensive and careful restoration work and is now open for visitors to Grytviken. Laura Sinclair-Willis, director of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Administration, states: “The Main Store is central to South Georgia’s intriguing history, and thanks to the support of a team of experts, it is now an accessible time capsule capable of receiving visitors, as well as an important part of the work we are doing to explain the rich cultural history of the island.”
The long building between the oil tanks and the flens platform, where the landed whales were processed, provides visitors with a very detailed insight into the operation of the whaling station, but also into the everyday life of the people who worked and lived here between 1904 and 1965. Countless rivets, bolts, screws and other material objects lie on long rows of shelves that can be walked on freely. But also objects like bone saws, blubber hooks for the fat layers of the whales, flens knives, with which the whales had been cut up or harpoon heads, which were filled with explosive charges to kill the whales quickly, show a detailed picture of the industrial whaling time. Signs describe the items and their uses, providing valuable information about this important aspect of the region. “Given South Georgia’s remote location it played an essential role in storing the many supplies needed to keep the whaling station and its fleet of vessels running, including feeding and supporting the many men that formed the whaling crews, which was a huge undertaking,” explains Jane Pierce, museum curator at the South Georgia Heritage Trust.
But the building is not only a new highlight for the 10,000 – 15,000 annual visitors to South Georgia. For scientists, too, the store was and is a real treasure chest and provides a lot of material for research. For in recent years, the objects and the building have not only been restored, but also examined and catalogued in greater detail. This required extensive and also costly work, because the remote location of South Georgia and the harsh climatic conditions did not make the work easy. “Following a Condition Survey and Structural Report of the Main Store that was published in 2018, our Heritage Build Team, SGHT’s Museum Curator and an Advisory Panel of heritage experts worked over the summer seasons between 2018 – 2023 to remediate the building’s structure,” says Laura Sinclair-Willis. “This included repainting the entire exterior, removing modern equipment and materials, installing electrical wiring and period lighting fixtures, and replacing windows, giving us the fully accessible building we have today. The restoration of the island’s Main Store would not have been possible without the generous support of the many organisations and friends with a close affinity to South Georgia.”
The preservation of Grytviken and the other stations standing on South Georgia is an important concern for the South Georgia Heritage Trust. After all, the former center of industrial whaling, where over 175,000 whales were slaughtered and processed in 61 years, now stands as a monument to how man should not treat nature’s treasures for technological advancement. At the same time, however, South Georgia also stands for the successful renaturation of a region that was once commercially exploited and severely degraded. On the one hand, this is due to the successful efforts of the SGHT in pest control, thanks to which the unique flora and fauna on the island can thrive again. On the other hand, thanks to the maintenance of the whaling moratorium, whales can now be seen again in large numbers in the waters around South Georgia, captivating visitors… just as the new, old main store in Grytviken will do.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
Link to the website of the South Georgia Heritage Trust
Link to interactive map of Grytviken via South Georgia Museum
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