Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton are often compared, but not many people ever ask “Which of them was better at drawing cartoon penguins?”. Even so, at the Polar Museum we can answer this question, because we have a collection of blackboards with chalk drawings by famous Arctic and Antarctic explorers, including these two great men.

Both Scott and Shackleton gave public lectures at the Whitworth Hall in Manchester in the early 1900s, and as part of the entertainment they drew penguins on large blackboards and then signed them for posterity. The Whitworth Hall kept these blackboards for decades but eventually decided to get rid of them. By a minor miracle, they were found in a skip in the 1950’s and rescued – virtually undamaged. Eventually they were donated to the Polar Museum collection.

Having blackboards with chalk drawings in the collection is understandably quite stressful – a sneeze or accidental touch could cause irreparable damage! So the blackboards have been stored in cases made from wood and MDF with Perspex fronts to protect them. Unfortunately these cases are not archival (i.e. not suitable for preserving museum artefacts) and worse still, the blackboards and cases are so heavy they cannot be stored in our art racks and so have been stacked inaccessibly in a corner.

We have been building new, lighter archival frames for the blackboards so that they can be hung safely in the art racking where we can easily get to them. The new frames have no backs to help keep the weight down and allow air to circulate round the boards. The fronts are protected with rigid archival corrugated card – it is excellent stuff but very expensive and has been kindly paid for by a grant from the UCM Conservation and Collections Care network. The card is better than Perspex, which is static and so could actually pull chalk off the image on the blackboard over time. The only downside to the card is that you can’t see through it, but it is easy to open the new enclosure like a book to see the object inside.

Rehousing the boards in new frames has given us a great opportunity to clean them up and repair them, removing old mould spots and cobwebs. While checking over the Scott blackboard we found weird stains which looked a ghostly yellow under ultraviolet light. It turns out that this is an old fixative that was applied to the chalk a long time ago, but only on this blackboard. Weirdly it makes the penguin look as if it is surrounded by the Southern Lights!

The blackboards are now happily hanging in the art racking, but the jury is still out on which cartoon is better! It’s probably safe to say that Scott and Shackleton were both better at polar exploration than they were at drawing…