I work in one of the world’s most remote museums

A Shetland woman has traveled thousands of miles to work in one of the world’s most remote museums.

The island of South Georgia is located in the South Atlantic Ocean and the museum attracted visitors from all over the world.

However, the staff were asked to leave in March 2020 as Covid-19 spread around the world. It has now reopened.

Helen Balfour read about the museum in a BBC article and successfully applied to be an assistant on the island which is 8,000 miles (12,875 km) away from her home.

The 23-year-old was drawn to her love of museums and heritage and her family ties to the island, as her grandfathers were whalers in the area.

The long journey by land, sea and air to South Georgia took her three weeks.

“I first heard about the South Georgia Museum through an article written for the BBC and my father saw it online and sent it to me,” she told BBC Radio Shetland.

“And because of family ties to South Georgia, I just thought it was really interesting.

“My great-grandfather was here in the early 1930s, and his sons – including my grandfather – worked here. My other grandfather was here too.”

An elephant seal cub in front of the South Georgia Museum in Grytviken

An elephant seal cub near the South Georgia Museum

Helen contacted the team and asked if she could apply for a job, and successfully passed the interview.

To get there you had to take the ferry from Shetland to Aberdeen, then the train to Oxford, a flight from Brize Norton to the Falklands and then another boat to South Georgia.

“I left home on October 2nd and we got here around the 22nd. It took me a while to get here,” she said.

“We were in the Falkland Islands for five days and then the boat trip was another five days.

“It’s very special to be able to come here.”

Map of South Georgia

Map of South Georgia

The island itself is a difficult place to work.

Although closer to South America – and the South Pole – than to London, South Georgia has been a British island since the 18th century, claimed by Captain James Cook.

The king is the head of state and the union jack is on the flag.

However, the name of the ghost town where the museum is located, Grytviken (pronounced Grit-vicken), gives a sense of the island’s history.

The settlement was mentioned by Swedish explorers in the early 20th century (the name means Pot Cove). In 1904 the Norwegians opened a whaling station there to process the meat, blubber and bones of the whales.

Over the next 60 years, more than 175,000 whales were killed in South Georgia waters alone — processed at Grytviken and other stations along the coast.

But by the 1960s, the industry had burned out – there were no longer enough whales to catch.

Grytviken was abandoned, but a relatively large villa – built in 1914 – remained usable.

In 1989, David Wynn-Williams, a British Antarctic scientist, proposed turning the villa into a museum. The project was taken over by Nigel Bonner and opened in 1992, originally focused on whaling but now with a broader approach.

The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT), which manages the museum, is based in Dundee.

Fresh food in South Georgia is rare, the internet connection is poor and sometimes the wind is strong enough to tip helicopters over.

Helen’s grandfather Jimmy Balfour first visited South Georgia in the 1950s.

After a decade of whaling, he worked on one of the last whaling ships to operate out of Grytviken.

Penguins in South Georgia

Penguins are also a major attraction in South Georgia

Her other grandfather, Alan Leask, started whaling at the age of 16. Her great-grandfather, Thomas Balfour, was also a whaler 20 years earlier.

Helen already loves the adventure – and the wildlife, including penguins and elephant seals.

“It’s pretty funny. There have been many nights where we’ve all just stood out the window and watched all the drama that goes on when the mothers leave their puppies behind,” she explained.

“We all carry broomsticks in case one of them gets a little too close, they can be quite territorial.

“They’re a little different from the seals you’d see in Shetland.”

The new museum assistant helps in the shop and with tours and looks forward to getting to know the cruise ship passengers.

“We expect thousands of visitors,” she says. “I think it’s going to be beautiful.”

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