Placing the Past: The McMurdo Dry Valleys and the problem of geographical specificity in Antarctic history

Adrian Howkins, Colorado State University

History seminar – University of Melbourne
13th July 2017 (Thursday), 1pm
Room 553, Arts West Building, North West, University of Melbourne, Parkville

Antarctica is a continent and region that has historically been treated as a unified whole, rather than as a being made up of places in specific relation to one another and with the rest of the world. Several recent interventions in Antarctic humanities scholarship have drawn on the significant body of work on the concept of “place” in many humanities and social science disciplines to investigate a number of countervailing movements in Antarctic history that resist this totalizing vision.

With a focus on the McMurdo Dry Valleys near Ross Island this paper takes up those challenges to think more deeply about the meaning of place in Antarctic history.  Since the late 1950s, scientists have been attracted to the Dry Valley region by its geographical uniqueness; almost always, however, they have sought to make wider claims for their research that go beyond the region itself.  How should historians treat the concept of “place” when the subjects of our research often used it so loosely?  In addressing this question, and others like it, the history of the McMurdo Dry Valleys can help to take forward discussions about the nature of place in Antarctica, and environmental history and the history of science more generally.

Adrian Howkins is currently Associate Professor of Environmental History at Colorado State University and will soon be Reader in Environmental History at the University of Bristol. He is the author of The Polar Regions: An Environmental History (2016) and Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctic Peninsula (2017). He is also a co-PI on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Site, sponsored by the US National Science Foundation. His visit has been supported by a grant from the University of Melbourne’s Joyce Lambert Antarctic Research Fund.

Please contact Alessandro Antonello ( for further information.

Image: Ventifacts in Taylor Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys, photograph by United States Antarctic Program.