National heritage values

The site was entered on the National Heritage List in January 2005 (Place ID 105713). The National Heritage listing criteria prescribed by the EPBC Act and Regulations are identical to the Commonwealth Heritage criteria, but define the ways in which the place as ‘outstanding heritage value to the nation’ (see Appendix III). The site was found to meet criteria A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H (see below).

Mawson’s Huts Historic Site is a place of great historical and social significance. The site is significant as the first base for scientific and geographical discovery in Antarctica by Australians. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1914 (AAE) was the first large-scale scientific inquiry after Federation. Mawson’s Huts is a complex historical site, a remnant of the ‘Heroic Era’ of exploration in Antarctica. The expedition carried out major scientific experiments and laid the foundation for the eventual claim to a very large portion of the Antarctic continent by Australia.

Mawson’s Huts Historic Site is rare as one of only nine wintering expedition bases built and as the only surviving site representing the work of an Australian expedition of the Heroic Age. It is one of only six sites, of all nationalities, remaining from this era. The expedition survived the isolation and the severe climate and the site illustrates this through its form and setting. The overall site with its range of buildings, scientific equipment and artefacts demonstrates life in Antarctica during this period. This base is the least disturbed by human activities making it one of the most diverse and unique bases that remain.

The place has a strong symbolic association with Sir Douglas Mawson, the AAE party and their heroic activities, and is evocative of Mawson’s leadership and the scientific endeavours undertaken. Mawson’s story has become part of Australia’s exploration history and, as such, is part of the nation’s cultural tradition. The place is directly associated with Sir Douglas Mawson’s major Antarctic expedition, which made him a hero to much of the Australian population. The AAE has become an integral part of Australia’s exploration history and has gained a mythic quality. The place is highly prominent in the consciousness of large numbers of Australians; in particular, the science and veterans community value the AAE for its role in Antarctic scientific research and for the way it became a model for further exploration in the Antarctic.

The site remains as isolated and remote as it did in 1912, with its historic structures clinging to the small peninsula of rock that is Cape Denison. This sense of a truly isolated place is powerful, both visually and symbolically. The Main Valley and adjacent ridges exhibit an aesthetic landscape value by providing a strong sense of place, with the Main Hut located snugly near the water’s edge and the group of scientific huts contained within a defined valley, dominated by the Memorial Cross and the BANZARE Proclamation Pole on adjacent ridges. The building form of the huts themselves shows the functional and efficient planning that was undertaken in response to the site position and the elements. The aesthetic qualities of the interior pyramid space, defined by the raked timber ceiling, timber beams and skylights rising over the central area, together with the evocative evidence of its historic use, produce an emotive response in visitors and viewers alike.

The place is strongly evocative of the endeavours of a group of Australians and others in one of the fiercest environments on Earth. The weathered buildings, as well as the artefacts and the memorial cross, and their relationship to the vast Antarctic landscape around them with its snow, ice, rocks and relentless winds, and the sea beyond, combine in creating an outstanding aesthetic entity conveying a strong sense of time and isolation. The weathering and survival of the huts and the decay of other artefacts, as a result of years of exposure to hostile conditions, provide archaeological and scientific research potential in the area of materials deterioration and conservation. It also serves as a gauge of time elapsed since the AAE and of the conditions endured by its members in this remote and hostile environment.

The AAE is significant as the first expedition to pioneer the use of wireless communication on the Antarctic continent, linking the main base at Cape Denison with mainland Australia via the relay station established on Macquarie Island. This expedition was also the first to obtain an aeroplane for use in Antarctica, although due to damage it was utilised by the expeditioners as an air tractor. The AAE is also significant for the photography of Frank Hurley, including his innovative use of colour images and cinematography. The surviving fabric, such as wireless masts and artefacts on site and in collections in Australia and overseas, demonstrate the intense period of AAE occupation between 1912–13.

The whole of Cape Denison contains evidence of the AAE, with a concentration of evidence in the Main Valley. This is an area of substantial archaeological deposit and archaeological potential. The site has already yielded archaeological evidence providing insight into the living conditions experienced by the AAE. The interiors of the huts are important in that they contain evidence of the domestic and work life of the AAE. The site still retains a great deal of physical evidence which can be interpreted by archaeological study. Associated scientific specimens and cultural object collections from Cape Denison, in situ or now in Australia, have continuing potential to yield information. Within Cape Denison, original points from which surveying, cartographic, meteorological and magnetic observations were made are still extant, including the three science huts, which still provide the facility to continue comparative scientific research.

The Huts are of technical significance being excellent examples of the innovation and technology used to combat the extreme conditions of the Antarctic and provide functional living and working quarters. The huts were designed by Douglas Mawson and pre-fabricated in Australia before the expedition. The Main Hut illustrates ideas learned by Mawson during earlier expeditions, as well as ideas borne out of collaboration with an architect and the suppliers of materials. The use of verandahs and hipped roofs reflects common Australian design features adapted to provide strength and insulation. The designs incorporated the need for wind resistance, simplicity, portability and resistance to the cold. The Main Hut is, perhaps, a climax of the Heroic Era building type, and is clearly designed for its functional purpose.