I'm Julia Peck, one of the tour guides for the Bridging Binaries LGBTQ+ tours at the Polar Museum.
You're looking at a barrel organ which is better-traveled than lots of us: Admiral Sir Edward Parry took it on multiple Arctic expeditions between 1819 and 1825.
A barrel organ plays music by turning a barrel, like a huge music box where the pins pluck a metal harp. It's a great way to have music if you don't have any musicians around — you just need someone with a working arm to turn the crank.
This organ helps us understand what polar explorers got up to when they only had each other, for long, cold months, to amuse themselves. We'll note here that these were all-male expeditions: women were explicitly prohibited from polar research until the second half of the 20th century.
So what did those men do for fun? In the Great British tradition, they put on fabulous pantos — for the uninitiated, these are musical comedy stage productions typically put on around the winter holidays, and they often include gender-crossing roles.
Pantos can be traced back to the ancient Roman 'Saturnalia' midwinter feast, at which everything was supposed to be turned upside-down. Men dressed up as women and women as men.
The notes of George Frederick McDougall, an explorer on the HMS Resolute, detail the preparation for upcoming pantos: “all has been hurry and bustle for the last fortnight in preparing scenes, decorations, and dresses for the theatre... the dress-making business was, indeed, extremely puzzling, particularly in the ladies department.”
Where do you get dresses fit for the theater in the Arctic, you ask? Skirts and petticoats had been brought in from England, and explorers did additional costume design on the ship. We have records of one, um, unique dress that resembled a miniature St Paul’s dome.
Writing in 1852 (two years before the Resolute was stranded) McDougall recalled, “the temperature is zero on the stage - no joke in petticoats.”
We also know that the men of the Discovery Expedition (1901-04) put on a production on the ship. There was also a sports day where medals were awarded by a man dressed up as a woman. Several of the officers were away at the time, so it seems that the men felt freer in their activities.
It’s not just the British! In the late-90s, Australian national news featured stories of men in drag on Antarctic research stations.
Recent visitors also have said the tradition is alive and strong. Now, as then, men dress as women for pantos, skits, and special occasions such as the arrival of new guests or fancy dress parties.
Run a Google search for “Scott Base Skirt Party” for some proof! It seems the old fashioned term for a Polar squadron is quite apt: a party.