Event review: Connect10 brings Jon McGregor to RRS Discovery

Today I’m happy to share a couple of guest posts reviewing Museums at Night events from the weekend! The first comes from Mark Macleod, who wrote for us previously about how Museums at Night collaborates with the Festival of Museums.


What should you expect when attending a Museums at Night event? Should research be done in advance? Is it appropriate to bring your parents? A number of questions I considered before attending the Connect10 winning event at the RRS Discovery in Dundee with author Jon McGregor presiding.

I’m not totally ignorant about the southern hemisphere, having visited RRS Discovery a number of times and enjoyed learning more about the travelers who used her.

When I heard that McGregor was going to talk about his residency with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) it was definitely something I wanted to attend. A couple of scientist friends of mine have gathered data in Antarctica and I was very keen to hear how an artist’s residency worked, and discover the experience of someone expanding their comfort zone in harsh environment for subjective art rather than objective science.

McGregor immediately set the mood arriving with music and a video playing what looked like my earlier journey from St Andrews to Dundee, but which I’m guessing was his rainy trip towards RAF Brize Norton for the RAF flight to the Falkland Islands.

A suitcase full of books

Jon McGregor’s suitcase of props (c) Mark MacLeod

A brief setting up of props and the story began, from the self-titled traveling salesman. We heard about his flight and transfer to the boat RRS James Clark Ross at Port Stanley, which was to be his home until they reached the BAS base in Antarctica.

Daily pictures from the top deck provided an indication of the beauty, isolation and general sublime nature of the open sea and finally the approach with icebergs.

McGregor was constantly creating work, sending 100 word emails daily to friends and associates containing his latest news and thoughts. Before current technologies reached the BAS ship travellers were able to send one 100 word telegram every week – it really was a place to get away from it all – but now the ship is hooked up to the internet, and McGregor wanted to reflect on this development.

The final image he shared was the most poignant: the ship had been breaking through the ice layer and was now only 80 miles from the base, but the ice was thicker than usual and the captain took the difficult decision to abandon the attempt and return to Stanley to refuel and try again later in the summer.

The scientists would wait on the Falklands and expect to try again after Christmas, but McGregor would fly home. He was genuinely disappointed by the ‘so near and yet so far’ nature of the trip and although he has yet to produce an “artistic work” from the journey, he doesn’t blame his not reaching Antarctica.

Before and during the trip McGregor read memoirs, diaries and other recollections of previous adventurers to the South Pole and his observation was that on the trip down everyone was calm, factual and generally preparing themselves for the unexpected.

Even now he claims it is extremely difficult, possibly impossible, to describe such an environment as this place. What adjectives and nouns can be used for an experience and landscape that has been shared by so few?

A man with a suitcase full of books

Author Jon McGregor, about to startle Mark and his parents with a reading (c) Mark Macleod

The final part of the evening was McGregor reading from his latest publication This isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You which amused, stunned and made me regress several years and squirm as I sat beside my parents.

The most memorable piece was ‘Looking up Vagina’ which proved the hit of the night, and which McGregor explained was written after learning his friend (now a poet) read the dictionary from start to finish as a teenager.

As Sesame Street might say, “Today was brought to you by the letter V and the number (Connect) 10.” I for one am glad to have voted and secured McGregor’s  visit to Dundee.


Mark Macleod is Operations and Projects Curator at the Museum of the University of St Andrews: you can follow them on Twitter as @MUSA_StAndrews.


Thanks Mark! If you went to a Museums at Night event, please let us know your thoughts by filling in this survey, so we can improve the festival in future years.

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