12th June – Into the mountain

We log in via the visitors book, pass the security guy, don hard hats with the Statsbygg logo (the state construction arm of the Norwegian government) and file into the dank corridor (which must be the bit outside the mountain) and through the second metal door that has been unlocked for us. We descend as we walk down the rounded tunnel, which feels like a pedestrianised version of road tunnels which go through mountains. Melt water steadily runs down the sides of the corrugations….

At the end is a small office, service room and another metal door to unlock. This time we step into a white, airy chamber, known as the ‘cathedral’. This is a useful space, we’re told, for sorting out the boxes, ready to go into the vault and there are some shelving units to one side hinting at the work which goes on a few times in a year. There is a piece of art on one of the concrete, white painted walls and I try to find the feeling of reverence many have noted in connection with this space.  It smells odd in here, I know that smell… The back wall sparkles with actual ice crystals rather than painted concrete and the metal door to the chamber in use looks properly sci-fi, encrusted with ice around the edges and the lock. It’s getting colder.

We quickly scramble in through to the airlock space, close the metal door behind us and the one in front of us is unlocked. We’re trying not to let too much coolth out/ heat in. It took two years to get the vault to the correct temperature of -18C. We go through and assemble in a holding area separated from the collection by a cage, with a final lock. We take a minute to digest the rows of shelves in front of us, stacked with boxes and labelled by row and section. It looks just like the photographs I have seen. Still, it is perhaps more full now, there is just one row that isn’t complete. We are directed towards a few particular boxes of interest, examine the crates. The geographer in me takes over a little and I am fascinated by where each box has come from, the stickers, colours, logos, logistics companies involved. The labels and bar codes give only the slightest hints as to what each one contains.

After a few minutes, I realise this is the coldest place I have ever been (as I haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Svalbard in winter) and my nose feels funny – the mucas in there seems to be freezing up, a strange feeling. As we re-trace our steps, locking doors as we go, my nose thaws out and I indentify that smell as we pass through the cathedral – it smells like wet concrete and paint and I wonder if concrete and paint ever really set properly inside a frozen mountain…the magnitude of the building project and the boldness of the idea of this place are perhaps where my sparks of reverence start to kindle, combined with the realisation of what those boxes I have just walked among really are: a vast quantity of potential life in stasis, stacked up so neatly in such a small space.

As we emerge, somewhat relieved to be back in non-refridgerated arctic air and sunshine, more pictures are being taken. I ask a fellow visitor what they thought. ‘Well, there’s not much to see really is there? But it is good to have been in, and we can say we have seen it now’. We have, afterall just visited what is (probably) Norway’s most famous building .

Have you guessed where I went yesterday yet? I was incredibly lucky (and it really was down to luck, hence my earlier post) to be invited to go INSIDE the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). This is a back up to seed banks around the world who can deposit agricultural crop seeds (and their wild relatives) here, for free. There are roughly 2 – 2.5 million unique accessions (a collection of plant material from a particular location) and the SGSV has now collected nearly 825,000 accessions , with plenty of space for another couple of million. Without making this into a mega-post (more than it already is), these are the kinds of questions and things I am thinking about in relation to this place:

  • Is it a sign of adaptation in the anthropocene: we recognise the value of such material as security for our future in changing times?
  • This is a prestigious facility, in an ‘exotic’ place visited by high profile figures, with limited access, high security, worldwide awareness and media coverage: how can we evaluate the symbolic value of such a project?
  • What kinds of value are at work here? Valuing material of use for humanity; conserving the potential of plant life; enthusisasm for collecting, for plant breeds, for science; an acceptance of ‘nature’ as truly hybrid and something we are inseparable from…?

And quite a lot more, but here are some piccies in a new slideshow format! Plus a big thank you fto annonymous sources for this incredible opportunity!


2 thoughts on “12th June – Into the mountain

  1. Amazing. My view on it would be that it’s like a computer back up – which we were talking about only last night. Security for if/when it all goes belly-up….

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