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Documents and heroes

So, the Horniman's documentation ­– imperfect as it is – has allowed us to identify a series of 'Antarctic relics' which were once in the collections and are now elsewhere:

At Discovery Point:

  • Captain Scott's pipe, given by his widow, Lady Kennet
  • A button from Captain Scott’s uniform coat, also given by Lady Kennet
  • Possibly a pair of Captain Scott’s skis, also given by Lady Kennet
  • Possibly a second set of skis, which may have been given by Louis Bernacchi

At the Scott Polar Research Institute:

  • Facsimile of E. A. Wilson, Sledge hauling, watercolour, March 1911, possibly given by Louis Bernacchi
  • 14 quarter-plate photographs and 5 half-plate photographs, apparently taken by William Colbeck, of the Discovery expedition, given by his son C. T. Colbeck

Formerly at the Scott Polar Research Institute:

  • A photograph of Sir Ernest Shackleton in military uniform, given by one of his sisters, Miss Shackleton

Formerly with the SRS Quest:

  • A lifebuoy from the RYS Quest, given by Miss Shackleton

We now have a reduced set of objects which may still be in the Horniman's stores at the Study Collections Centre, and for which we are keeping an eye out:

  • Four Adélie Penguin eggs, given by William Colbeck
  • An Antarctic Skua egg, given by William Colbeck
  • Possibly the second set of skis, which may have been given by Louis Bernacchi
  • A wire circlet from the James Caird, given by Miss Shackleton

2016 update: These eggs (in fact four penguin and two skua eggs, presented by Clements Markham Colbeck) have now been found.

And now that we've identified these objects, we can understand a little more about the context within which they were acquired. I've consciously referred to them throughout this piece using Malcolm's and Samson's phrase, 'Antarctic relics', because that gives an idea of how I believe they were regarded at the time of their acquisition.

The expeditions from which they originated – Scott's Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, and Shackleton's Endurance expedition, along with the Discovery relief expeditions – all fall into the period of Antarctic exploration known as the 'Heroic Age'. This was the era – roughly from 1897 to 1922 – when knowledge of the continent was hugely expanded by a series of expeditions, whose participants were gradually learning how to live and work in one of the least hospitable places on earth. Along the way, many of the expeditions' members suffered great discomfort and hardship, and several died; they also carried out phenomenal feats of strength and endurance. Whatever one may think of the preparations they made and the techniques they used, no-one can doubt their courage.

Because of its tragic ending, the quintessential expedition of the Heroic Age is perhaps Scott's last expedition. When news of the deaths of Scott and his companions reached Britain on 10 February 1913, it provoked an unprecedented outpouring of public grief. As the details emerged of PO Evans's collapse, Captain Oates's self-sacrifice ('I am just going outside, and may be some time'), and Bowers', Wilson's, and Scott's deaths trapped by a blizzard only eleven miles from One Ton Depot, this was augmented by respect for the way the explorers had met their deaths, helped in large part by the dying Scott's eloquent Message to the Public:

Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale …

The horrific events of the First World War, where so many millions of Englishmen (and others from the United Kingdom and British Empire) found their hardihood, endurance and courage tested, and hundreds of thousands made the ultimate sacrifice, only increased the admiration felt for the noble way in which Scott and his companions had met their ends. Indeed, Herbert Ponting's film of the expedition is known to have been shown to over 100,000 officers and men on the Western Front, providing them with an example of how Englishmen could face adversity.

It is significant, I think, that Dr Malcolm approached Lady Kennet for some mementoes of her husband early in 1938, the year after the twenty-fifth anniversary of her husband's death had seen a renewed interest in the expedition, by now firmly established as an exemplary tale of British manhood. Although her donation to the Museum does not appear in the registers, I think it is also significant the objects relating to Colbeck and Shackleton should appear in the same year as Lady Kennet's gifts, and immediately next to each other: I suspect that Malcolm, prompted by the anniversary of Scott's death, was trying to create a small shrine of relics of Antarctic heroes in south-east London, combining national heroes (Scott) with those who had local connections (Shackleton and Colbeck). We know from Samson's first letter [003] that these had been displayed together in the Horniman's South Hall.

We also know that, less than twenty years later, they were no longer on display. Otto Samson, who – as a German émigré who had fled the Nazi persecutions and lived through the Second World War – did not, perhaps, feel quite the same unquestioning admiration for heroic self-sacrifice as his predecessor, considered that these relics had no place in a 'museum devoted to Ethnography and Natural History' [003]. But history may, in the end, be proving him wrong: with the birth of Emilio Palma in 1978, it could be argued that Antarctica has the beginnings of a native population; it certainly has a series of permanent rotating populations, with a series of what often seem to be quite particular cultures – for example, the Big Eye parties, or the exorcism of El Gran Chingazo. By deaccessioning our Antarctic relics, Samson inadvertently deprived us of early specimens of the ever-increasing material culture of Antarctica.