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Antarctica and the Horniman

What does this tale have to do with the Horniman? After all, Antarctica is unique as a continent in having no native culture, whose material culture we might collect. But the Horniman did once have a collection of objects related to Antarctica. These have come to light as a result of the Collections People Stories and Bioblitz projects, and the centenary of Shackleton's departure on his third Antarctic expedition seems the ideal time to investigate them.

I first came across a record of Antarctic objects in the Horniman when my colleague Rachael Utting, working as a Documentation/Collections Assistant on the Collections People Stories project, came to me with a page from the museum's accessions register for 1938.

The accession registers are a museum's formal record of the objects which make up its collections. They should provide a clear description of each object, give it a unique identifying number (the object's 'accession number'), and state how and when it was acquired, and from whom. Although usually quite well-maintained, the Horniman's anthropology registers over the period from 1938 to 1959 (coinciding with the curatorships of L. W. G. Malcolm and Otto Samson) leave much to be desired; but the entry which Rachael showed me said enough to spark my curiosity: it listed a donation from a Miss Shackleton of a 'Life Buoy of "Quest", Wire circlet from Shackleton’s open boat – Photograph of Shackleton.'

handwriting on page

The Anthropology accession register page showing Miss Shackleton’s and Mr Colbeck's gifts to the Horniman (detail of ARC/HMG/CM/001/006)


The 'wire circlet' could only be a relic of that 800-mile open boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, a piece of the James Caird herself. Although Shackleton was a sailor, he did serve as a major in the British army from July 1918 to March 1919, primarily in northern Russia; the photograph must date from this period. The lifebuoy would have come from the RYS Quest, a small ketch-rigged seal-hunting ship with an auxiliary steam engine bought by Shackleton for his final Antarctic expedition, during which he died on board Quest on 5 January 1922. She was later used for the British Arctic Air Route Expedition.

Miss Shackleton would have been one of Sir Ernest's sisters: probably either Gladys Mabelle Shackleton (1887-1962) or Amy Shackleton (1875-1953), both of whom were living at the address listed in the register at the time; but possibly Alice Shackleton (1872-1938), who may have been living with Gladys and Amy when she died. Whoever she was, the Horniman was a logical place for Miss Shackleton to place these objects: although Anglo-Irish by descent, the Shackletons were a local family, living in Sydenham, which had long been the site of the family home. Their father had moved to Aberdeen House in West Hill, Sydenham, in 1884 or 1885, where he practised as a doctor. The young Ernest went to the nearby Fir Lodge Preparatory School in 1885, before being sent to Dulwich College from 1887 until 1890, when he went away to sea.

Because they had been accessioned – made part of the Horniman's collections – these three objects had been recorded on our collections database; but they had not been given a location, and although Rachael and I both looked immediately for the lifebuoy – which we knew from photographs taken on the Quest must be fairly large – we couldn’t find it.