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Documentation and the paper trail

All of this demonstrates the importance of keeping good records in a museum: the activity known as documentation, for which I have overall responsibility at the Horniman. So far I've mentioned eight interesting objects (the wire from the James Caird, photograph of Shackleton, Quest lifebuoy, skua egg and four penguin eggs), about which I wanted to know more – and only been able to produce cursory written records for them dating from 1938, copied into our database, with no idea of where the objects are now or what had happened to them. But another part of our documentation has also helped me unravel something of the fate of these, and other, Antarctic objects.

As part of Collections People Stories, we appointed the archivist Chris Olver to review and list the Anthropology Department’s history files – the files in which we keep miscellaneous information about the objects in our collections. The department organises them by the name of the person from whom we acquired the objects, and searches for files for Colbeck and Shackleton had proven fruitless. But Chris found a file under the name Scott/Kennett: this referred to Captain Scott’s wife Kathleen Scott, née Bruce, later Lady Scott and, after her second husband was ennobled, Lady Kennet. Here, we found information about the Colbeck and Shackleton objects – and more. The file's reference number in our archive is ARC/HMG/CM/007/A/COLBECKW, and include documents like the one below.

  • Letter by Kathleen Kennet, Letter by Kathleen Kennet regarding the donation of Scott objects to the Horniman
    Letter by Kathleen Kennet regarding the donation of Scott objects to the Horniman

In 1938, someone – we assume the Horniman's Curator (ie director), L. W. G. Malcolm – seems to have written to Lady Kennet, asking for some mementoes of her late husband. We have Lady Kennet's reply of 8 March [001], suggesting that she might send an old pipe, tent poles, pair of skis, or naval button from Scott's coat. Following the Museum's reply the following day, Lady Kennet sent the pipe and button on 14 March; the skis were to follow later, by messenger [002]. This is the first reference we have to these items, which seem never to have found their way into the accession registers.

  • Kathleen Scott's bronze statue of her husband, Robert Falcon Scott, 1915, Waterloo Place, London.− © Rupert Shepherd
    1915, Waterloo Place, London.

Kathleen Scott's bronze statue of her husband, Robert Falcon Scott

The trail then turns cold until 24 February 1956, when the Horniman's Curator, the anthropologist Otto Samson, wrote to John Brown, the Education Officer at the London County Council (LCC, who at that time ran the Horniman) [003], asking that the Advisory Committee responsible for the Museum give him permission to dispose of 'some relics of Captain Scott, R.N.', comprising 'skis, lifebelt, pictures, button (uniform service brass) and pipe'. These used to be on show in the South Hall, but by 1956 had been removed from display. Samson felt that 'these relics of a national hero would be more suitably housed at the Polar Research Institute at Cambridge [the Scott Polar Research Institute, SPRI] or the Royal Geographical Society [RGS] than in a museum devoted to Ethnography and Natural History'.

Interestingly, Samson also mentions that the objects were 'collected … from Commander Bernacchi', not Lady Kennet, or Miss Shackleton – from whom we acquired the Quest lifebuoy and picture of Shackleton. He also mentions 'pictures' (plural), although the registers only mention the Shackleton photograph. These might come under the heading of Colbeck's 'Antarctic relics' as described in the register, though what the correspondence later reveals about the date of the extra picture makes this unlikely. This is also the first mention of Commander Bernacchi, who might conceivably have been Lady Kennet's messenger: Louis Bernacchi was another notable Antarctic explorer, serving as the other magnetic observer alongside Colbeck in Borchgrevink’s Southern Cross expedition, and the physicist on Scott’s Discovery expedition.

The correspondence continues: Brown asked Samson to confirm that the SPRI and RGS were willing to accept the objects [004]; Samson confirmed that the Director of the RGS thought they should first be offered to the SPRI [005]; Samson was asked to inform Scott’s son, Sir Peter Scott, of the intended disposal [006, 008], and did so [007, 009]; Sir Peter replied with his agreement [010, 011, 012].

On 19 April, Samson wrote to the SPRI, offering them a series of items 'presented to the museum by the late Lady Kennet' [013]:

  • 2 pairs of skis
  • 1 life-belt
  • 2 pictures
  • 1 button, brass, Service
  • 1 pipe

The reference to Bernacchi has disappeared, but we still have the extra picture and now an additional pair of skis. L. M. Forbes, the curator of the SPRI's museum and photograph collections, asked for more information about the lifebuoy and pictures [014]; Samson told him that the lifebuoy came from the Quest, and that the pictures comprised the photograph of Shackleton – and a 'Water colour entitled "Sledge Hauling" and signed "Wilson", and dated Mar 1911' [015].

This would mean one of the many watercolours produced on the Terra Nova expedition by Edward Adrian Wilson, who had died alongside Scott and Henry Bowers on their return from the South Pole. As well as being a doctor and zoologist (he had travelled with Scott on the Discovery expedition as assistant surgeon and vertebrate zoologist, setting the furthest south record alongside Scott and Shackleton, and on the Terra Nova expedition was chief of the scientific staff), Wilson was a highly-talented artist, producing many hundreds of extremely accurate drawings and watercolours of the geography and fauna of Antarctica during the two expeditions. Sledge Hauling is unlikely to have painted whilst sledging on the ice – the water needed to mix the paints would have frozen – and so must have been done some time after 5 March, when Wilson, Scott, and several others, after laying depots on the Ross Ice Shelf for the coming attempt on the South Pole, were camping out in the old Discovery hut at Hut Point on Ross Island, waiting for the sea-ice to freeze so they could travel back to the expedition’s main hut at Cape Evans.

  • Kathleen Scott's bronze statue of E. A. Wilson, The Promenade, Cheltenham.− © Rupert Shepherd
    The Promenade, Cheltenham.

Kathleen Scott's bronze statue of E. A. Wilson

Forbes suggested on 25 April that the pictures be sent to the SPRI; the skis, button and pipe to Scott's old ship, the Discovery, then a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve training vessel moored in London; and the lifebuoy to a troop of Sea Rangers – at that time part of the Girl Guides – in Aberdeen, whose establishment, the SRS Quest, had been named after Shackleton's ship [016, 017]. However, the LCC Advisory Committee had already approved the objects' disposal to the SPRI and RGS [018], so Samson had to seek their permission to send the objects to HMS Discovery and the SRS Quest instead [019]. (Understandably, museums, whose role is – amongst other things – to preserve their collections for the future, have to go through rigorous procedures before removing objects from their collections, in the process known as deaccessioning.) This delayed matters [020, 021, 023] until 26 July 1956, when the LCC Advisory Committee granted Samson the authority to send the Antarctic relics to their new homes [022]. Forbes sent Samson the different recipients' addresses on 28 August after he returned from holiday [024, 025]. From this point, their stories diverge.