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SPRI Review 1999: Archives and Museum

Archives and Museum

Archivist: R.K. Headland

The 1998-99 year was, for several reasons, a particularly active one. The completion of more than 18 months' work on the Institute's building allowed much of a large accumulated backlog to be cleared. An exceptional increase in interest in Sir Ernest Shackleton and his Antarctic expeditions also occurred, which included a major display in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. As well as liaison with the museum, this provided an opportunity for the archivist to visit several of the whaling museums in New England (at New Haven, Providence, Sharon, and Mystic). These proved very productive for archival records of the United States sealing trade, which worked on many peri-Antarctic islands as well as through the Bering Strait. There remains much that can be accomplished from the information held at several of these collections and other repositories, but the preliminary visits were most encouraging. Conferences attended included the Overseas Territories Conservation Symposium in London and the literary presentation to Jean-Francois Le Mocul in Paris for his Greenland and Iles Kerguelen work. Another outside engagement was to visit the newly refurbished grave of Edward Bransfield at the Brighton extra-mural cemetery, which was unveiled in the presence of his relatives and the master of RRS Bransfield, with representatives from the National Maritime Museum, the Hydrographic Office, and the Royal Geographical Society.

In January 1999 the archivist and curator was invited to accompany a voyage to South Georgia chartered by a Norwegian group, Øyas Venner, principally comprising former whalers and their families. His Excellency the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Mr Richard Ralph, and the delegate from the Bishop of Tønsberg were also aboard. This was useful in several regards: the archival and museum contacts with the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Norway were reinforced, and the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands administration became familiar with the extensive holdings of the Institute on their zone of interest. The new commissioner and governor subsequently made a point of visiting the Institute before going to Stanley. A similar request to lecture aboard a vessel making a transit of the Northwest Passage and returning through the Northeast Passage was accepted. This resulted in many records of observations of the rapidly changing circumstances in the high Arctic, especially the extremely rapid developments in the Russian Arctic.

Requests for lectures on historical and geographical themes were many more than usual during the year. These were delivered to the Royal Geographical Society (Shackleton), Slavonic Librarians (Russian aspects of the Arctic Ocean), Christie's (Scott), Britain Russian Society (the Northern Sea Route), and the Society for Visiting Scholars (Polar regions and Cambridge). The year was also one with more than the usual numbers of visiting groups, including the British Antarctic Survey, Polar Postal History Society, British Schools Exploring Society, Eastern Arts Society, and members of a Joint Services Expedition to the Siberian Arctic. Likewise interviews were recorded and information provided for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (Sir Hubert Wilkins), BBC (Shackleton, Antarctic meteorology, and the British Graham Land Expedition), Cromwell Productions (Antarctica and Scott), National Geographical Society (Shackleton), Maritime Museum in Brest (Franklin and the Northwest Passage), Radio Australia (Scott and Shackleton), Radio Netherlands (Antarctica), and RTE (Dublin). In addition the regular meetings of the University archivists and curators were attended.

The task of preparing the next edition of the Antarctic Chronology continued when time was available. It is intended that the last summer listed will be 1998-99, after which it will be prepared for publication. The last few national responses are still awaited but nearly all else is ready. The possibility of a 2000 publication is now strong.

Several persons have given most valuable assistance with the work on the Archives and Museum. In particular the help of Tony Billinghurst, Lucy Martin, Ivo Meisner, Larry Rockhill, and Jeff Rubin has been enormously appreciated.


As a result of delayed visits due to the construction of the extension, the Archives received a greater number of readers than average. This was exacerbated by a very strong interest in Sir Ernest Shackleton and others on his expeditions. It came mainly from the United States. Accommodation in the Archive readers' room was improved, which has made things more convenient for both staff and visitors. As well as the Shackleton interest, readers working on biographies of Frank Wild, Thomas Crean, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Irish explorers (for the Dictionary of Irish Biography), and several others made lengthy visits. Information from documents was provided for the New Dictionary of National Biography, the Polar Medals Committee, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and several other organizations.

Several gifts and bequests were received, including many papers from Sir Vivian Fuchs, who also made arrangements to bequeath the extensive series of material already held by the Institute. Mr A.G.E. Jones gave his research papers on Frank Wild, which virtually completes the extensive records of his work. These are currently being catalogued, an extensive, although very productive, task. The estate of Miss Margaret Law gave several papers and books from Edward Atkinson. Gifts of some biographical papers from Larry Gould were made by Mr Geoffrey Lynfield. Mrs Ann Olsen gave papers and photographs from Captain Magnus Olsen, who had commanded Antarctic whaling vessels.


Visitors and visiting groups were abundant after the closure, and, with the new arrangements, most recorded favourable comments in the visitors book. Some display space has been lost, but the overall theme has remained constant. The principal special exhibition was of the works of George Marston, with, in particular, the four paintings presented by Miss Barbara Peyton. As well as the usual school and language student groups who visited independently, specialist parties from the British Antarctic Survey, Friends of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Society for Visiting Scholars, and Postal History Society were given guided tours.

Some greatly appreciated gifts and loans were received, including a necklace of Antarctic garnets from Tony Dear; a large collection of eggs from Svalbard, collected in 1921 by the Oxford University Expedition (Francis Joudrain); and a set of dental instruments that belonged to Leonard Hussey (of the Endurance expedition) from Dr M.G. Budden.

The Reverend David Walters, of the Guild of Health in Edward Wilson House, London, became concerned about the watercolours held there, especially as a building programme was anticipated. After liaison with Dr David Wilson, it was arranged that these be transferred to the Institute, and a series of reproductions were given in exchange to the Guild. Mrs Cressida Brennan presented three boxes of glass lantern slides from the collection of Professor Rudmose Brown; many of these were polar, with special emphasis on Svalbard.

Several samples of wreckage from the west coast of Elephant Island, collected by HMS Endurance, were received. These, with previous materials, enabled more data to be accumulated about the vessel involved. After assessing dendrochronological, structural, historical, and other evidence, it is reasonably certain that the remains are from Charles Shearer, a Stonington sealer that vanished without trace in 1877.

The exploration sales, particularly those at Christie's in London, attracted a very large amount of interest. Much provision of information, research, and investigation were undertaken for this. Although the Institute did not make acquisitions, it was instrumental in assisting, with the Antarctic Heritage Trust, in acquiring several of the most important items for national repositories. Assessments of the significance of various items were also provided for the National Heritage Memorial Fund.