Thursday, March 3, 2011

Around the Horn

One of the outcomes of the packing project we’re all working on is that it gives us an opportunity to ‘tidy up’ documentation relating to parts of the collection in a way that wouldn’t be possible under normal circumstances. Every now and then, this helps throw new light on old objects and reminds us all just how wonderful the collections housed here really are.

We’ve recently packed a group of objects from Tierra del Fuego, collected by Ernest Augustus Holmested in the 1870s. These include several shell necklaces, harpoon points, eel and fish spears, and a limpet gouge (a tool used to prise limpets off rocks). There’s even a worked bone from a rhea (a large flightless bird), with an old and rather imaginative label that claims it to be a ‘drinking tube made from a human bone’.

Some of the objects from the Holmested collection

A limpet gouge, used to prise limpet shells from rocks
The phrase 'every object tells a story' is used often these days, but in the case of the Holmested collection, we can also say that every object has a journey. And what a journey it's been! After all, it's hard to imagine many places more remote or further afield than this archipelago (which includes Cape Horn) at the very Southern tip of the South American continent. The process of documenting these objects for the packing and doing research for our new displays has helped us to understand how they made their way across the 8,500 miles of ocean separating Bedford from a place once described as being at 'the uttermost end of the earth'

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We've found that some of the objects were originally collected by Robert Whaits, a British missonary who arrived at Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego in 1875, from the native Yaghan people he encountered there. During the 1880's Whaits journeyed from Ushuaia to Keppel Island in the Falklands, where a station had been set up by the South American Missionary Society. Here, Whaits worked with Yaghan people who had been brought to the island from Tierra de Fuego, teaching them metalworking, farming and sheep rearing skills.

Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, photographed in the 1890s
It was around this time Whaits met Ernest Holmested, who had travelled to the Falklands via Argentina in 1868. Holmested had founded what became a very successful sheep-rearing business and it seems likely that he met Whaits at Keppel Island, acquiring a number of objects from him.

A South American Missionary Society station in Tierra del Fuego, photographed in the 1890s

We've suspected for some time that Holmested donated items to other museums, and following a bit of digging, we've discovered that he gave around 20 items to the British Museum. You can view them here.

Ernest, meanwhile, settled in Bedford in the 1890's and the remainder of his collection eventually went to The Bedford Modern School Museum (which formed the core of the current museum's collections) following his son's death in 1958.

Our existing relationship with the British Museum has been strengthened recently by their choice of Bedford Gallery as one of only four UK venues for the Toulouse-Lautrec Exhibition. We're currently talking to them about future collaborations and it's interesting to think that there might even be the opportunity one day to borrow their Holmested objects for a display here in Bedford, reuniting the two halves of Ernest's collection. After all, its a much shorter journey than the one the objects embarked on 130 years ago.

by Tom Perrett
Find Tom on Twitter @tjperrett

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