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|
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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 |
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 |
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