This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (www.exploreyourarchive.org)
Amongst the Museum Archives are some little gems of Antarctic history, from applications of aspiring Antarctic explorers and a food list for 46 men for three years with Discovery (costing a grand total of £4946), to exquisite pencil drawings by Edward Wilson and letters from Kathleen Scott to the Museum after her husband’s tragic death.
Besides being an obvious recipient for material collected on the Discovery (1901-04) and Terra Nova (1910-12) expeditions, the Natural History Museum had a direct connection with Discovery – the Keeper of Botany, George Murray, became the Scientific Director, going with the ship as far as Cape Town to provide scientific training for the officers and crew.
It is amongst Murray’s papers that a number of Antarctic-related items, including the food list and Wilson’s drawings, can be found. An introduction to the list reveals that the food had been selected for its variety, and that most of the meat would be purchased in Australia, where the Discovery was to stop off on the way south. In fact, a quarter of the total budget was to be spent on meat alone, ranging from roast beef, roast veal and ‘duck and green peas’, to brawn, compressed mutton and mock turtle stew. A number of unfamiliar items are listed – Viking milk (obviously different from the Nestlé milk it precedes), Plasmon, Somatose, Tropon – while champagne, Devonshire cream and port are included under ‘Medical Comforts’. Even in this basic list of foodstuffs, Edwardian hierarchies are apparent – everyone had the same honey but the crew had separate jam from the officers, and there was ‘Cabin’ and ‘Crew’ tea and coffee.
The drawings by Edward Wilson are a particular gem because the Archives (aside from the Photo Collection) are largely textual rather than visual in content. Wilson was Discovery’s Assistant Surgeon and zoologist. One of Scott’s core men, he went on the march to the then furthest point south in 1902, and to the pole itself in 1911. He died on the return journey in blizzard-bound tent with Scott, just 12 miles from the next food depot.
The nine pencil sketches we have in the Archives are just a taster of his artistic output, much of which is now at the Scott Polar Research Institute. They depict coastal features of South Trinidad, an uninhabited island off Brazil, where the ship stopped on its way south. The detail is remarkable, capturing rock formations and seabirds in a few graphite lines.
The items in the Archives are just a small proportion of the Museum’s Antarctic holdings. Though eclectic, they make their own unique contribution to the history of the Museum’s role in British Antarctic exploration.