Though the Explore Your Archive event at National Museum Cardiff last Saturday was about the Wonder Women of Wales (like our dedicated naturalist Dr Mary Gillham), the thing that initially attracted the attention of passers-by to our stand was this penguin. And it was every inch the star attraction.
It’s a King penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus) that was presented to the museum by renowned Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.
Standing around 90cms tall, the King penguin is a most impressive bird and proved taller than many of the small children who admired it standing proudly in its glass case.
As the chart below, from Mary Gillham’s book Instructions to Young Ornithologists: IV Sea Birds (Museum Press, 1963) shows, the King is second only in size to the Emperor.
Strictly speaking, it’s not actually an Antarctic penguin as it prefers slightly warmer climes and it breeds on the sub-Antarctic islands that are dotted around the globe below
and Australia, Africa and South America.
The Nimrod, Photographs of the Nimrod Expedition (1907-09) to the Antarctic, led by Ernest Shackleton; image dated 1908; source: Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. This image is in the Public Domain.
The penguin was collected on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1908-09 Nimrod expedition. In its archives the museum still has a letter about Shackleton’s gift of this penguin, sent to The Director of the National Museum of Wales on 17 March 1910 from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907 HQ in
and signed by Shackleton: London
In reply to your letter of yesterday’s date, I beg to say that I have much pleasure in presenting a King Penguin to the
for the Principality of Wales. I have
instructed Messrs Rowland Ward, Piccadilly, National Museum , to send one on to you. London
Rowland Ward Limited was a well-regarded firm of taxidermists that processed many of the dead creatures that made their way back to
from world explorations of
the Victorian era and later, and the company also specialised in game-hunting
trophies and in manufacturing bizarre items made from animal off-cuts, like zebra-hoof
inkwells. Perhaps surprisingly, the firm is still trading, though is now based in Britain . South Africa
Have you worked out yet why we had Shackleton’s penguin alongside our stand at the Wonder Women event? Well, Shackleton and his crew aboard the Nimrod returned to Britain via the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, one of the places where King penguins live and breed, so it’s highly likely this penguin was collected during that stopover. And Mary Gillham was one of the first four women ever to enter the Antarctic region, spending a month on Macquarie Island over Christmas 1959 – New Year 1960. As well as studying