21 November 2016

‘Dedicated Naturalist’: Shackleton’s Penguin

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 patagonicusthat 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 New Zealand 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 London and signed by Shackleton:

Dear Sir,
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 National Museum for the Principality of Wales. I have instructed Messrs Rowland Ward, Piccadilly, London, to send one on to you.

Rowland Ward Limited was a well-regarded firm of taxidermists that processed many of the dead creatures that made their way back to Britain 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 South Africa.

From left: Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams, on their return to the Nimrod from their Antarctic explorations; 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.






















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 Macquarie’s flora, Mary conducted scientific research into the island’s bird life including, of course, King penguins.

The Mary Gillham Archive Project will be blogging about Mary’s Antarctic adventures in December so keep an eye on the project website for those posts. And you can read more about this and the other penguins in the National Museum Cardiff’s collection here.