21 June 2013

Dr John Rae: Explorer and Collector

2013 is the bicentenary of Dr John Rae (1813 – 1893), one of Orkney’s most famous sons.  Many people feel that his achievements have not received the national, and international recognition that they deserve.  This year Stromness Museum is aiming to go some way in putting this right by hosting an exhibition, conference and coordinating a calendar of events throughout Orkney, are advertised under the banner of ‘John Rae 200’.   

John Rae was a member of The Orkney Natural History Society, which still runs Stromness Museum today, and it was felt to be fitting that it co-ordinated his birthday celebrations.  The Society was founded in 1837 and one of its principal objectives was;

 “The promotion of natural science by the opening of a museum and by any other means in its power”

It is feasible to imagine John Rae visiting the museum while at home on leave from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Either in “Mrs Flett’s large room” on the top floor of The Commercial Hotel, where it was first set up, or in the present building which it shared with the Town Council until 1929. 

He certainly endorsed the Victorian principles of collecting as he built up a fascinating personal collection of ethnographic material throughout his career.  On his death his widow Catherine had been instructed to give his collection of natural history exhibits to the Natural History Museum in London, and his collection of ethnographic material to Edinburgh University where he studied medicine. 

To Stromness Museum was given a portrait of Dr John Rae in later life, his gun and his sextant.  These ’tools of his trade’, sum up, as only objects can do, the essence of his success as an arctic explorer, the gun enabled him to live off the land and catch his own food and the sextant is a reminder that he led three expeditions on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company surveying 1,765 miles of previously unexplored Arctic coastline.

Portrait of Dr John Rae held at Stormness Museum

The Stromness Museum summer exhibition “Dr John Rae the explorer and collector” which runs from 30th March - Saturday the 2nd of November, underpins the John Rae 200 events and conference.  Most of the objects on display have been loaned by Edinburgh University and curated in partnership with the National Museums of Scotland, who look after John Rae’s collection of ethnographic material from Inuit, Cree and North West Coast, communities on behalf of the University.  The exhibition looks at his relationship with the indigenous peoples he worked alongside and lived among.  As well as artefacts chosen from John Rae’s own collection, Stromness Museum have also been loaned pieces from private individuals, including a pair of his snow shoes.

The contribution John Rae made to Arctic exploration within a European context is also considered within a small bi-lingual exhibition in the Pilot’s House.  Bryce Wilson, a trustee of Stromness Museum, and Dott. Maria Pia Casarini Wadhams, director of the Istituto Geografico Polare “Silvio Zavatti”, Fermo, Italy worked together on this portable exhibition that is available short school loans this summer before travelling to the Scottish Geographical Society in Perth before going to Italy after the conference.     
In the history of Arctic exploration, John Rae is known both for his discovery of the eventual fate of the Franklin expedition and his own personal success as an arctic explorer who understood and made use of indigenous arctic technology. 

Rae’s legendary physical fitness, powers of observation and love and knowledge of the land is often attributed to his childhood experiences in Orkney.  From a young age he was familiar with the hills, shot for the pot, fished and sailed small boats around Stromness harbour and in Scapa Flow.  The International Conference, John Rae 200 will expand on the exhibition themes in the following areas;

  • Arctic Exploration
  • Museum collections and archive sources
  • The Hudson’s Bay Company and Orcadians in the “Nor’ Wast”

The conference will be held in Stromness and run over the weekend of 28 – 30th September.

If you would like further information please visit the website

Janette Park
Honorary Curator
Stromness Museum

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