A trip to Valhalla: Episode 1

During my first few weeks at the Museum the name 'Valhalla' kept coming up at various points. As a lifelong Viking fan, I was excited by the prospect of a collection of Norse artifacts, perhaps even a great ship, secreted somewhere in the Museum's stores. Some weeks later, I found out that Valhalla was an intriguing collection of ships' figureheads on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly.
Valhalla figurehead collection, Tresco.jpg
Valhalla figurehead collection on Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Valhalla consists of some 50 wreck mementoes on display in Tresco Abbey Garden. The figureheads and carvings have mainly washed up or been salvaged from ships wrecked in the notorious waters around the islands. In the mid-19th century, Augustus Smith began collecting them after agreeing a 99-year lease on all of the Isles of Scilly, off the Cornish coast. Ownership of the collection was transferred to the National Maritime Museum in 1979.
'Golden Lion' figurehead possibly from a vessel called Lion
Fish figurehead, traditionally known as the 'Dolphin'
The figureheads consist of animals: a salmon, lion, eagle and 'dolphin', and people: Tsar Alexander I, Friar Tuck, a Scottish 'chieftain' and a 'puritan lady' as well as ships' name boards, stern decoration, lifebuoys, cannon and an anchor or two. Many are from named ships while the identity of others went down with the vessel. Most have been beautifully restored and remain gilded, brightly coloured and alive, to be stumbled across by visitors to the Garden.
Friar Tuck.jpg
Figurehead from the Liverpool tea-clipper Friar Tuck (1856)
Although the figureheads are doing very well, we were tipped off a couple of months ago that the accompanying labels and interpretative panels had seen better days. Suspecting that they had been in place for a good 25 years or so, it was obvious that we needed to replace them. This presented the exciting opportunity to reinterpret the collection and carry out new research on the objects and their identity. Having never seen the collection, we first needed to visit Tresco. So Exhibitions Manager Mary Webb and I booked our train, hotel and helicopter(!) tickets and looked forward to a trip to Valhalla...