Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Wordfest South Africa

Wordfest is South Africa’s premier multilingual festival of languages and literatures with a developmental emphasis.

Courtenay-Latimer: curation, crusades and the coelacanth

3 min read
Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer

Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer

Sure, Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer might be known the world over for spotting the blue fins of the coelacanth which was thought to be extinct, but the story behind how she came to be in a position to notice such a thing – and what she would do after – is one worth telling for its depth and warmth towards the preservation and understanding of what South Africa’s environment has to offer.

Well, thanks to the efforts of author Mike Bruton, the larger than life account of Courtenay-Latimer’s life has been reawakened in his book, Curator and Crusader. On Monday, 1 July 2019, Bruton shared the many wonderful tales of the exquisite woman with the Wordfest 2019 audience, leaving everyone in awe of a woman South Africans should view as one of the greats.

Where to start? At the beginning, of course.

Born in 1907 into a nomadic family of natural explorers in East London, it wasn’t even three weeks later when they had packed their bags and moved to Cape Town. It was here that Courtenay-Latimer’s obsession for the natural world would emanate thanks to her parents’ love for adventure and nature: for the three years they lived there, family outings included scaling the Cape’s mountain ranges and scouting its coastline.

Her father soon became a stationmaster for the South African Railway and would be posted in the most remote areas of the Eastern Cape. Wherever the family settled, each member (the parents and eight girls) would take part in exploring the local fauna, flora and cultures of those who had long called the land home, collecting anything and everything that would survive the trek in their pockets and a life lived on a shelf.

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Author Mike Bruton points to a map of South Africa depiciting the many places Courtenay-Latimer lived (red circles) and visited for field trips (green circles).

In fact, it’s these trinkets, her family’s personal collection, that would later go on to be the first items exhibited to the public following the official opening of the East London Museum after she found the original exhibit to be substandard.

Due to the remoteness of her father’s posts and poor education options, Courtenay-Latimer was never formally educated, but her depth of knowledge of South African naturalistic knowledge was so impressive it offered her the opportunity to be hired as the East London Museum’s curator.

An instinctive collector who understood what would attract people to visit a museum, Courtenay-Latimer was able to form an extraordinary network of well-informed amateur scientists who helped her grow her museum contributions and advance her scientific knowledge.

Often, an object would be brought into the museum and Courtenay-Latimer and fellow scientists would take months to do a full assessment of the value of the object and consider where in the collection – or the word – it would fit. A founding member of South African Museum Association, the stalwart did a lot to develop the museum profession and training of people in South Africa.

Beyond the discovery of the coelacanth, the event that gave her international recognition, Courtenay-Latimer would go on to build the most comprehensive fish display in the world (70), bring a taxidermised Huberta the Hippo to East London, create a live flower display, add a 140-year-old, real life dodo egg to the collection and even have a chance meeting with Amelia Earhart.

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The coelacanth made Courtenay-Latimer so famous, her and J. L. B. Smith, her exploration partner and the man who positivley identify the taxidermied fish as a coelacanth, were put on a stamp (top right).

As Bruton commented, the best way to write history is through the personal histories of the people that lived in that time – and his book tells the much needed story of one of South Africa’s greatest naturalists, one we should hold in more esteem than the mere chance discovery of a very old fish.

A one-woman crusader, Courtenay-Latimer was intimate and in love with nature, qualities made astounding clear through in Bruton’s book available online through Footprint Press.

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