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Frank Oates & King Lobengula: Encounter on the frontier of empire

A new temporary exhibition is open at Gilbert White’s House and Gardens. Entitled Frank Oates & King Lobengula: Encounter on the frontier of empire, the exhibition tells the story of Frank Oates the naturalist and explorer and King Lobengula, sovereign of the Ndebele nation when they meet in September 1873.

Frank Oates, uncle to the famous Captain Oates of the South Pole, is one of the Oates family members highlighted at the Selborne museum as part of their Oates Collections. Frank Oates was a naturalist and travelled through North and Central America, before planning his final expedition to Southern Africa, with the goal to see Victoria Falls (on the border between what are today Zambia and Zimbabwe). But in order to reach the falls Oates needed to travel through Matabele land under the reign of King Lobengula (1845-1894). King Lobengula was the second and last official king of the Northern Ndebele people (historically called Matabele in English).

The exhibition has been curated as part of a partnership between Gilbert White’s House & Gardens and The University of Southampton lead by historians Dr Joseph Higgins, Dr Chris Prior and Geographer Professor Pete Langdon. The partnership has meant that not only has some work been done on the Frank Oates’ archives at the museum leading to further academic work, but the university has been working closely with the museum’s education department on resources for schools visiting the museum and resources for teachers in secondary schools tackling decolonisation discussions.

The exhibition set in the discovery room within Gilbert White’s House, discusses the relationship between the two men, one a King who was well used to European travelers coming to his court and asking for favours and Frank Oates a British traveler who was fascinated by all he saw. The exhibition displays items from the museum’s collection which represent Food, Trade and Hunting the three subjects most of their communication circled around, displays Frank Oates’ African diaries as well as asking visitors how they feel about the fact we know almost everything we know about this relationship from the perspective of Frank and how Lobengula’s story should be represented.

The exhibition will be on display until the 26th March 2023, and is free with admission to view. The museum will be hosting an array of family orientated half term events inspired by Frank Oates and Dr Joseph Higgins will be giving a lecture on his research at the museum soon. Details to follow shortly and will be on the museum’s website.