Powell-Cotton: A Visit

If you have already visited or even heard of the the Powell-Cotton Museum, you’re a lucky person. If you haven’t done either, I hope to introduce you to one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited with a globally important natural history collection and a display waiting to blow your proverbials off. I mean right out the window.

I’ve been to many museums now and seen a lot of natural history collections. Yet I’ve never seen dioramas to rival those at the Powell-Cotton and had been wanting to for years. I was glad to be given the opportunity recently when some colleagues at the Horniman had an away day there and allowed me to tag along. They really are a lovely bunch (special thanks to Helen – what an egg!).

The museum is located in Quex Park in Birchington, South East Kent and is deserving of the journey to get there (from wherever you may be – it’s really that good). For the history of the museum, see here and have a read. As usual, I took a photo or two on all three of our mini tours. The lighting in some areas isn’t conducive to sharp images so I indulged in the resulting graininess. Come with me now on a journey to Africa, India and beyond. Don’t forget your pith helmet…

Archives

PowellCotton

My group was taken round the archives first. Hazel took us to see the brilliant collection of natural history books, journals and museum leaflets. As we went round, Hazel explained a little bit about the Powell-Cotton family, about Percy and his adventures and about the animals themselves as she has discovered and is still piecing together from the archives. Letters, signs, leaflets, posters and travel documents all bring Powell-Cotton’s exploits to life.

The most exciting thing for me to hear about was the natural history collection’s data. Natural History specimens usually rely on having good data to be of scientific and historic significance, aiding conservation and biological research. The animals shot and collected by Powell-Cotton have got incredible information associated with them. He recorded the longitude and latitude of every single one (with very few, if any, exceptions) and often even the altitude. Hazel told us that it is unlikely he had that information to hand in the field; he probably used maps and charts upon his return after careful field recording. This information allows the specimens to be used in different scientific studies by researchers all over the world (more on that later).

The specimens’ data have been listed and recorded on index cards, each one with its unique identifying number. I say unique…Powell-Cotton numbered his specimens using a prefix derived from the initials of the expedition (i.e. the geographical location, so Cameroon may have been “Cam”). Unfortunately, each subject area was numbered with their own sequence starting from 1 but with the same prefix. So the first natural history specimen collected in Cameroon would have been, for argument’s sake, Cam 1; the first anthropology object collected in Cameroon would have been…Cam 1. When the collections are eventually databased, this will present the museum with a puzzle to solve since each object or specimen will need unique identifier.

A glimpse of the library and archive. The Powell-Cotton has a fantastic collection of natural history books from all over the world.

A glimpse of the library and archive. The Powell-Cotton has a fantastic collection of natural history books from all over the world.

The card index which contains all the wonderful data collected by Powell-Cotton. What an incredible resource.

The card index which contains all the wonderful data collected by Powell-Cotton. What an incredible resource.

One of the interesting books we were shown. Note the elephant illustrations which were presumably drawn from a description, as opposed to seeing the animal in the flesh.

One of the interesting books we were shown. Note the elephant illustrations which were presumably drawn from a description, as opposed to seeing the animal in the flesh.

Hazel showed us a selection of journals and museum leaflets in the archives. Here's a set of Horniman Museum ones.

Hazel showed us a selection of journals and museum leaflets in the archives. Here’s a set of Horniman Museum ones.

Hazel herself explaining how the collection came to be. For example, members of the Powell-Cotton family would often have their own copies of certain volumes so the library has quite a few duplicates.

Hazel herself explaining how the collection came to be. For example, members of the Powell-Cotton family would often have their own copies of certain volumes so the library has quite a few duplicates.

A shelf of bird books showing a small cross-section of the collection.

A shelf of bird books showing a small cross-section of the collection.

Hazel showed us through parts of the house (where some of the archive offices and stores are). This ceiling looks down on a room full of oriental lacquered furniture. As beautiful as they were, the ceiling caught my eye most of all.

Hazel showed us through parts of the house (where some of the archive offices and stores are). This ceiling looks down on a room full of oriental lacquered furniture. As beautiful as they were, the ceiling caught my eye most of all.

This is a shot from the library proper in the house. It was imposing and thoroughly proper.

This is a shot from the library proper in the house. It was imposing and thoroughly proper.

One of the old posters for the museum. So educational was the museum that it was exempt from the Entertainment Tax!

One of the old posters for the museum. So educational was the museum that it was exempt from the Entertainment Tax!

Another old poster and it still speaks the truth: "do not fail to visit this unique museum".

Another old poster and it still speaks the truth: “do not fail to visit this unique museum”.

A beautiful copper vase. There were several in the room with the lovely ceiling.

A beautiful copper vase. There were several in the room with the lovely ceiling.

Behind The Scenes

PowellCotton

Once Hazel had finished with us, Sarah showed us around behind the scenes. She has only recently joined the Powell-Cotton Museum from NMS but that didn’t stop her giving us an excellent and detailed insight into how the stores are arranged, the research that goes on and the plans in development for their Learning collection.

The bones and skulls of all the taxidermy animals on display are housed separately; they are all labelled and numbered so they are quick to find. It’s great to hear about a natural history collection which is so entirely well documented, stored, displayed, researched and loved that it leaves the other collections wanting. In an ideal world, all collections would be equally well resourced. Sadly it seems to be standard for natural history collections to be the poor relations so I enjoyed visiting a museum where the opposite was true.

Primate skulls and mandibles  being used in a project by a researcher. The data associated with the Powell-Cotton material is so fantastic, it allows exciting work to be done on animals which can no longer be collected (such as great apes).

Primate skulls and mandibles being used in a project by a researcher. The data associated with the Powell-Cotton material is so fantastic, it allows exciting work to be done on animals which can no longer be collected (such as great apes).

Some more primate skulls, this time in a drawer. The researcher is 3D imaging the skulls to compare those from different geographical locations with each other. The accurate data of these specimens provide an array of research opportunities, underlining how vital natural history collections are in museums all over the world.

Some more primate skulls, this time in a drawer. The researcher is 3D imaging the skulls to compare those from different geographical locations with each other. The accurate data of these specimens provide an array of research opportunities, underlining how vital natural history collections are in museums all over the world.

Crates full of elephant skins with piles more on top. They are unwieldy and heavy and need to be observed for pest activity. Volunteers at the Powell-Cotton are working in teams to bag up a lot of these skins to reduce the risks of a pest attack. Ideally, they would all be put through the freezer but that's a massive job (and requires a massive freezer). The museum is on the case, though.

Crates full of elephant skins with piles more on top. They are unwieldy and heavy and need to be observed for pest activity. Volunteers at the Powell-Cotton are working in teams to bag up a lot of these skins to reduce the risks of a pest attack. Ideally, they would all be put through the freezer but that’s a massive job (and requires a massive freezer). The museum is on the case, though.

From the primate room and the elephant skins, we moved below. Here;s one of my colleagues, Rachel, walking down a spiral staircase with her peacock feather in tow.

From the primate room and the elephant skins, we moved below. Here;s one of my colleagues, Rachel, walking down a spiral staircase with her peacock feather in tow.

More large mammal crates! This one contains (or at least, contained) an eland.

More large mammal crates! This one contains (or at least, contained) an eland.

Some cabinets which housed bird skins. I asked to have a look but Sarah informed me the drawers didn't open now (the specimens had previously been relocated).

Some cabinets which housed bird skins. I asked to have a look but Sarah informed me the drawers didn’t open now (the specimens had previously been relocated).

Part of the Powell-Cotton's handling collection. It's located in an awkward store which means only a small amount can be brought up at once for sessions in the gallery. It's not ideal and now that the team there have a good idea what's in the handling collection, they would like to be able to provide a more efficient Learning offer. This is high on the agenda.

Part of the Powell-Cotton’s handling collection. It’s located in an awkward store which means only a small amount can be brought up at once for sessions in the gallery. It’s not ideal and now that the team there have a good idea what’s in the handling collection, they would like to be able to provide a more efficient Learning offer. This is high on the agenda.

Some of the handling collection boxes.

Some of the handling collection boxes.

Here is Sarah chatting about plans for the handling collection before taking us deeper into the store.

Here is Sarah chatting about plans for the handling collection before taking us deeper into the store.

Handling collection. Skulls, skulls, skulls.

Handling collection. Skulls, skulls, skulls.

Deeper into the osteology store, we got to see the range of animals in the collection from deer and cattle to carnivores.

Deeper into the osteology store, we got to see the range of animals in the collection from deer and cattle to carnivores.

Peering through the skulls!

Peering through the skulls!

I'm not sure if I've mentioned skulls yet...

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned skulls yet…

Now for something a bit different...oh, wait. Skulls.

Now for something a bit different…oh, wait. Skulls.

And, finally, ending the behind the scenes section with...a skull.

And, finally, ending the behind the scenes section with…a skull.

Museum

PowellCotton

We had seen the archives and part of the house; we’d had a snoop backstage to see where and how everything was stored. Finally, Inbal took us around the museum itself. My group was last to see the galleries and we’d only glimpsed them on the way round to the other sections. We were chomping at the bit.

This is the part where my socks blew off. The abundance of large specimens in a relatively small space is visually stunning; more impressive is how it doesn’t really feel cramped (although it does feel full, in a good way). From the biggest land mammals on the planet to much smaller details of animal interactions, there’s so much to see.

The skill involved in painting the backdrop and positioning the animals is staggering. As is shooting and then skinning and then mounting the animals all the while bearing the final arrangement in mind (so that no one can see the stitches). Rowland Ward was responsible for mounting the vast majority of the specimens on display; you can tell it’s the work of  master.

There are a lot of creatures on display and Inbal told us about different people’s reactions to seeing so much death. To me, historic taxidermy displays evoke a long gone era and tell you so much about the Zeitgeist. It’s a snapshot of the social history, as well as a clue to the flora and fauna found around the world at that time (and a vital biological record for current conservation work).

Powell-Cotton wasn’t as interested in shooting the biggest, longest, heaviest or otherwise most impressive animals for his collection. He wanted much more of a cross-section of the animal groups and often shot slightly odder individuals. He also emphasised his desire that the collection be a tool for education. Like Horniman, it seemed like he wanted to bring the world to his back garden for all to see and be awed by. When you see the galleries, you can tell instantly that the emphasis wasn’t on sensationalist curiosity but much more about what an amazing planet we leave on and its inhabitants. It’s truly a wonderful sight.

Gallery One. Amazing.

Gallery One. Amazing.

Right hand case as you enter Gallery One.

Right hand case as you enter Gallery One.

Left hand case as you enter Gallery One.

Left hand case as you enter Gallery One.

In the "India" diorama, a stunning tiger stands in the foreground, with leopards and deer and many other creatures behind.

In the “India” diorama, a stunning tiger stands in the foreground, with leopards and deer and many other creatures behind.

Tiger: this time in colour.

Tiger: this time in colour.

The Powell-Cotton also has a good collection of guns (not those used by Powell-Cotton).

The Powell-Cotton also has a good collection of guns (not those used by Powell-Cotton).

Some of the specimens have been mounted in a more traditional trophy style but, again, these aren't always the most trophy worthy.

Some of the specimens have been mounted in a more traditional trophy style but, again, these aren’t always the most trophy worthy.

Another diorama in a different gallery. You can just about make out the African elephant on the far left. Powell-Cotton wanted this elephant's front half stuffed only. It was such a good specimen that Rowland Ward tried to convince P-C to let him mount the whole animal. He refused. When P-C  went to collect the elephant, Ward had stuffed the whole animal but only charged him for half. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Another diorama in a different gallery. You can just about make out the African elephant on the far left. Powell-Cotton wanted this elephant’s front half stuffed only. It was such a good specimen that Rowland Ward tried to convince P-C to let him mount the whole animal. He refused. When P-C went to collect the elephant, Ward had stuffed the whole animal but only charged him for half. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

This lion attacked Powell-Cotton but we know who the victor was in that fight. P-C had him mounted in battle with this buffalo and although this image makes it look like the lion has the upper hand, round the back you can see the buffalo's horn is goring the lion's side.

This lion attacked Powell-Cotton but we know who the victor was in that fight. P-C had him mounted in battle with this buffalo and although this image makes it look like the lion has the upper hand, round the back you can see the buffalo’s horn is goring the lion’s side.

A close up of the lion having a chew. It's a spectacular taxidermy specimen.

A close up of the lion having a chew. It’s a spectacular taxidermy specimen.

The Powell-Cotton Museum has what they think is the oldest diorama-style display in the world. To prevent glare on the glass, there are large screens shielding it but this means the light is very poor. It's perfectly clear to see in person but a camera without a tripod has a hard time picking up detail. It's a stunning diorama and you'll need to go there in person to see it. This fox is part of it and the low light levels have allowed me to be a bit more creative. See if you can spot the fox when you visit.

The Powell-Cotton Museum has what they think is the oldest diorama-style display in the world. To prevent glare on the glass, there are large screens shielding it but this means the light is very poor. It’s perfectly clear to see in person but a camera without a tripod has a hard time picking up detail. It’s a stunning diorama and you’ll need to go there in person to see it. This fox is part of it and the low light levels have allowed me to be a bit more creative. See if you can spot the fox when you visit.

Of course, it's not all big game animals. There are also some butterflies on display in the museum.

Of course, it’s not all big game animals. There are also some butterflies on display in the museum.

I urge you all to visit the Powell-Cotton Museum and see the displays for yourselves. A photo cannot convey how stunning the dioramas are and I promise you won’t have seen anything like it. There are anthropology collections, parks and grounds, the house itself and loads more to see. Go! Follow the museum on Twitter too.

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