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…
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.
Behind The Scenes
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.
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.
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.