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Behind the scenes

2 Posts tagged with the curiosity_cabinet tag

No description of fairylike perfection is too saccharine for the hummingbird. They live in a world of blossoms, sweet nectar, and the untainted freshness of everlasting spring


Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo


If I was forced to choose a favourite specimen or exhibit at the Museum, at best I could probably narrow it down to a top three. Among the group would definitely be the beautiful case of hummingbirds on display in the Birds gallery.


Standing over six feet tall and containing at least 100 of the tiny, shiny little birds, the case is typical of the Victorian-era exotic displays sought by natural history and curiosity collectors.



One of my favourite Museum items: the hummingbird case in the Birds gallery, with close-up showing the shimmering plumage of the birds inside.


Unfortunately the origin of this magnificent case is not clear. Our best guess is that it came from collector William Bullock's personal museum, the contents of which was sold at auction in 1819.


In the document, 'A companion to Mr. Bullock's London Museum and Pantherion,' his hummingbird case is listed as 'the finest collection in Europe', and of the birds it is said that 'precious stones, polished by art, cannot be compared to these jewels of nature'.


But if you demand provenance with your hummingbirds, then look no further than our collection of John Gould cases. Gould was a gardener turned taxidermist, illustrator and publisher whose big break came when he was commissioned by King George IV to mount the monarch's pet giraffe.


Ever commercially minded, in 1851 Gould self-financed an exhibition of stuffed hummingbirds to capitalise on the footfall of those attending the Great Exhibition. The birds were presented in 24 custom-built cases which revolved and were specially lit to show off the iridescence of the hummingbirds' feathers.



A picture from the Illustrated London News showing Gould’s 1851 hummingbird exhibition.


Among the reported 75,000 people who attended during the run of the Great Exhibition were Charles Dickens, and also Queen Victoria who wrote in her diary:

It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little humming birds, their variety, and the extraordinary brilliancy of their colours.


After Gould's death, the Treasury provided a grant to the Museum to purchase his hummingbird cases, 3,800 unmounted hummingbird skins and 7,000 skins of other birds, which were divided between South Kensington and Tring.



Three of Gould's 24 hummingbird cases purchased by the Museum.


For a time, the cases were displayed on our Central Hall balcony, but as special collections librarian Paul Cooper explains, at one point they almost met a terribly unbefitting demise:

They were rescued them from being thrown into a skip in the 1970s. Presumably they were thought out of fashion, out of date, not needed... but the Library saved them when the Museum was going to get rid of them.


A watercolour showing Gould's hummingbird cases on display in one of the Central Hall balconies (left), and a c. 1932 photograph showing a couple of cases precariously placed at the top of the Central Hall stairs where our giant sequoia now stands (right).


Six of the hummingbird cases now reside behind the scenes in the Rare Books Room in the Library at South Kensington and one other is in Walter Rothschild's library at Tring.


It is hard to believe that these cases of hummingbirds, which can excite such romantic infatuation, could ever be considered surplus to requirements. In the words of Gould himself (the brackets are mine):

The pleasure I experience each time I see (our) hummingbird (case) is as great at the present moment as when I first saw (it).



Six of the hummingbird cases now resident in the Library's Rare Books Room.


I spent my formative years living by the beach, so the idea of being able to swim unhindered by lungs that need air to absorb oxygen was a fantastical one. Yes, I daydreamed about being a mermaid.


And, a few years ago, I discovered that mermaids were more than just an object of my imagination, or of myth and fairytale: they were real. Well, at least they were in the form of compound constructions for curiosity cabinets and travelling sideshows...


There are two types of 'mermaids' in natural history: the monkey fish and the 'jenny haniver':


As the name suggests, the monkey fish is comprised of the head and torso of a monkey (carved out of wood) and the tail of a fish, often with additional papier-mâché elements plus wood and wire for structure and support. The jenny haniver is constructed from a guitar fish (part of the Rhinobatidae family of rays) and has been fashioned since at least the 16th century, initially in the image of the lethal basilisk before (by way of dragon, devil and angel) taking on a more human form and being presented as a mermaid.



The mermaid of myth and legend, as depicted by painter John William Waterhouse (left), and mermaids of "reality", aka monkey fish, belonging to the British Museum (top right, © The Trustees of the British Museum) and the Horniman Museum (bottom right).



Ollie Crimmen, the Museum's fish curator, who also has a bit of a soft spot for mermaids, says it's a shame we don't have a monkey fish at the Museum, but was keen to discuss with me the two jenny hanivers held in our stores:

I think when people look at these things with modern eyes they think "how can people believe it?"


[But, in centuries past] when somebody went over the horizon in a ship they were more out of touch than astronauts are today. When they came back, if they came back, there was a huge expectation: "you must have seen something fantastic, you must have brought something back". There was a pressure to have seen marvellous things. It might sound mad to us, but it was the sheer pressure of the expectation of what you've seen once you'd gone over the horizon.


And those who had not been on the journey, who had not seen fantastic, foreign things, were willing to believe whatever was presented to them as fact. For how could they know any different without having ever seen it in the flesh themselves? Remember my mention in a previous blog about the 'legless bird of paradise'?


On the other hand, nature does come up with some very real, very strange creatures. Consider the platypus: when it was discovered in the 18th century many scientists had difficulty believing that its mix of reptilian and mammalian features could be genuine.


The Museum has one quite big jenny haniver which measures 54cm in height, and another 'more quaint, smaller one' that's much older, Ollie says. He's not sure of their origin, but suggests that Museum scientist Peter Dance 'maybe had a go' at making one.


The suggestion is not completely off the mark. In his book Animal Fakes and Frauds, Dance describes buying a jenny haniver in London's Soho around the 1960s or 70s. Perhaps this is the specimen now in our collection.

When I first began gathering material for this book, I found that jenny hanivers were still being made. I bought one in London. According to the proprietor of the shop in Soho, whence I obtained it, it was said to have come from the Gulf of Mexico. It was, he said, a very good selling line, and I know it did not take him long to sell the others he had.


jenny haniver double.jpg

The Museum's large jenny haniver specimen, front (left) and back (right). It measures 54cm tall and 29cm across.


There is no definitive answer as to where the name jenny haniver originates, although many cite 'Anvers' (the French name for Antwerp), as a source, as it was on the coasts of Belgium and Holland that these mermaids were said to have been caught.


Dance's book also includes a passage from Australian ichthyologist Gilbert P Whitley describing how jenny hanivers are made:

...[by] taking a small dead ray, curling its side fins over its back, and twisting its tail into any required position, a piece of string is tied round the head behind the jaws to form a neck and the ray is dried in the sun. During the subsequent shrinkage, the jaws project to form a snout and a hitherto concealed arch of cartilage protrudes so as to resemble folded arms. The nostrils, situated a little above the jaws, are transformed into a pair of eyes, the olfactory laminae resembling eyelashes. The result of this simple process, preserved with a coat of varnish and perhaps ornamented with a few dabs of paint, is a jenny haniver, well calculated to excite wonder in anyone interested in marine curios.


What is presented as the face of the jenny haniver  is actually the underside of the guitar fish. The ray's real eyes (located on its upperside) are sometimes obscured by curled pectoral fins. Ollie says:

Some people think it's dark, but it's a part of cultural history, of natural history.



Another jenny haniver specimen, which featured in the Museum's 2010 exhibition, The Deep.