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Behind the scenes

2 Posts tagged with the victorian 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.


A day out at Tring

Posted by Amy Freeborn Mar 14, 2014

Last week I was lucky enough to escape my office in London for a day out at the Museum in Tring. Just 35 minutes after boarding a train at Euston, I arrived at Tring station and was picked up for the 2-mile drive to Walter Rothschild's former home.


Of course Tring wasn't just Walter's home: it was home to his extensive private collection of natural history specimens, as well as a menagerie of live animals including cassowaries, kangaroos, tortoises and zebras. Many of those animals - after they had died their natural deaths - went on to become specimens in the Museum, which his family bequeathed to the nation following Walter's death in 1937.



Kangaroos in Tring Park in the early 1900s (left), and now on display in the Museum (right).


Today, the Museum retains its unique Victorian character, and many of the 4,000 specimens in the galleries are still arranged in the very particular way Walter had dictated during his life. It really is a museum of a museum.



A gallery photographed in 1910 (top), and many of the same specimens displayed in much the same way more than 100 years later (bottom).



During my day out at Tring I was treated to a guided behind the scenes tour of the specimen storage and preparation areas. From the spirit collection (which numbers around 17,000 jars; the oldest specimen being a Hawaiian honeycreeper collected by Captain Cook in 1772), to the room where flesh eating beetles clean up bird carcasses in readiness for storage in the skeleton collection (as can be seen on our YouTube channel here). I even got to take a peek into Walter's personal library, where the ironwork on the upper floor is modelled after the Eiffel Tower.


tring wet specimens 700.jpg

Part of the spirit collection (top), and flesh eating beetles at work (bottom).



The scientists and curators I met proudly informed me that Tring boasts the largest ornithological library in the world, and holds the second largest collections in the world of bird skins (750,000 pieces, which represents 95% of all known species) and bird eggs (around 300,000 clutches, which represents 52% of all known species). Oh, and its collection of 4,000 bird nests is housed in the longest run of roller rack in Europe (15m).



Prepared bird skins in the drying rack. The skins are wrapped around cotton wool and a popsicle stick.


Out from behind the scenes and into the public galleries, Tring is a marvel. Walter's original floor-to-ceiling, glass-fronted hardwood and iron cabinets are almost bursting with an overwhelming array of mounted specimens. And it is this sense of history, variety and eccentricity that make Tring such a special and wonderful place.