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Behind the scenes

6 Posts tagged with the walter_rothschild tag

Art is only nature operating with the aid of the instruments she has made


Paul Henri, Baron d'Holbach; French philosopher


Rarely have I come across a quote more fitting, than the above to the subject of this month's blog: a carved hornbill skull held in the bird collection at Tring.


By the accounts of all those who have had the pleasure of viewing the skull in the flesh (or in the bone, I should say) it is a truly remarkable thing. While other Museums do have examples of carved hornbill skulls, most are just etched, rather than actually carved in relief like the specimen I'm featuring today.


Jo Cooper, Senior Curator of the Avian Anatomical Collections at Tring, says:

It's a rather spectacular thing, and it's quite a rare piece.


Our specimen is crafted from a helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a species found on the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. It is the bird's casque - an ivory-like plate at the front of the head which it uses for fighting, or jousting - that features our intricate artwork. The helmeted hornbill is the only hornbill with a solid casque (and therefore the only one suitable for carving). The composition of other species' is more spongey or honeycomb-like. Such is the density of the helmeted hornbill's casque, it is said to make up around a third of the weight of the bird.



A helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) with it's large and heavy casque. © Citron, CC BY-SA 3.0


The carving on our skull depicts a Chinese battle scene, set in a town by a river. There is also a figure holding a flag bearing the Chinese wén character, which can be translated to mean literature and culture. Jo says:

The level of detail is extraordinary, to the point there's a tiny bird, a kingfisher, which can be seen diving.




The solid casque of the helmeted hornbill is the only one suitable for carving, which is exquisitely intricate and detailed in our specimen of the month.


The specimen was acquired by Tring several years ago and was presented to the Museum by former curator Philip Burton, following his retirement. Burton had been given it by an eminent ornithologist.


Its origin dates to the 19th century, but Burton's and the Museum's records can only account for it up to the 1950s. Jo says:

Before that, we just don't know its history, but it is an antique object that goes back well into the 1800s.


The Museum consulted with experts at the Victoria & Albert Museum to help establish the specimen's provenance, and they confirmed that it was most likely created in China because the country had an established trade out of Borneo of the rare hornbill ivory. The Chinese often used it to make decorative belt buckles, snuff boxes and other small accoutrements.


Our beautiful hornbill specimen is not on public display, but Jo says it is very much at home at Tring:

This is the kind of thing you'd expect to see in the V&A or the British Museum, but actually it has a zoological interest too, so I think it's a good fit for Tring. It's also about cultural use and cultural relations, and that's what a lot of our collection is about as well.


We have a few (other similar) artifacts, in terms of things that have been modified, but nothing on par with this.



Spot the kingfisher?


Those who know me know that I tend to get a bit twitchy around flying things (eurgh, pigeons, they're crazy and can't be trusted). But I've never been so scared of a winged creature that I felt the need to pull a gun on it.


But then again, I've never been two days deep in the rain forests of New Guinea and confronted by the world's biggest butterfly, which boasts a wingspan of about a foot wide.


However, in 1906 English explorer and naturalist Albert Stewart Meek found himself in that very situation while on a collecting trip for Walter Rothschild, so he pulled his gun and shot that butterfly right out of the sky.


As a consequence, the Museum's type specimen of the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), has bullet holes in its wings!


Ornithoptera alexandrae TYPE-edited-700-with-circles.jpg

Bottom: The holotype female specimen of Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), described by Rothschild in 1907. The large tear in the left forewing and the several other smaller holes and chips (circled), are as a result of it being shot.

Top: How a female Queen Alexandra’s birdwing looks when it hasn't been shot for collection.


At this point I should probably clarify that Meek wasn't using regular shotgun shells but, instead, what is known as 'mustard seed' or 'dust shot' cartridges. These were designed especially for daring explorers and collectors of the time to shoot small birds at short range without causing damage to their plumage.


Meek was also responsible for another addition to our curious collection of 'shot birdwing' specimens, this time a goliath birdwing (Ornithoptera goliath), obtained on Goodenough Island, off eastern Papua New Guinea, in 1914.


In a letter between entomological dealer Oliver Erichson Janson and collector Charles Oberthür, it was written:

[Meek] was only able to obtain a few specimens by shooting them as they always flew only about the tops of the highest trees and he couldn't induce them to come down.


The earliest of our shot birdwings is one captured by John MacGillivray on Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands) in 1854, during the voyage of HMS Herald.


In describing MacGillivray's specimen as Queen Victoria's birdwing (Ornithoptera victoriae) in 1856, George Robert Gray wrote:

Its flight is very elevated; so much so that it became necessary to employ powder and shot to secure the specimen.



Above: MacGillivray's holotype female Queen Victoria's birdwing (Ornithoptera victoriae), with damage from shot.

Below: A Queen Victoria’s birdwing collected using more conventional means.




Birdwings are not the only entomological specimens in our collections with bullet holes. We also have a goliath beetle (Goliathus goliatus), captured 125-years-ago, that was recently revealed to have been shot in its back while in flight.



Entry and exit wounds in the goliath beetle, as well as a shotgun pellet still inside its body as revealed by X-ray analysis.


I thought I would dedicate my blog today, ANZAC day (in honour of my antipodean countrymen) to the avian symbol of New Zealand, the kiwi. But not just any kiwi: the collection of curiously coloured kiwi specimens held at the Museum in Tring.


Walter Rothschild, the eccentric founder of our Museum in Hertfordshire, was fascinated by flightless birds, including kiwis, and kept many as part of his live menagerie. In fact, it is said that he took a flock of 30 kiwis with him when he went to study at Cambridge in 1887.


Rothschild was also fascinated by albino animals and had a large number of abnormally coloured specimens in his bird collection. Today, among its 250 kiwi specimens of three different species, Tring holds 11 birds that show aberrations in colour, including two suspected albinos.


Hein van Grouw, a curator in the Museum's bird group, and an expert in avian colour peculiarities, says:

Rothschild was very fond of kiwis and very fond of colour aberrations in birds in general, so a colour aberrated kiwi was a highlight.


There are two terms for an all-white bird: albinism, caused by an absence of the enzyme necessary to activate colour pigment cells in feathers, skin and eyes; and leucism, a lack of colour pigment cells altogether. The main difference between the two is that albinos have red eyes, and as a result, very poor eyesight.


Colour aberrations in little spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii, L-R: leucistic adult, normal adult, diluted semi-adult, albino semi-adult, normal chick, brown chick.


Hein says 'normal' albino birds don't usually survive past fledgling, not because they're eaten by predators, but simply because they can hardly see.

But kiwis aren't normal birds. A kiwi doesn't rely on their eyes as much as a normal bird. They are more like a mammal, and does things by feeling.


While it is difficult to put an accurate figure on the incidence of albinism in birds, Hein suggests a ratio of something like 'one in a million'; of course:

If you looked in a Museum collection you'd think it was pretty common, but that's just because there was a time when every funny coloured bird seen by a collector was shot and put in a collection. It's not representative of what's in the wild.


But that's not to say that every Museum in the world has a collection of aberrantly coloured birds, or indeed kiwis, as impressive as our own at Tring.

Rothschild was very interested in colour aberrations in general and therefore collected an impressive number of examples. Although most of his bird skin collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the early 1930s, he kept about 3,000 skins himself, including the kiwi skins.


I’m not sure whether there are any aberrant kiwi skins from his collection in New York, but I’m pretty sure that the Tring collection holds the most extensive kiwi aberration collection outside New Zealand.

Kiwi albino_700.jpg

Little spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii. It's presumed to be albino but, because its red eyes have not been preserved, curators can not say for sure.


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.


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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.




I am what you might describe as curious about the curious. If it's strange or surprising, remarkable or rare, it will pique my interest and usually find a place in my heart.


When I think about the mid-to-late-'teenth centuries, when a steady flow of goods from far-away places began arriving in European ports and populating the drawing rooms of those with a bit of social and cultural cachet, I get a little misty eyed.


Oh, to have had my own curiosity cabinet, filled with fossils and minerals and taxidermied creatures; my own window through which to experience exotic lands, and a reflection of my good taste and wealth...



Cabinet of Curiosities, an oil painting by Domenico Remps (1620–1699) *swoon*.


But these cabinets weren't purely vanity projects. As scientific thought blossomed, the desire to possess items grew into a desire to understand them. Curiosity cabinets developed into natural history collections, and went on to form the future model, and in some cases, the actual contents, of the museums we still visit today.


Sir Hans Sloane's massive private collection of plants, animals, antiquities and curios was the founding core of the British Museum and later the Natural History Museum. And of course Walter Rothschild's personal museum went on to become our Museum at Tring.


At his peak, Rothschild had 300 men working for him in far-flung locations around the world sourcing specimens. Frederick Selous, an African big-game hunter, was responsible for procuring many mammalian specimens for us. (Selous died in WW1 and there is a memorial to him in the Central Hall on the left of the Darwin statue).



A museum staff member photographed in 1932 surrounded by stuffed animals.


But in contrast to our taxidermic tendencies of the past, today the Museum's collecting interests focus on fossils, minerals, insects and plants.


When you consider that beetles make up 25% of all life forms, and that trees have dominated dry land for over 300 million years (far longer than dinosaurs or mammals), there's clearly a lot for us to discover within those fields.



Fossil coral collected by Museum scientists in Indonesia in 2011. The fossils are helping researchers discover why the waters where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet are so rich in biodiversity and may also provide clues to how the area will be affected by climate change


In a recent chat with archivist and records manager Daisy Cunynghame I learned that the perception of the Museum's collections and collecting practices over time has been the source of much intrigue and even urban legend.


Daisy says:

There have been, over the last 100 years or so, a lot of rumours about what we're collecting behind the scenes.


Newspapers used to run stories saying things like we would pay £500 for a blue bottle fly or £50 for a smoked cigarette with its full length of ash still intact. Then we would be inundated with these things.


People have historically thought that we are the place for all these miscellaneous things.



Newspaper clippings from January 1914 claiming Charles de Rothschild paid £1,000 for a rare flea, followed by a denial from Rothschild that he paid any such sum.


But we're not a repository for any old odds and sods. In fact, the Museum is one of the leading natural history institutions in the world and a global leader in scientific research.


Although that's not to say that we don't have a few curious, unusual and not-strictly-scientific specimens lurking around the place.


And it is with that in mind that I am launching a Specimen of the Month series on this blog, to reveal the stories behind some of (what I consider to be) the most fascinating items in our possession. Stay tuned.