The Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire, was the brainchild of one man – its remarkable founder Walter Rothschild.
Walter was a scientist and collector, as well as museum-founder, and in addition to all this was the eldest son of the Rothschild banking family – therefore having to balance his scientific passion with his familial responsibilities.
On his death in 1937 Walter bequeathed his extensive collections and his museum to the nation, and the Natural History Museum as South Kensington has been managing it ever since.
Exterior, Tring Natural History Museum
The correspondence of Tring Museum, particularly from the time of Walter, is incredibly rich – partially because that museum was so small in comparison to the South Ken museum, and so letter writing was often much less bureaucratic and more informal and discursive.
Interior, Tring Natural History Museum
This correspondence contains letters from wide range of writers - specimen dealers, taxidermists, artists, scientists, publishers and booksellers, museum curators and tradesmen.
Some of the most engaging material though is from the large number of collectors which Walter employed, many of whom travelled the world acquiring specimens for him - writing from all over the globe including jungles, war zones, tropical islands, and prisoner of war camps. In their letters these collectors would often detail their personal experiences and problems they encountered on their expeditions as much as the scientific detail of the collecting they were carrying out.
One particularly fascinating case (although there are many many more) is Edward Baker (1864-1944), a British ornithologist and police officer who worked in Assam, India. Baker was not a professional collector, but sent a great many eggs and birdskins to Tring in the 1890s, and also went on to publish books about the birds of India.
His correspondence really shows the close relationships between the Tring Museum curators and collectors out in the field.
It seems that collecting and trading birds with Tring was a way for Baker to stay connected with the ornithological community in Europe, whilst being stationed far away in India.
He mentions being quite lonely and often invites one of Walter’s curators to come and visit him (suggesting he stay a whole year!).
Baker also talks about the size of his collection, and it being the best collection of Indian bird eggs in the world. Sadly enough, later on, however, he does then have to sell his collections as his family grows and he has less time for collecting.
Perhaps the most exemplary letter from Baker to the museum, however, is that in 1894 where he begins ‘I don’t think I have written to you since my accident. I got very badly bitten about the left arm by a leopard & have had to have it taken off in consequence’.
Letter from Edward Baker to Tring Museum
This sentence alone would seem to sum up every cliché we hold dear of the Victorian gentleman – stiff upper lip, focussed, utterly blasé about his hardships. The fact that this is the last mention of this in his letter, and he then goes on to discuss entirely separate matters – as if the loss of an arm is only a very minor incident! – is, if someone of an extreme, perhaps indicative of the dedication of some Victorian scientists!
This letter, and a number of others, are on display at the Tring Museum as part of their Daring Explorers exhibition. This free exhibition runs until 12 November 2012, and tells the story of what life was like for a Victorian collector – where they went, the specimens they collected, and the hardships they faced.