History of the collections

During his lifetime, Walter Rothschild collected many thousands of mounted mammals, birds, butterflies and moths, along with bird skins, giant tortoises and an impressive library.

Taxidermy

Many of the specimens on display are outstanding examples of 19th century taxidermy. Walter Rothschild selected only the finest specimens and made sure they were prepared by experts. We try to preserve this character in the displays you see today.

Scientific research

Walter accumulated new research material so rapidly that he and his professional zoologist curators, Ernst Hartert and Karl Jordan, began to issue the Museum's own scientific journal. Novitates Zoologicae launched in 1894. Over the course of 45 years, they published more than 1,700 scientific books and papers, and described more than 5,000 new species of animals.

Libraries

The Museum has two libraries, the stunning Rothschild Library and the modern Ornithological Library. T he magnificent Rothschild Library was added to the Museum between 1908 and 1912. Augmented by The Natural History Museum's ornithological collection, it now houses some 75,000 books and is considered to be one of the finest ornithological libraries in the world.

Collections left behind

During his lifetime Lord Rothschild accumulated:

  • 2,000 mounted mammals
  • about 2000 mounted birds
  • 2 million butterflies and moths
  • 300,000 bird skins
  • 144 giant tortoises
  • 200,000 birds' eggs
  • 30,000 relevant books
Dispersing the collections

The majority of Walter's bird skin collection was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in the early 1930s and is now in New York. All his research collections other than the remaining bird material were moved to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington over an extended period following World War II. The Natural History Museum's own bird collections were then moved out to a new purpose-built building at Tring in the early 1970s, where they attract researchers from around the world.

The bird collections now include about 1,150,000 specimens of skins, skeletons, nests, sets of eggs and spirit-preserved material.They continue to grow very slowly as new items are added.

Spirit collection

The spirit collection is home to 17,000 specimens, kept in a solution of 80 per cent industrial methylated spirit, to preserve the birds complete with all internal organs in a manner permitting dissection. The oldest date back to Captain Cook's voyages in the 1760s and 1770s.

Skeleton collection

The 15,000 items in the skeleton collection are mainly disarticulated (kept as separate bones) and stored in boxes in tight-sealing cupboards.

Skin collection

The skin collection of 700,000 specimens includes skins from Charles Darwin's Galapagos journeys and Captain Cook's explorations. Kept in the dark, in well-sealed cupboards and with carefully-regulated conditions of temperature and humidity, the skins retain their plumage colour and have a virtually indefinite life.

The collections also include around 400,000 sets of eggs and some 4,000 nests.