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Library & Archives

2 Posts tagged with the natural_history_museum_tring tag




This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (


Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), founder of the natural history museum in Tring (at that time titled the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum) left that museum in his will to London’s Natural History Museum, including the extensive scientific specimen collections he’d amassed throughout his life.


One notable gap though was his ornithological material – Walter’s bird collection, which he began amassing from the age of seven, was widely considered to be the most comprehensive in the world, and as a Trustee of the Natural History Museum it was presumed (by him as well as us) that they would end up in our museum in South Kensington.


Unfortunately though, ultimately his finances precluded it. The economic crash of 1929 (possibly also compounded by a rumoured case of blackmail, supposedly a result of an affair with a lady of high standing) left him financially struggling and he sold his famed bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York when they were able to raise a substantially higher balance for the collection than we.











Perhaps helping to shed a little more light on this, and definitely showing the more personal side to Walter’s decision, is the Museum Archive’s recently acquired small collection of Walter’s private letters.  Particularly interesting because he had asked that all his personal correspondence be destroyed on his death - a wish which was carried out, leaving very little of his own letters to be read.




In one letter in 1932 Walter wrote to Ernst Hartert, who had previously been one of his curators at Tring, that:







It is with a very heavy heart & with most of my life torn up, that I write these lines. Owing to the world economic conditions & the failure of many stocks & bonds to pay interest, not to talk of increased & increasing taxation, I / have been forced to retrench drastically. The 2 alternatives which faced me were either to dispose of one of my two scientific collections as a whole or else to see the museum broken up & sold piecemeal by auction. I could not face the latter alternative as my life’s work would have been annihilated. So I had to decide to dispose of that collection /for which I could find a purchaser as a whole, & that is the bird collection. I have disposed of the whole collection except about 200 skins & the 250 Struthionidae & of course the mounted portion, ie about 280000 skins & the contract as signed provides that the collection is kept together in a separate room as the Rothschild collection under a separate body of three / trustees. As the British Museum could not find the money; the collection has been purchased & presented to the American Museum. I know that you will feel as crushed by this blow as I do but the worlds collapse made it inevitable.




The deal with the AMNH was protracted with negotiations with other museums, including ourselves, also taking place.  The complexity and controversy of the deal is demonstrated by him later when he mentions:


The economic conditions in America are in such a bad way that the millionaire donor has absolutely forbidden his name or the sum to become known at present for fear of reprisals for having spent such a large sum; so at all events for some months I cannot say anything. All I can tell you is that the sum is a third more than I expected to get & much more than I even could have got in Europe before the war even [sic]. 2013_53_Hartert_sketchbook_2.jpg





Almost as excitingly, in this little collection there is also a notebook of sketches of Claudia Hartert, Ernst Hartert’s wife, for his book ‘On the birds of the islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire’.  The little volume contains sketches of eggs and birds, as well as bird feathers.


This collection was sent to us by the Dutch Art Museum in the Hague, who found the package when clearing out their basement.  Quite how or why the letters Walter wrote and Hartert’s sketches ended up in Holland is entirely unknown.



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.jpg

                                                                            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.


Letter from Edward Baker.bmp




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.