The Rothschild collection

Photograph of Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild

Carriage drawn by three zebra and a horse, driven by Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937), founder of the Natural History Museum at Tring

Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937) amassed the greatest private natural history collection ever put together by one person and housed it in his own museum in Tring, in Hertfordshire, England. Built in 1889, the museum first opened to the public in 1892.

It exhibited specimens that showed the great diversity of the animal kingdom, while the research collections focussed on birds and insects.

Rothschild was hugely influential in the world of natural history – he had collectors operating across the globe and he corresponded with researchers worldwide. He bequeathed the museum and its collections to the Trustees of the British Museum in his will, and they were then passed to the Natural History Museum – or the British Museum (Natural History) as it was known at the time.

The Rothschild family moved into Tring Park in Hertfordshire when Walter was a small boy, and his interest in natural history was ignited by the surrounding countryside. At the age of seven he began collecting and, with the help of a family employee, Alfred Minall, he started a collection of taxidermy specimens. His interest continued to grow and he became particularly passionate about hybrids and colour aberrations.

The museum building was a gift from his parents for his 21st birthday. It opened to the public in 1892 and was designed to show zoological biodiversity. The research collections were comprised of ornithology and entomology specimens, with Ernst Hartert (1859–1933) appointed as the first curator of the bird collection and Heinrich Ernst Karl Jordan (1861–1959) as the first insect curator.

In 1908, when Walter stepped away from working for the Rothschild family bank, he decided to build a library for the many volumes he had acquired to support his research. His monographs on birds, totalling almost 30,000, date from the mid-sixteenth century and form the most comprehensive ornithological library in the world. Many of the twentieth-century works in the library were donated by the author. Rothschild had a comprehensive collection of periodicals, including the complete run from first issue of certain titles.

As a result, his library became the place where researchers could access the greatest number of historical sources at once.

The Rothschild Library

The Rothschild Library at the Natural History Museum at Tring


To support his research, Rothschild also obtained manuscripts – usually directly related to the specimens he acquired – such as the egg collection catalogues of Henry Munt.  Among the other original material held in the library are the life-size illustrations for Rothschild’s Extinct Birds (1907), including a 3.75 by 1.5 metre painting of Dinornis ingens, the giant moa. Also featured are Rothschild’s personal copies of his book, Avifauna of Laysan, containing the original paintings on which the published plates were based.

The library’s extensive photograph collection holds images of the animals and birds kept at Tring Park, a photograph album from Henry C Palmer’s collecting trip on the Chatham and Hawaiian Islands between 1890 and 1893, and photographs from Rothschild’s expeditions to Algeria and the northern Sahara.

The Zoological Museum at Tring published 42 volumes of its journal, Novitates Zoologicae, between 1894 and 1948. Edited by Rothschild, Hartert and Jordan, the majority of the papers published were based on specimens held by the Museum at Tring.

By the time he died in 1937, Rothschild had already sold his bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but his egg collection, ratite bird specimens and library were gifted to the Natural History Museum. The Museum also received his entomological collections, which have since been  amalgamated with the main entomological collections at its South Kensington site.

Rothschild’s legacy lives on at Tring, which remains a centre for zoological research and a public museum that continues to inspire modern audiences


Composition: Books, periodicals, original artwork, photographs, manuscripts

Focus: Ornithology, travel, entomology


  • John Gerrard Keulemans
  • Frederick Frohawk
  • Henrik Gronvold
  • George Lodge
  • Joseph Smit

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