Throughout its long history, the Booth Museum has always supported a greater understanding of our environment and a scientific approach to wildlife conservation.

The museum was founded in 1874 and the methods of its founder reflected the accepted scientific practices of Victorian Britain.  While some of these activities are now rightly considered unethical, and are often illegal, we believe that there is still much that can be learned from the work that was conducted at this time.

Our methods at the Booth have evolved with current scientific practice. Our work with scientists and wildlife conservationists may be very different from those of its founder. But since the museum was opened to the public in 1890 our work has always been based on a commitment to helping people learn about the natural world and respect the environment.

Booth’s collection of British Birds 1874 – 1890

When Edward Booth (1840-1890) first developed a passion for the birds of Britain, there were no suitable instruments to help him in his studies. The telescopes of the day were impossible to use for bird watching and useful binoculars for bird-watching were not available until the late 19th century. Cameras were still far too clumsy to use. So, like all ornithologists of the day, Booth used his guns to shoot the birds he wanted to study, and ultimately add to his growing collection of birds ‘mounted in natural surroundings’. Mr. Booth built his Museum in 1874 and left it to the people of Brighton on his death in 1890.

Today, and for much of the 20th century before, shooting birds has not only been frowned on, but is, for the most part illegal. Booth’s collection on show in the museum can sometimes appear cruel and unforgiveable, but in fact we owe a great deal to Booth. Through his vision it was he who ensured that after his birds had met their untimely death they were preserved in life-like cases for all to see and learn from. Where else can you see a real Golden Eagle, or marvel at once common British species like the Gannet, or seldom seen birds like the Cuckoo or Nightingale? And so despite initial appearances, we like to think that Booth has contributed to our understanding of birds and that his museum goes some way towards justifying the death of all these birds, now over 120 years ago.

Postcard showing Booth Museum of British Birds, 1906
Postcard showing Booth Museum of British Birds, 1906

Booth was a significant ornithologist and environmentalist. His diaries record in detail his observations of bird behaviour and the circumstances in which he found them. What’s more, he published catalogues recording these details for visitors to read when visiting his museum and this continued to be available long after his death, even up to the Second World War.  He went on to publish a large and beautiful three volume work that he called his Rough Notes (1881-1887) with fine illustrations by Edward Neale. This was an expensive work even when first published and is very valuable today. These publications together with the actual specimens of Booth’s birds have been significant in their contribution to our understanding of the distribution of birds in the UK. Although that contribution is perhaps now complete, the Booth Museum continues to contribute to nature conservation in many different ways.

The Booth Museum of Natural History

In the late 1970s the natural science collections acquired by Brighton Museum since it first opened in 1861 were all amalgamated under one roof within Booth’s Bird Museum. Specialists were appointed who could interpret, record and preserve the collections which represented just about every plant and animal group, not only locally, but across Sussex, the UK and in many collections, worldwide. This enormously increased the value of all these collections which have made contributions to science and nature conservation ever since.

Preparing a kakapo for display
Preparing a kakapo for display

We use our collections to raise awareness of visitors to the natural world using ‘the real thing’. We achieve this through displays and exhibitions, working with schools, universities and colleges and other specialists. Whilst our collections are of great value to education and awareness of natural science in its widest sense, the museum contributes much more than through its displays and events.

A few examples may illustrate this:

  • Studies of Gorilla skulls contributing to veterinary analyses of pathological conditions amongst living populations
  • Herbarium studies of plants which contributed to an atlas of Sussex plants (Hall, P.C. 1980 Sussex Plant Atlas: An atlas of the distribution of wild plants in Sussex. Sussex Botanical Recording Society and Brighton Borough Council)
  • The description of many fossil insects new to science discovered in 140 million year old rocks of the Weald
  • Local butterfly and moth collections, contributing to published volumes on their distribution in Sussex
  • Studies of DNA taken from birds of prey in the collections
  • The discovery of bones preserved in the collections which came from an armoured dinosaur new to Europe.
  • A study of egg clutch sizes through the 20th century to examine changes in the number of eggs laid.

Current contributions to wildlife conservation

The collections of the Booth should not just be seen in terms of preserved specimens. First, the data accompanying specimens is highly significant; we need to know the identity of the specimen, where it was found, when it was found and who found it. Without this vital information the specimen cannot contribute to science or nature conservation. Data allows us to construct habitat information, with particular focus on Sussex environments, hence our involvement in atlases of lepidoptera and plant species in the county.

Second we hold a substantial library, not only that bequeathed to us by Edward Booth himself but also the library of the long defunct Brighton & Sussex Natural History & Philosophical Society.

Third, we keep information about natural places in Sussex.

For many years the Booth Museum has worked in partnership with the Sussex Wildlife Trust with much of our data being held in their Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre. Likewise we are a key player in the Sussex Geodiversity Partnership which from over 7000 records of Sussex geological sites, works with a key selection of important Local Geological Sites to conserve our geological heritage. One of the Trust’s nature reserves is a Regionally Important Geological Site. We work with the Brighton & Hove Local Authority to help shape its conservation policies within the context of local initiatives helping to manage and protect our natural green spaces. In all these ways we are also working in common with the newly established South Downs National Park, as well as the Brighton & Hove and Lewes Downs Biosphere Project, helping to deliver a sustainable approach to our natural places in full knowledge of our natural wildlife, supported by all our collections and expertise.

Taxidermy

Edward Booth employed local taxidermists to stuff and mount his birds into life-like positions. Many of the collections now housed in the museum have been prepared by taxidermists and until recent years we employed a taxidermist and preparator of our own to continue to add to our collections. Although we no longer employ a taxidermist we do still occasionally commission a piece of work. The museum has always practiced ethical taxidermy and will continue to do so. This means we only acquire animals which have died through natural causes and these are given to us by members of the public who find them in their gardens or as road casualty.

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