Effective Collections 2010/2011: bringing natural science collections back to Sussex museums

Sign for Bringing the Trophies Home exhibitionEffective Collections is a scheme run by the Museums Association which awards funding to museum projects that will help increase access to stored collections and get more objects seen by the public.

Over the past two years we have been working in partnership with Horsham, Bexhill and Worthing museums to develop natural history focused projects. These museums had previously transferred the majority of their natural science collections to us and one of the main aims of our proposal was to give communities who had once had collections of animals, plants and geology access to such objects once again.

The proposal consisted of three exhibitions (for Bexhill and Horsham) and a handling collection (for Worthing). Bexhill received an exhibition on Sussex Taxidermists which was installed in Spring 2011, whilst the Summer saw us provide objects for an exhibition on Edward Topsell at Horsham, and delivering two handling collections based on the seashore to Worthing.

The week before Christmas saw the completion of the largest of the projects: an exhibition on Victorian natural history collectors at Horsham Museum. They had provided the title ‘Bringing the Trophies Home’ as it would be the first of their exhibitions running up to the 2012 Olympic Games. As the title suggests, it focused on scientists and collectors from Southern England, and particularly Horsham, who had brought the natural world back to Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, helping to greatly expand our knowledge and understanding of life on earth.

Horsham’s temporary exhibition room houses five display cabinets themed in the following ways:

The first display centres on the tools and equipment used by the Victorians in collecting, preparing, preserving and studying their collections. This was the most varied display using items from a number of Brighton collections as well as a spear from Horsham’s ethnographic collection. The title of the display was taken from the Victorians name for these tools: The Weapons of the Chase.

Weapons of the Chase display case
Weapons of the Chase display case

The second cabinet, titled European Collecting gives a brief overview of local collectors who built up the majority of their collections whilst working and travelling on the continent or at home in Britain. The displays include objects from Brighton algae expert Mary Merrifield, Percy Godman of Horsham, who spent several years studying birds in Norway, and Dr. Alexander Crichton,  who had travelled across Europe as chief physician to the Russian Tsar, and continued to collect plants and geology until the 1850s.

European Collecting display case
European Collecting display case

The third cabinet focuses on two of Horsham’s most prolific collectors: Edmund Loder and John G. Millais. They were both friends and neighbours, and each built museums and gardens to house the animals and plants they collected on their travels around the world. This cabinet displays examples of the animals in their collections as well as reproductions of some of J.G. Millais’ illustrations, which were considered some of the finest of their type.

Another Horsham collector, Frederick DuCane Godman, features significantly in the next display. Birds and insects collected by him and his friend Osbert Salvin, and described in their book The Biologia of Central America are exhibited alongside animals collected from The Empire and Beyond.

Empire and Beyond display case
Empire and Beyond display case

The final display looks at the Legacy of Victorian collecting and how the attitudes and methods used have affected the natural world and our understanding of it, both positively and negatively, including the importance museum collections have in research and education today.

Legacy display case
Legacy display case

Finally the room was decorated with graphic panels introducing the exhibition and providing biographies of five notable but lesser known English Victorian collectors and explorers. These include several of the collectors featured in the displays, as well as Mary Kingsley, who not only collected and explored in Africa, but inspired political and social movements to change attitudes in Englandto native people in the Empire.

Frederick Du Cane biography panel
Frederick Du Cane biography panel

The exhibition opened on 29 December and runs until 25 February 2012 at Horsham Museum.

Lee Ismail
Curator of Natural Sciences

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