Recreating Nature

The Booth Museum is a wonderful showcase of Victorian taxidermy, but one of the main features of Edward Thomas Booth’s displays are the dioramas his birds are displayed in.

The typical manner of displaying taxidermied birds during the Victorian period was to have either individual specimens perched on a featureless wooden stand, or to have a mixture of birds mounted together in a scene which bore no resemblance to the animal’s natural habitat, and often alongside birds found in very different environments, countries or even continents!

Traditional method of displaying taxidermy
Traditional method of displaying taxidermy

Booth’s idea for his museum necessitated a different way of displaying his collection. His plan was to exhibit an example of every bird found in Britain (native or migratory), in every stage of plumage and placed within the habitat it was observed in.

He started this process by sketching and painting the birds in the field while on shooting trips. These field drawings included both landscapes of the birds in their natural surroundings, as well as studies of the vegetation and details of the birds themselves. The museum still houses several examples of these pictures, and though they are by no means masterpieces, they are an invaluable artefact of the creation of museum.

Puffin painting from E.T. Booth’s field observations
Puffin painting from E.T. Booth’s field observations

On Booth’s return home, his team of taxidermists and model makers set about recreating the birds and their environment to match as closely as possible the conditions he had observed his specimens in. This necessitated some unique techniques in order to recreate the natural environments. Grass was baked in sand ovens to fix the chlorophyll into the fronds, preventing them from quickly fading to brown. Leaves were contracted out to the milliners neighbouring the taxidermists (which just happened to be the business run by the taxidermists wife and daughters). These leaves were made from fabric and wire, and painted to look natural. Finally, the landscape was recreated by building papier mache landscapes, and using materials such as wax to create snow effects.

The resulting cases were fantastically lifelike, and were valuable in showing an audience without television, photography and easy travel, how these birds looked in life and the diverse environments they inhabit on our relatively small island.

These cases were accurate enough that when it came to illustrating Booth’s books about his expeditions, the artist Edward Neale was able to use the cases as models for his paintings.

This way of displaying animals in their natural environments would come to be known as dioramas, and were further improved upon by others, most notably places such as the New York Natural History Museum, where the scenes were further enhanced with background paintings.

Image: “Amnh fg04” by Fritz Geller-Grimm – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via commons.wikimedia.org/

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences