A First Walk Through The Booth Museum

I’ll chat as soon as I can with John Cooper, the Keeper of Natural Sciences up at the Booth Museum. But today, for my first visit, I came up here ‘incognito’ and just spent a couple of hours wandering around. It’s been a long while since I last visited and I want to be back in sync with this unusual atmosphere before attempting to talk with experts.

Over on the other side of Seven Dials, along Dyke Road, The Booth Museum Of Natural History is one of Brighton’s great treasures and one of Britain’s great Victorian taxidermy collections. It is built around the gathered wild animals – mainly birds – of Edward Booth, who founded it in 1874 to display his collection. The front half is full of stuffed animal dioramas, a few guns and some dismaying things pickled in jars. The rear half is more conventional skeletons, pinned insects and geology. In the middle there’s a recreation of Booth’s study, to humanise all that surrounds it.

The first thing you see, greeting you just inside the entrance, is a big stuffed bear killed in Russia in the 1880s. Immediately disconcerting. Beautiful and sad: a mother and cub were shot together and then gifted to the Booth a few decades later by the shooter’s sister. And the lingering shock of the Booth, if you haven’t visited before, is that it’s basically all about lofty walls of Victorian dioramas of stuffed birds and animals in mock-ups of their wild settings. It’s what got shot.

Even for robust carnivores, I bet it’s a usefully intense display to walk through – and for a squeamish veggie hand-wringer like me, it is very powerful (and interesting) to be reminded of death – yet also life – so forcefully and unashamedly. The historic room is brimful of creatures remade into the representation of their living, wild selves and with many aspects of the presentation preserved unchanged for decades too. Almost a museum of a museum.

One ancient card underneath a glass pickle jar has four words that you’ve almost certainly never seen together before and the object is disturbing enough, so I’ll need to check before publishing a photo.

It reads Domestic Cat: Stillborn Cyclops

I should be clear. I don’t feel judgmental and I do highly, highly recommend visiting the Booth Museum, we badly need more of this: vivid, three-dimensional flesh, fur and feather inserted into plastic-wrapped lives. So try to come when it’s quiet; during a weekday morning – and soon, before the weather gets nicer and the summer tourist season kicks off in earnest. I was here fairly early, on a miserable March morning of this endless winter. I saw fewer than 10 other visitors as I meandered about, which greatly intensified that sense of being in an otherworldly space.

Coincidentally, I just watched a TV documentary about modern-day fine art taxidermist Polly Morgan, who uses traditional techniques but creates modern conceptual pieces. I’m glad I saw it, though it’s different, because it gave a small taste of the intricacy of the craft itself.

After that, the rear section of the Booth feels almost like a relief, as taxidermy gives way to skeletons and the museum takes on a more conventional air of Natural History Learning. Here are huge chunks of whale and tiny birds. There’s a human skeleton. None of those in the taxidermy section! There’s also a stunning narwhal horn, with its beautiful long, slow spiral pattern up the near two-metre length. I must write about narwhals some time.

The Booth Museum is one of the main reasons I was excited to take on this residency and I can imagine spending a lot of time up here over the next few months. It is such a precious, eccentric Sussex asset, people speak constantly with deep affection for it, yet do so in half-whispers as if it’s a local secret, or a cult: our low key, austere heritage space, occupying one lone cavernous barn.

In many ways the imposed trappings and necessities of modern-day public cultural space (you know; interactivity, gift shops, bright lighting, self-conscious education, quasi-intelligent commercialism and the like) sit lightly – uncomfortably – on top of what the Booth is about; in truth a deeper, darker and more visceral experience.

At the bus stop, waiting for the 14 or 77 back into town, there’s a mother and her teenage girl (or possibly grandma and granddaughter). The older woman lights a cig and turns to me. “Weren’t you just in there too?”

Surprised, I say yes.

“A bit shocking wasn’t it?” she says. “Didn’t expect that – I think we’re a bit shaken up. Erm, did you enjoy it?”

Well, I’m thinking, I’m shaken and I found it inspiring and I took a lot of photos. But did I enjoy it? I’ll have to go back next week to figure that out.

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