The collecting gene at the Booth Museum

Edward Thomas Booth, BCIL000003
Edward Thomas Booth, BCIL000003

I went to the legendary Booth Museum yesterday and I will certainly be going back some more during my Blogger-in-Residence time.

I had ‘the tour’ from Keeper John Cooper and it was every bit as fascinating as promised. I’ve mulled over my overall impressions and what keeps going around and around my head is what I think of as the ‘collecting gene’.

Booth – a man on a mission

Edward Thomas Booth who set up the Booth Museum had clearly inherited the ‘collecting gene’.  His ambition in life was to shoot every British species of bird to be displayed in his own private museum. Yes, that’s right – shoot. Every one. Himself.

He did pretty well getting around ¾ of the entire range of species. It can’t have been easy – he travelled all around the UK and it must have spent hours waiting quietly for the birds to appear. Plus, you’d have to be a pretty good shot. Goldcrests and wrens, for example, are tiny. According to John Cooper, shot from a shot gun would disperse, so he’d blast into a flock, probably killing more than he needed on occasion, to capture his required male and female and occasional chicks. Other methods included trapping, netting and taking both the young and eggs during the breeding season. Meticulous notes were also made where and when the specimens were taken, the date and the location.

Two stuffed owls in glass case by William T Booth at the Booth Museum
Booth diorama of stuffed owls

He then organised for them to be stuffed and created ‘dioramas’ in large glass cases – scenes to replicate the natural habitat of the birds. Booth is believed to have been one of the first to do this with such scientific vigour.

Eventually he did begin to let the public in on high days and holidays, but really the museum was for him and his select collecting friends.

Who was the man behind the museum?

Booth Museum of Natural History
Booth Museum of Natural History

I’ve asked John what sort of a person he imagined Mr Booth was and it seems he’s thought a lot about him too and done his best to find out. When you’ve worked in and around someone’s life vision as the Booth was, for over 20 years, you would have time to think about the man behind it.

John says there is not much evidence to his personality. He had two wives. His second wife was the nurse of his first. He had no children. He was kicked out of Cambridge University because he spent too much time shooting birds. And of course, he must have been ridiculously rich, a son of wealthy parents.

It seems the bird collection was his life’s work. I asked John if he thought Booth would have been a nice man.

Keeper of the Booth Museum John Cooper in his office
Keeper of the Booth Museum John Cooper in his office

“He was probably quite quiet, didn’t suffer fools gladly but was probably excellent company when you discussed his favourite topic.  He didn’t write a diary and his notes are not personal in any way.”

A life with a passion for collecting

My impression is of a man with such a ‘passion’ as we call it now, that it borders on obsessive. We’d possibly think of him as a little odd, these days. There’d probably be a C4 programme in which he could feature called Obsessive Bird Shooters who Collect. They’d try to redirect his interest into something more wholesome like Pilates or voluntary work.

Egg collection in a drawer at Booth Museum
Egg collection in a drawer at Booth Museum

The whole Booth museum felt like a shrine to collectors through the ages. It seems they are mainly men, though not exclusively. They have collected hundreds and thousands of insects, shells, eggs and fossils. Many have catalogued them rigorously, though some have simply placed them in boxes. Open a drawer in the collections and you’ll find yourself captured by the natural beauty of many butterflies or beetles or seashells frozen in time on tiny pins. They are truly beautiful in their order, some of them miniature works of natural art.

In the Victorian times onwards, there was a great drive towards collecting flora and fauna for independent scientific research. They are the fore-runners of many of our most well-loved institutions such as the Natural History Museum and the British Museum. Hours upon hours of dedication, concentration and perseverance have gone into these hobbies, if that’s the right word.

It’s hard to know what to do about these collections now. It’s illegal to collect eggs now or shoot animals for taxidermy. If they’re not catalogued correctly, they are little use to scientists. Yet they represent a lifetime’s dedication. I’m sure the collectors believed what they were doing were collecting things for posterity. And yet, their collections are also so ephemeral in the scheme of things. The natural cycle means eggshells or fur cannot be kept away for ever from the corroding effects of light, air and insects. Nothing will last forever.

A butterfly collection in a drawer at the Booth Museum
A butterfly collection in a drawer at the Booth Museum

I think that’s why I find the Booth collections so beautiful and yet heart-breaking. I’m sure if these Edwardian and Victorian gentlemen hadn’t felt such a drive to collect these once live objects, scientists would have to do it now. But now they would possibly only have taken a photograph and some DNA and then set them free.

Who collects now?

Does this drive to have, pin down and own natural things still exist? John told me he once caught an egg collector in the Booth Museum with pockets full of stolen eggs. The man was arrested and sent to prison – his collections were confiscated and sent to … the Booth.

Booth Museum, Brighton
Booth Museum, Brighton

I don’t think I’ve got the ‘collection gene’ in me – unless you count the latest recipe book, but you sometimes see it in young children. There’s something about a sense of control and order you can have if you can display things in an ordered way. Like lining up your pencils before you start work in school. Or collecting football stickers.

Nick Hornby talked about collecting music in his book High Fidelity. People seem to collect antiques now and there are things called ‘collectibles’ made by manufacturers in order for them to be collected such as Beanie Babies or decorative plates. The rise in vintage everything has resulted in some people snapping up old-fashioned clothes or homeware. They all seem quite benign if a little expensive for a hobby.

But it seems that the gene has the capacity to corrupt too. Can it have really felt guilt-free for Booth to shoot into a flock of birds killing a bird family for ever for his own interest? Did he sacrifice his relationships, and his education with the amount of time he dedicated to the collection? I would guess he did but who knows?  Imagine going to prison just because you want to own a particular egg?  An egg which would have once contained a life but will never become one because you’ve taken it.

Some collectors are celebrated for their passion when they leave their work to the nation – such as art collectors like Peggy Guggenheim or the Baron Thyssen –Bornemisza  Museum in Madrid.  They’re viewed as philanthropic, in a way, someone who collected bird’s pelvises (to be found at the Booth) probably isn’t.

Others use collecting as a way to find common souls. The internet is now a great way to share a common interest whether its teddy bears or Warhammer. Yet, it can be used as a way to hide away from the world focussing on one thing.  In some very rare cases it can tip over to ‘hoarding’ as people find it impossible to discard things they’ve collected to the detriment of their living environment.

Here’s an interesting article which discusses the difference between hoarding and collecting.  It seems the ability to give up your collection without distress rather than hang onto it means your passion hasn’t become obsession. As Booth died before he’d completed his work, we’ll never know what he really wanted to do with it in the long run.

Dodo Skeleton at the Booth
Dodo Skeleton at the Booth

I’m glad the craze for collecting eggs, skulls, shells and so on has more or less died away. But I’m equally glad that they still exist at the Booth.  It’s an interesting way to come up against some of life’s biggest questions. What do our possessions say about us? Are our lives about leaving something of ourselves behind? Booth certainly did but we actually know little about him as a person. But his name and work live on. And in some ways, so do the birds he shot as we still gaze at them through the glass 140 years on.

Some more to read about collecting:


Collector Gene. A US family who have been collecting all their lives blog about their interests.

An interesting look at collecting from Wikipedia.

Some lesson notes about collecting for schools from the 24hour museum.




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