Well I could not have hoped for a better start to my exciting new post as the third Blogger in Residence for Brighton Museums than a visit to the Booth Museum of Natural History, where I squeezed in for a sold out evening event, A Curious Night of the Slightly Strange.
For most of the attendees, the event was a bit of a trip down memory lane, the museum familiar to them from school trips, but being a recent incomer to Brighton this was my very first visit. A chilly night not long after Halloween was certainly a suitable time to be inducted into this twilight world of stuffed birds, lizard skeletons and thousands of pinned and mounted creepy crawlies.
The first thing I noticed were the stuffed brown bears in the entrance hallway. There’s nothing remotely cuddly about these critters who stand opposite each other, baring their fearsome teeth in reproach, which very much sets the tone of the museum and its approach to capturing nature.
Just beyond the well stocked shop are a set of beautiful stained glass panels (artist unknown) which originally lived in Court’s Furniture Factory until they were donated to Brighton Museums in the early 1900s, and an impressive row of antlers surveying the scene from the wall above, like the lobby of an especially industrious hunter.
The next thing you’re likely to notice are row upon rows of large white wooden framed glass display cases housing the museum’s 300+ bird specimens. I was startled by the sheer size of many of them, so accustomed as I’ve no doubt become with seeing them through the scale of a television screen.
We were issued torches and encouraged to sketch specimens for a display of ‘death drawings.’
The Booth’s great strength is that it presents nature as it is, well and truly ‘red in tooth and claw.’ One bird sits looking rather pleased with himself, with an iridescent bright blue butterfly clamped between its jaws. A pair of eagles dispassionately eye a dead lamb and a crow turns away from the gored corpse of a rabbit, possibly distracted by the prospect of its next meal…
That emblem of mortality, a dodo skeleton, takes pride of place in one case, taking on an almost bronzy glow. A kind of grim booby prize, reminding us what we’ve already lost – and stand to lose if we fail to heed the conservation lessons from the past.
Many of the specimens are posed in such an animated fashion that you daren’t turn your back on them too long…
In the atmospheric low light, a nattily dressed accordionist wandered the galleries adding to the spooky ambience, playing eerie, funereal music, while a series of happenings and demos played out throughout the night.
In one room we were treated to a random show of magic lantern slides from the Booth’s vast and varied collection, a sort of natural history lucky dip.
We gathered round and sat on the floor for a rather unnerving bedtime story, courtesy of the Booth’s Writer in Residence (yep a proper, published fiction writer, not like these Blogger in Residence chancers!) Mick Jackson, whose lepidoctor story would not have been out of place on Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
Taxidermy seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. What is it about seeing stuffed animals brought back to their former glory that fascinates us so much? Is there something oddly reassuring about the illusion of ‘life after death’ that plays to our own fear of the reaper?
There’s something about taxidermy which feels slightly transgressive somehow (and for more about the dubious thrill involved with private collecting read David Sedaris’ brilliant story about his adventures buying a stuffed owl in a London taxidermy shop.)
Whatever the deep-seated psychological reasons behind our attraction, it was certainly fascinating to watch ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long at work, carefully and cheerfully unpacking the innards of a gull while a rapt crowd watched and bombarded her with questions.
Jazmine trained at the Booth herself and only works with specimens that died from accident or natural causes. At one time every town had a taxidermist and Brighton had three.
Merman! It’s Mer-man!
One of the more off-the-wall exhibits in the Booth is that of a Merman. I had no idea that this was a thing – the word merman reminds me a scene from the hilariously silly Ben Stiller movie Zoolander.
But it was actually quite a popular Victorian ruse, where charlatans and notorious showmen such as PT Barnum would construct elaborate, if improbable, models of mermen they claimed they had found in the Far East to fleece gullible punters for a few guineas.
Inspired by this was a special puppetry performance of the Fiji Mermaid by puppeteer and storyteller Daisy Jordan, whose delightfully eccentric verse performance with a blonde-wigged monkey was pitched somewhere between Nina Conti and the fascinating and frankly skin-crawling puppets created by Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Švankmajer, who was the subject of a great exhibition at Brighton University last year.
Cabinet of Curiosities
Curators John Cooper and Lee Ismail unveiled their Cabinet of Curiosities with obvious pride and passion, unearthing treasures and giving people a chance to lay their hands on a scaly pangolin specimen, a 14 million year-old crocodile skeleton and some plant fossil specimen books from William Parry’s 1824 expedition to the North Pole.
It’s easy to gawp at some of the Victorians’ more macabre obsessions of course, (and the abhorrent cruelty that sometimes accompanied this, as with the sad tale of ‘the Elephant Man’, John Merrick) but behind the sensationalist circus sideshow freakery there often lies a more serious and laudable scientific purpose.
Indeed that was the case with Edward Thomas Booth, a self taught naturalist whose personal collection comprises the bulk of the museum’s today, and who lived in the house he knowingly labelled ‘Bleak House.’
While undeniably eccentric, Booth set out to capture and collect every species of British bird and his methods of displaying them in a realistic ‘diorama’ setting, complete with their habitat and prey, soon set the global standard which others aspired to and sought to emulate.
This event did precisely what any good museum should do, educate and inform people in an entertaining, relevant and engaging way.
A visit to the museum is always bound to fascinate, but there’s something particularly special about experiencing it at night, when its stark representations of nature can really set the imagination in flight.
Don’t miss the chance to catch the next evening soiree, Beneath the Whispering Sea, on Thursday 12 March at Brighton Museum:
‘A special after-hours event featuring marine taxidermy demonstrations, storytelling, cocktails, underwater silent disco and a chance to discover sea secrets from the Museum stores. In collaboration with Whalefest.’
7-10pm £5, members £4 in advance, £7 on the door.
The Booth Museum is free and easily reached, with buses 14 and 27 stopping directly across the road. See opening times on the website.
Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence