The first thing to strike a visitor to the Booth Museum is the smell of the place – which is basically ‘mothballs’. And if you think it’s noticeable in the main gallery you should spend the day in the stores upstairs. What you’re smelling is a trace of ‘naphthalene’, a chemical compound which would have been introduced to the butterfly and beetle collections as a way of preventing other insects from feeding on them. As John Cooper, the Booth’s Keeper, told me on my first visit, the museum’s entire collection is potentially food for other creatures. So one of the major preoccupations of any natural history curator will be the continued interruption of the natural cycle of degeneration, decay and redistribution.
This temporal suspension is intriguing. Booth’s birds have been granted a sort of immortality, but only after being shot, gutted and treated with arsenic soap. These days if we want to capture some aspect of the natural world we’ll be more likely to suspend time by photographing it but, lacking such tools, Booth pioneered the practice of exhibiting his stuffed British birds in cabinets which replicated their natural habitat.
By consulting Booth’s notes it’s possible to calculate exactly when and where some unfortunate bird happened to cross his path, so the stacked compartments in the museum are, in their way, a three-dimensional diary of Booth’s domestic expeditions. It was his hope to collect a specimen of every British bird, but if the museum is an ark, it’s a Victorian container ship which has come ploughing into Brighton on a particularly high tide.
Booth’s birds have perched, inert, for getting on 150 years now, and despite their lack of animation, they still convince. From time to time, an exhibit will become a little threadbare and require attention, but I’ve noticed how, when I peer into one of the cabinets, it’s always the eyes I look to first, for verification. It’s curious how willing our brains are to be tricked by the reflected light on a piece of coloured glass.
In one of the display cases right at the back of the museum lies a sheep, with a gull standing over it. The sheep is eyeless and therefore dreadfully, undeniably dead. Children find it fascinating – which is odd, considering that it’s no more dead than all its neighbours. Only that, for once, it’s the creature’s deadness that has been preserved.
Up in the stores, there’s a large box which once housed row upon row of butterflies, but now looks more like a Great War battlefield in miniature. The accompanying label reads, ‘To be kept as an example of what NOT to do.’ These days, the naphthalene has been superseded by a more environmentally-friendly insecticide called ‘Constrain’, along with more attention devoted to the actual storage (sealed units, etc). Rather ironically, twenty or so years ago both the museum and Booth’s birds became ‘listed’, which means that the spell that was once cast upon the birds and insects has now grown to envelop the museum itself. Listed status imposes certain restrictions on the way the Booth develops and operates. So, as other museums become ever more shiny and new and interactive, the Booth is doomed to seem ever more Victorian, eccentric and strange. As well as being a museum of natural history, it is slowly becoming a museum of itself. I have given this matter some consideration and have to say that, on reflection, I’m all for it.
Mick Jackson is writer-in-residence at the Booth Museum, funded by Arts Council England @mickwriter