A Victorian passion for collecting and display: Stuffed birds at the Ipswich Museum.

Apparently for 21st-century folk, ‘stuff’ is so last century. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are collectors, but generally the marketing people inform us that it’s experiences and not things we prefer these days. Of course, with more and more bad news regarding the climate emergency and all those shocking images of plastic waste, the old mantra ‘less is more’ could not be more necessary. However, for our more prosperous Victorian forebears it was very different and with drawing rooms, parlours and front rooms overflowing with collections of objects, more was definitely more.

Last month I made my first visit to the Ipswich Museum. It was opened in 1881 and was dedicated to the study of science and art. And, in that Victorian tradition of progress and improvement, the museum’s founding purpose was to ‘promote the study and extend the knowledge, of natural history in all its branches’. To this end it still displays its nineteenth-century collections of stuffed animals and birds.

The type and number of birds and animals is not as large as either Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum or Norwich’s Castle Museum (the town museums of the last two places where I’ve lived), yet it still offers visitors a thought-provoking display of the Victorian’s approach to a Natural History collection. Arguably, there is some scientific value from these various collections across the country as examples of life forms now extinct can be seen in their 3D form. However, all is not always what it seems as I read when I looked up ‘stuffed dodos’.

No stuffed dodos remain in any collections. Recently the last two were lost to fire and attack from museum pests. Some museums have made mock-up dodos using pigeon and chicken feathers, and there is a head, leg and single foot remaining at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Grant Museum, UCL, London.

I have mixed feelings about these stuffed creatures. I think today we are lucky. We have the luxury of digital cameras, computer animation, David Attenborough documentaries, wild life centres and opportunities to travel around the world to see some of the more exotic exhibits alive and in their natural habitats. It is understandable that in the past these stuffed creatures were prized objects within a museum setting. It is also intriguing that they found their way into many domestic parlours where exotic birds were the stars of glass dome dioramas. I suppose it can also be seen as part of the Victorian’s wider obsession for collection and display combined with their keen interest in Natural History.

Nowadays, these displays of exotic birds, survivors from over a hundred years ago, are themselves collected. Examples can be found in antique shops and popping up from time to time at auctions, but what other options are available for today’s avid collector interested in Natural History. If it’s now more about experiences than stuff then shooting exotic birds with a camera and not stuffing them must surely be the answer. (Is that a collective tweet of relief from birds around the world we hear?)

Finally, one of the most popular exhibits at the Ipswich Museum, especially with children, is a very large, 3D animal. It is the life-sized model of a woolly mammoth standing just inside the museum’s entrance. The model is based on the bones of a woolly mammoth unearthed in 1976 during the building of a local school. This woolly mammoth lived and died some 186,000 to 245,000 years ago, thousands of years before an accomplished taxidermist or even an experienced Ancient Egyptian embalmer ever drew breath, however the surviving bones tell their own story. It is suggested the animal died as a result of being stuck in the mud.

For a very interesting opinion regarding Ipswich Museum posted June 2019 see, current Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Charles Saumarez-Smith’s post.

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