Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - April 2017

Victorian glass dome of exotic birds

Victorian glass dome of exotic birds

April's Object of the Month was chosen by Anne Nielsen, Visitor Services & Admin Officer, and focuses on taxidermy. The object in question is a Victorian glass dome containing a snipe, nestling and thirteen exotic birds positioned on a branch with blossoms. At the top of the branch hummingbirds are gathering around a nest.

Taxidermy is one of the earliest collections at Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery – founded by the Tunbridge Wells Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1885. Most of the taxidermy seen in museums today dates from the 1800s and early 1900s when taxidermy was at its height of popularity. Nowadays, the practice of taxidermy is often considered unethical making its continued display in museums controversial.

From the 1700s onwards, naturalists started to collect and classify the natural world around them. Scientific methods were created to record the new information. Taxidermy became a popular method as the preserved animal specimens could be easily compared and studied. The attempt to classify the animal kingdom also served to prove the superiority of humans.

While taxidermy was used for scientific purposes, it also adorned many Victorian homes. Often colourful and arranged in dramatic positions, taxidermy displays such as this glass dome were considered fashionable decorations. They also enabled proximity to the wild and exotic in a tame and controlled environment.close up of glass dome

In the early days of the Museum, non-local curiosities including exotic birds were collected. As the Museum matured, the focus shifted to local and native specimens. Many of the taxidermy examples in the Museum’s collection were once part of a glass display case such as this glass dome. However, many cases were taken apart to be used as individual specimens in the Museum’s natural history display. Perhaps this glass dome was left intact because it mainly consisted of exotic birds. This makes its survival in the Museum’s collection unique and fascinating.

The majority of taxidermy on display in museums today was made in the 1800s and 1900s when taxidermy was at its height of popularity. At that time there were no regulations in place to police methods of acquiring the animals. Concerns around extinction of species and animal welfare only began to emerge in the late 1800s. Nowadays, taxidermists mainly use animals that have died from a natural cause or by accident. Strict laws are in place to prevent the illegal killing of birds and animals for taxidermy.  The most recent taxidermy examples at Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery, a rabbit and hedgehog for the current natural history display, were commissioned in the 1980s.

Anne says: “My choice was partly motivated by the fact that many visitors are unaware that most of the taxidermy in the Museum’s collection is historic and not contemporary.  Taxidermy displays also fascinate me as they confound the boundaries between science and art. Supposed to be objective, scientific representations of wildlife, they are also objects crafted by skilled (and sometimes not so skilled) humans. And yet, the aura and power of the animal – which once lived and breathed inside the skin now covering a mannequin – still seem to permeate the object and provoke emotional responses.”

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