Saturday, August 25, 2007

If We Could Talk to the Animals ...

"Walter Rothschild: The Man, the Museum, and the Menagerie" is a fascinating exhibit running through 2 December at the Natural History Museum at Tring.

Lionel Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild (1868-1937; shown above apparently teasing a giant tortoise) was a Victorian collector par excellence. Born into the Rothschild banking dynasty, he became interested in zoology while still a boy. As a young man, he gallivanted around the Empire with net and trap in hand, conducting numerous (and treacherous) collecting expeditions, and became a noted authority on the taxonomy of birds and butterflies.

To house his finds, he created a private zoological museum and park at Tring, Hertfordshire, near his family's country home, which was opened to visitors in 1892.

Rothschild's collecting interests literally ran the gamut from A (armadillos) to Z (zebras). At the end of his life, the museum included about 950 stuffed mammals, 2,000 mounted birds, 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds' eggs, 200 reptiles "stuffed and in spirit," 300 fish, 2 million butterflies and moths, 144 giant tortoises, and a range of shells, corals, and sponges. In the park he kept, among other exotic animals, a tame wolf, rheas, kangaroos, kiwis, and cassowaries. He once drove a team of zebras into the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. (The monarch's reaction is unrecorded.)

The Rothschild family gifted the entire museum and its collections to the nation in 1937 on Walter's death.

The museum's website includes a biography of Walter Rothschild, a history of the collections, and a description of the Rothschild Room, a reconstruction of the office in which the museum's original curators may have worked.

Related link:

"Something in the Genes: Walter Rothschild, Zoological Collector Extraordinaire": Lecture by Victor Gray, former director of the Rothschild Archive, to The Royal College of Surgeons, 25 October 2006 [PDF]


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