Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Natural History Museum at Tring

Located only a few miles from College Lake is the Natural History Museum at Tring. It was built for and still houses the collection of Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild.
Walter Rothschild was an eccentric, in the only way a Victorian from a very wealthy banking family could be. Having failed to make the grade in the family's bank he dedicated his life to amassing an extraordinary collection of dead animals, including:
  • 2000 mammals
  • 2000 birds
  • 2,000,000 butterflies and moths
  • 300,000 beetles
  • 300,000 bird skins
  • 200,000 bird eggs.
The collection was stored in a private museum (paid for by the family) - the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum - and bequeathed the museum to the country just before his death in 1937.  It is now managed by Natural History Museum and has free entry for the public.
Spread over five floors the museum is a jaw dropping monument to one man's obsession with killing and stuffing animals.
Some of these seem to be rather poorly done, rather than looking like apex predators, the lion and polar bear just look like giant soft toys:

In his book, A short history of nearly everything, Bill Bryson describes the sad story of the lesser koa finch, a small Hawaiian bird; only one has ever been seen and this was when it was shot for Rothschild's collection.
The finch, along with the majority of Rothschild's bird collection, was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in order to pay off a woman who had been blackmailing him for years.  Even so, most of his British bird collection remains at Tring, including this family of grey partridges:
It's easy to be critical of Rothschild and is obsession with killing and stuffing animals, certainly the mountain gorilla would be laughable if wasn't so tragic. But employed skilled zoologists, entomologists and ornithologists who helped him catalogue the collection, and in the process discover over 5000 new species, and published 1,700 scientific books.

Even today, the museum plays an important role for illustrators of field guides and for helping to identify recently discovered birds, like the Indian warbler.

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