In many ways Edward Booth (1840-1890) fits almost too well into a stereotypical image of an eccentric Victorian naturalist. In the brief biography on the Royal Pavilion, Museums and Libraries website (link in further reading) the accompanying photo shows a distinguished man, dressed smartly in waistcoat and jacket topped off with a top hat and fine full beard – someone seemingly comfortable with the high social class he was born into. Booth’s diaries record the names of his hunting dogs, yet there is no mention of the name of his no-doubt long-suffering wife. It would be difficult for him to more epitomise the standard perception of a Victorian gentleman; what he collected was dependent primarily on his aim, and his goal in life was to shoot, stuff and display every life stage of every bird native to Britain. In his older years he began to grow increasingly erratic, to the point where he would fire his shotgun at the passing postmen. Not a fellow to be trifled with.
Edward Booth lived on Dyke Road in Brighton up until his death in 1890, and it is here that he founded his museum in 1874, though initially not for the public viewing. ‘The Booth Museum’ is in fact a bit of a misnomer; included amongst the exhibits are the collections of Alderman Griffith, Dr Herbert Langston, J Gordon Dalgliesh and Major Blackiston, all added to the museum in the years between Booth’s death and the 1930s. A name that referenced all of these would, however, be a struggle to fit on the sign. Thanks to this selection of collections the museum covers a surprisingly wide array of subjects, housing an extensive insect collection, a varied skeletal selection and a geology section, all nestled within the spacious main hall. The museum also has an emphasis on interactivity, possessing an area where you can touch and feel some of the exhibits. There and elsewhere one can explore the links between ancient items and their modern day equivalents, and there is an area aimed at engaging a younger audience.
The modern acquisition of display specimens can be a tricky lawful and moral issue for museums. This means that the majority of stuffed animals hail from a rather simpler time where if you killed it before it killed you, almost anything was fair game. The inevitable outcome for these now antiquated animals is that they tend to become slightly worn and scruffy, sadly evident even the displays of the Natural History Museum in London. The animals in the Booth Museum remain in excellent condition, however, and the number, quantity and quality of the specimens is astonishing, all the more surprising considering the free entry. Some stand out in particular; the magnificent Golden Eagles near the entrance hall, the questionable curio of the toad in the stone and the eerie skeleton of a Killer Whale that stands guard over the skeleton hall.
What marked Booth out as a collector and displayer of nature was his use of dioramas, the display of specimens within detailed sculpted environments that attempt to convey the world they inhabit. It is hard not to be impressed by the stacked dioramas that form the walls of museum, displaying from the smallest Robin to the noblest Golden Eagle. Almost all of these are perched within an approximation of their surroundings, finished with intricate details – the bodies of recently caught prey, verdant vegetation and fake bird poo. Arguably, these may only represent a snapshot of what the curators believed the birds’ habitats were like. However, they certainly serve to contextualise the birds, creating a plausible impression of life rather than simply being presented in a stark, bare environment, stripped of meaning.
It is important in the modern study of the history of science to remember that specimens in museums do not simply materialise themselves, named and annotated. Walking through the main hall of Booth’s museum, overlooked by the multitude of dioramas that line the walls, I can’t help but feel that Booth was just as fascinating a specimen as those that he collected. Placed amongst the specimens of the museum are some of the artefacts of Booth himself, including an assortment of the guns he used on his specimen hunts. Where Booth sought context in his displays, in this museum you can feel a sense of the zeitgeist, and the social world Booth inhabited. There is a section in centre of the museum that recreates the sense of a typical room in the Booth household, resplendent in aged oak furniture, a leopard skin by the fire and gloriously faded red leather backed chairs.
The Booth Museum is funded by the Brighton Council, and thus is free to enter (though to leave a donation would no doubt be appreciated). The museum is a 20 minute walk away from Brighton and Hove station, or you can hop on one of the many buses that head in that direction. If you are in Brighton for any reason – and there are plenty of reasons to be there – then a visit for anyone with an interest in history and nature, or the simply curious and inquisitive, is very worthwhile.
Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (ed.), The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie (University of Virginia Press, 2011)