By Lisa Glass, University of Kent
From the outside, the building in which the Powell-Cotton Museum resides looks like any typical English stately home. Step inside, however, and you will find yourself immersed in a world of late-Victorian natural history in a visual display that spans the entirety of eight galleries from floor to ceiling. It was the explorer, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton (1866–1940), a hunter and early conservationist, who filled his family’s home with a collection of natural specimens from around the world. The collection is displayed in a series of dioramas, featuring animals against backdrops that represent their natural habitats, including the oldest untouched diorama – that is, a model of a scene including three-dimensional figures (in this case, real animals preserved through taxidermy) – of its type in any museum around the world.
Percy Powell-Cotton was born in Garlinge in Margate, Kent. His family took ownership of Quex House in nearby Birchington when Percy was 15 years old. He began breeding chickens, hunting rabbits and photographing wildlife, keeping meticulous records of these endeavours. His early habits stayed with him when, in 1890, he embarked on the first of many expeditions, collecting natural history specimens in Kashmir, Northern India, and Tibet.
Over the ensuing 50 years, he embarked on around 30 similar expeditions across Africa and Asia, to gather and categorise zoological and ethnographical specimens. Unlike other Victorian explorers, Percy was primarily concerned with contributing to scientific knowledge through preservation and documentation, not with indiscriminately collecting trophies. He kept meticulous records for all the animals he gathered, including map references, longitude and latitude locations, detailed body dimensions, age, sex and external pathology. The specimens collected were transported back to Quex Park, prepared for display by the expert taxidermist Rowland Ward, and then placed in a specially designed pavilion in the gardens of the park, which Powell-Cotton had commissioned his brother to construct. The wide range of animal specimens has proved to be a valuable resource in taxonomic research, even to the present day. Consequently, Powell-Cotton has had several species named in honour of him.
Among familiar sights such as lions, elephants, apes, primates and many more, some of the animals on display at the museum are now highly endangered species; for example, the Ethiopian wolf, the Angolan giant sable and the white rhino. Notably, the collection also includes over 2,000 specimens of primates. Indeed, during his expeditions, Percy was responsible for identifying over ten new species or sub-species of primate, some of which he named after himself.
Percy was so dedicated to finding, documenting and preserving natural history specimens through his expeditions that not even marriage could interrupt him in his calling. In November 1905, while on an expedition in Kenya, he married Hannah Brayton Slater in Nairobi Cathedral and, rather than interrupt his ninth expedition, his new wife joined him on it, for a honeymoon that lasted two years. It was during this honeymoon, in 1907, that Powell-Cotton was badly mauled by a lion. Thinking the animal incapacitated by a good shot, as he approached it, the animal leapt on him, attacking with its claws and jaws. However, Powell-Cotton escaped relatively unharmed thanks to a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that was in his breast pocket, and protected him from the worst of the onslaught. The lion, the suit that Powell-Cotton was wearing and the copy of Punch are now all on display at the museum.
The museum still regularly attracts huge numbers of visitors yearly. Wandering through the galleries of the museum, which teem with a diverse array of wildlife, it is possible to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of taxidermied animals. While it may not to everyone’s taste as a form of entertainment, as a slice of scientific history, the Powell-Cotton museum is certainly very important. To modern attitudes, this particular form of conservation may seem counterintuitive and even distasteful. However, the aim was not merely to display Percy’s prowess as a hunter, he was aiming to build up an encyclopaedia of animals, to preserve them for scientific purposes, and to allow members of the public to see them, by perhaps the only means they were able to, apart from in grainy photographs.
Indeed, making the collection available to the public is a strong underlying ethos of the museum. One of the most attractive features of it as it is today is the handling collection, which is kept in gallery 6 of the museum. Having received Arts Council funding in 2013, the museum is able to make accessible a selection of natural history and ethnographical objects for visitors to touch and play with, creating an ever-changing and evolving display. With this in mind, it is possible to argue that Major Powell-Cotton was one of the earliest and most successful science communicators, whose work reaches out from its origins in the Victorian era, right up to the present day.
Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. 2012. In Unknown Africa: A Narrative of Twenty Months Travel and Sport in Unknown Lands and Among New Tribes – Scholar’s Choice Edition. RareBooksClub.com.
Lisa Glass is a freelance writer specialising in scientific writing. She is currently a student at the University of Kent, on the Science, Communication and Society MSc programme.