Norwich Castle Museum’s Wonder of Birds is underway

The natural history department at Norwich Castle Museum. Dr David Waterhouse with the study skins. P

The natural history department at Norwich Castle Museum. Dr David Waterhouse with the study skins. Photo: Steve Adams

Norwich Castle Museum's taxidermy specimens are an important part of its blockbuster Wonder of Birds exhibition. But did you know the collection – which ranges from sparrows to polar bears – is proving essential for today's scientists and artists too?

The official logo for The Wonder of Birds exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum, May-September 2014.

The official logo for The Wonder of Birds exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum, May-September 2014. - Credit: Archant

There was a time when just the word 'taxidermy' conjured up images of dark Victorian parlours, maiden aunts and dusty aspidistras.

The natural history department at Norwich Castle Museum . Polar bear.Photo: Steve Adams

The natural history department at Norwich Castle Museum . Polar bear.Photo: Steve Adams

Well, think again. The ancient technique of preserving animals and birds is assisting today's scientists, artists and other researchers – and even helping police to feel the collars of villains targeting our precious wildlife.

The natural history department at Norwich Castle Museum. Dr David Waterhouse with the study skins. P

The natural history department at Norwich Castle Museum. Dr David Waterhouse with the study skins. Photo: Steve Adams

Far from being a thing of the past, it is proving incredibly valuable in helping today's (and tomorrow's) conservation efforts.

And Dr David Waterhouse should know. As Curator of Natural History at Norwich Castle Museum – and co-curator of its big summer exhibition The Wonder of Birds – it's his responsibility to look after thousands and thousands of specimens.

'We have about 20,000 bird skins and other taxidermy in our collection,' he explained. In fact, the taxidermy you see in the castle's natural history galleries is only a small part of what is available for researchers.

'What we call 'study skins' or 'cabinet skins' are actually the bulk of our taxidermy collection.'

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Sealed in heavy-duty plastic bags and kept in cabinet after cabinet in environmentally-controlled storage in the depths of the castle complex, every one of these specimens has a label showing the species, sex, and date of death, plus an accession number which cross-refers to a database. Everything – even the tiniest hummingbird – is catalogued and has a part to play.

Some of the birds, such as the amazing condor which greets visitors to the exhibition, are now historic items in themselves. This huge male condor – incredibly, it wasn't even fully grown – might even have a fascinating link with Queen Victoria.

'Looking back in the records it seems we have had three condors – and one of those was lent to the 1851 Great Exhibition. We are trying to find records to prove if it was this one,' Dr Waterhouse said.

The taxidermy collection goes back almost 200 years in some cases, much older than the Castle Museum itself, and right back to the earliest origins of the museum.

The collections began to come together in 1824-5, when private collectors started to pool their resources. 'Really, the museum began as a natural history museum,' he said.

Its taxidermy is built round two large collections: The J H Gurney collection – put together by the identically-named father and son, from the famous banking family – and the Lombe Collection, which provided the birds which make up the bird galleries.

Of course, taxidermy has been an emotive issue for some over the years. But David (who prepares some of the specimens himself that still come in to the museum) doesn't shy away from the issue, and gives a spirited defence.

'When these collections were first put together you have to remember that it was the only way anybody ever got to see these birds and animals close-up. The only other way was in travelling menageries – and in fact in those days there was no real distinction between zoos and museums. So the live animals might be in the courtyard, with the specimens inside in the museum.'

Fashion played a part too. Taxidermy fell out of favour across the country between the wars. 'It was part of that general movement to reject Victorian ways – getting rid of the aspidistras and the architecture, that sort of thing' he said.

Norwich Castle Museum was not immune to changing tastes. 'Before the 1950s we had one of the best collections of birds of prey in the world. Some of the foreign birds went to the Natural History Museum [the condor is one of the few which remain].'

David believes Norfolk people have, in fact, always been rather matter-of-fact about the collection. 'I think that here in Norfolk taxidermy has never sunk to the unpopular levels in did in other parts of the country. Local people are pretty pragmatic, I think – they are used to dealing with pheasants and other game, for instance.'

Visitors to the museum in recent years will have noticed a subtle change in its approach to display the specimens. Thanks to the initiative of Dr Tony Irwin (former senior curator of natural history, now a research associate) the museum has moved away from the essentially Victorian ways of display, and opted instead to set the birds and animals (and collectors) in their historic context.

'The way they were displayed was not very imaginative, and dated back to the days when that was the only way you could get information. But then along came encyclopaedias and now the internet.'

It was time, then, for a change. 'What we are trying to do now is concentrate on the stories of how the specimens came into the collection, and the people who collected them.'

In the case of the butterflies, for example, that means the remarkable collector-scientist Margaret Fountaine. 'There's a perfect example of how we need to get away from our image of Victorian collectors. She was one of the first to actually study caterpillars and what they ate, for example. And you see these rows of pinned butterflies but forget that Margaret bred them and released more than 98 per cent of those back into the wild.

'This 'cruel' thing's a funny thing to think about, really. We have to remember that it was a different time.'

That is exemplified in one of the biggest specimens, the polar bear. 'That's still one of the most popular exhibits in the collection. You have to remember that there were more than 50 bears shot in that expedition, ending up in museums and country houses all over England – but that was at a time [1897] when there were millions of them.

'It was habitat destruction and pollution that affected these species. In our own time it's global warming. Nowadays we don't go out and shoot things for collections.'

Fashion – as fashions always do – has now turned full circle. Taxidermy is something which is familiar to many a 'steampunk' enthusiast.

'I go to Norwich University of the Arts exhibitions and almost every one seems to feature taxidermy these days. It's really come back into fashion.

'I think a lot of that is down to eBay, as people have been able to buy old Victorian specimens easily.'

David stressed that you need to be careful about what you buy however. 'If you buy something which is documented as having been preserved before 1947, then you're fine.

'But anything after that which might fall under CITES [the international treaty which protects rare species and products from being traded] or our Wildlife and Countryside Acts is illegal.'

That's enough about fashion – what about the science (and art)? It may come as a surprise that these specimens are arguably of greater use today than at any time in their history.

'We get a lot of artists – professionals and students – making use of the collections for artworks and bird guides,' he said.

'Even with all the advances in lenses these days, you can get things in minute detail, from all angles – which the cameras can't match.'

Turning to the science, there is a University College, Dublin, study programme to examine feather samples taken from the same spot in all specimens (the left top of its breast) which are being compared through electron microscopes to work out a 'family tree' of species.

'You will be able to build up a whole body of data. You will be able, for example, to compare fossils with modern groups.

'You can only do that with museum specimens.'

Then there's the bird's eggs. The museum has an extensive collection of these, although only a few are on display. 'We worked with the British Trust for Ornithology when they were producing their Field Guide to Monitoring Nests.

'They had to look at the eggs very quickly without disturbing the adults. They were able to use our collections to establish which species were involved.

Of course, there are still – incredibly – a few misguided individuals who don't get the conservation message and collect bird eggs, despite the penalties. The Norwich collection helps the police in identifying collections seized from the culprits.

And for an example of how historic collections have helped in conservation, you need to look no further than the birds' egg collections once again. Collections in America and Europe helped give vital clues in stopping one of the most notorious examples of man poisoning his environment: the use of DDT.

The pesticide was in extensive use from the 1940s until it was banned in 1972. 'It was museum egg collections which helped prove that the chemical was caused peregrine eggs to thin, to the stage where they were unviable. It's fair to say that museum collections saved the peregrine falcons from extinction in the US, and perhaps here.'

And there's one more use for the museum's collections – an incredible one which sounds like something out of the pages of science fiction.

But for that, you'll just have to read next week's magazine...

You can hear David (and exhibition co-curator Dr Francesca Vanke) talking about The Wonder of Birds in a Tuesday lunchtime talk in the Lecture Theatre this Tuesday (12.30-1pm). It's included in normal admission and there's no need to book.

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