My mother came down to Brighton last week from her home in the cultural heartland of Essex. I was naturally keen to impress her with all that this city has to offer (preferably without spending any money) so I decided to make her feel at home by taking her to a building full of fossils and stuffed old birds. The Booth Museum of Natural History in Dyke Road is currently holding an exhibition entitled 'Life in Death', which sounds like a show on Living TV, but is actually a display about 'The Victorian Art of Taxidermy'. I'd recently come across a video on YouTube entitled ‘Frogs on Swings’ which was filmed at the museum, so I was naturally keen to get down there and give them a push.
If you manage to make it past the fearsome stuffed bears in the entrance hall without suffering a nervous breakdown and running, screaming, in the opposite direction, then the first thing to greet you as you walk through the doors of the museum is a sign which reads 'DO NOT SIT ON THE PIG'. It’s an interesting welcome. I managed to drag my mother away, but quite frankly, if they don't want you sitting on the pig, they shouldn't call it a saddleback and make its ears look like handlebars. It’s just asking for trouble.
Edward Thomas Booth, the founder of the museum, was apparently thrown out of Cambridge University in the 19th century for spending too much time shooting and stuffing the local fauna, but the result of his efforts is a fascinating building choc-full of dead bodies. It’s like spending the afternoon in a morgue. But in a good way.
As part of the ‘Life in Death’ experience, creative curators have constructed a ‘Victorian Parlour’, recreating the kind of scene which might have been found in a typical Victorian home shortly after the tax on glass was repealed in 1845 and people started building display cases like it was going out of fashion. The room features such curios as an ashtray made out of a tortoise, an elephant’s foot umbrella stand and a crow reading a book, while just around the corner there’s a genuine Merman.
Well I say genuine. It could just be the body of a monkey stuck to the tail of a haddock, but the sign doesn’t say so. Interestingly, my sister visited Banff in Canada a couple of months ago, and the museum there has one too. The things are clearly breeding like rabbits, which is good news as I eat a lot of fish fingers, and you get five per hand.
As for the swinging frogs of YouTube, they turned out to be 'Athletic Toads', a mechanical tableau built in the 1870s by taxidermist Walter Potter (no relation to Beatrix and Harry), which features eighteen amphibians riding playground equipment. The sign claimed that "toads are, by their very nature, difficult to stuff", which I find a bit hard to believe. Frogs taste like chicken, and if Gordon Ramsay can stuff a poussin, I'm sure I could get a bit of sawdust up a toad.
In the 19th century you had to put a penny in the machine to get the toads to ride the see-saw, but thanks to Tony Blair's legacy of free museums for all, there's now no charge to send a stuffed toad across the room on a clockwork swing. That's why I voted New Labour.
Perhaps the most spectacular exhibit, however, is 'The Original Death & Burial of Cock Robin', another case of stiffs from Mr Potter, which features almost a hundred birds acting out the funeral scene from the famous rhyme ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?, complete with an armed sparrow, a rook as the parson, and a grave-digging barn owl.
It’s a fitting centrepiece for the exhibition, and was apparently sold at auction in 2003 for £20,000. Clearly you don’t have to be Colonel Sanders to make money out of dead birds.