The music pulses, the feathers gleam, shells catch the light, dead animals stare at me from their preserved perches. Of course I have to be at the Horniman Museum, my favourite place to be intimately acquainted with the furry, feathered and decidedly deceased. I have come for the launch of their new Natural History Gallery display, a grant from DCMS Wolfson has worked wonders to invigorate this much-loved space.
The new permanent displays feature the treasures of taxidermist Edward Hart – ‘preserver of birds and beasts’. His traditional attempts to preserve nature in a natural setting are weirdly reminiscent of a Dr Who story line, one in particular with 7 puffins makes me squint and double take. I am sure those feathers move every time I turn my head.
There are shells and fossils displayed like rare jewels, breathtakingly beautiful, fresh and clean. Nature is displaying her own works of art, the colours, textures and shapes are so vivid, you wonder if they can be real. I wish I painted or could draw, they elicit that immediate response, you are desperate to capture the essence of their beauty even if only with Instagram.
Alongside these items from the Horniman’s collection come some stunning loans. A brand new large display case features a beautiful okapi from the Natural History Museum. It is one of those animals that looks so odd, a creature of fairytale, a mishmash of a number of different species. It is a rare animal that not many people have seen in the flesh, it gives you a small inkling of what it must have been like for those early taxidermists preserving the rare and unusual. Specimens not purely for decoration or fashion but for scientific study.
There is another display case that grabs you as soon as you walk into the Natural History Gallery, but this is not traditional and not entirely natural either. It is the work of artist Polly Morgan – the Horniman Museum have been brave enough to go with the startlingly modern too. The installation ‘Taxidermy is dead (long live taxidermy)’ is, to be honest, not what you expect from ‘stuffed animals’. It is taxidermy as an art form, sculptural, challenging in what it asks of us and perhaps a little bit on the weird side too.
It is a display that prompts an immediate response and that is why it is a fantastic temporary addition to galleries that have been enticing visitors since 1901. Polly’s work makes you thing about nature and how and why we display it, it makes us question our reaction. Listening to the artist talk on the night, it was great to hear how her first visit had been like a ‘pilgrimage’, whilst she has never wanted to work in a traditional way it is important to see what had gone before.
Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History, followed up on Polly’s words by reminding us that the popularity of natural history collections have always ebbed and flowed. Here in 2015 they are being regenerated for a new audience. I think it allows you to open your eyes to these collections and you realise it is important never to forget the wonder that such specimens evoked in those early days when the Horniman Museum would have been an institution that brought the ‘world to Forest Hill’ for visitors hungry for knowledge.
You only have to look at the illustrious Horniman walrus, overstuffed by a taxidermist who had probably never even seen such a creature before, to understand that these displays, that sometimes to our eyes seem old-fashioned and a curiosity, were once a wonder of natural science.
As I looked over, Forest Hill’s most renowned celebrity seemed to be giving me a wink, so I wandered over to see what he thought of these new kids on the block, the beautiful okapi was certainly giving him run for his money and I am not sure if I might have spied a hint of jealousy in his countenance. With notepad in hand I plucked up the courage to ask him few questions….
Mr Walrus, What do you think of the new displays?
They are wonderful, lovely and bright, of course they are all in glass cases whilst I get to sit out in the open which is obviously far better but they are lit rather well. I think I could perhaps benefit from a new spotlight or two.
Have you had a chance to say hello to the Okapi?
Unfortunately no, from where I sit on my iceberg I can only see her backside. I hear she comes from the Natural History Museum, a fine institution. I hear their star attraction is a dinosaur that sits in their great hall, or is it a whale? I am not sure which. Well, as I always say, a change is as good as a holiday. I have been to Margate you know, so I am well-travelled and I can appreciate the benefits of new surroundings.
Polly Morgan is a big fan of yours, do you enjoy her work?
I find her work fascinating but I hope she never tries to stick me on a pencil, I could see myself in a bath or balanced on a ball. But a pencil? That really would be going too far….
I thought it best to take my leave at that point. An interesting conversation but not the last interesting conversation I had that night. The best had to be with Horniman conservation staff who filled me in on the joys of spending a week hoovering a sooty American badger. For all of the strange goings on in Forest Hill that night, Polly Morgan’s striking work, Dr Who-esque taxidermy specimens and a talking walrus, the thought of hoovering a badger has to top it all.
Please note the ‘Q&A’ with the Horniman Walrus is complete fabrication and in no way represents his views.
Polly Morgan’s Taxidermy is dead (long live taxidermy) runs from 15 March 2015 – 7 June 2015
The Horniman Museum is Free for details on opening times please see the website