Animal Yarns from the Museum

Animal Yarns from the Museum, 2 May 1914

I love this set of twelve Blackburn Times articles that Vanessa Mitchell (keeper of art at Blackburn) and I came across while at the Blackburn library. They were written by the Blackburn museum curator during the 1900s who took a set of accompanying photographs from the museum’s well-known diorama.

The photograph of the badger display reproduced in the news paper

Here we have the installment from 2 May 1914 on the badger and as the strap line to the article indicates these were aimed at a younger audience, perhaps one that would otherwise not have visited the museum or indeed engaged with one of our most wonderful wild animals.

I know of other late nineteenth and early twentieth century examples where curators use their knowledge of the collections, their love of the natural world, and a passion for photography to engage with audiences. Sometimes through magic lanterns, and cinematography  but especially so through the local press.

The original photograph of the badger display at the museum

I’ll keep posting the odd one or two up from this series, or if I can get my head around the technicalities, perhaps create a separate page for them on this blog. Please let me know of examples you may have in your own institutions. I think there would be a wonderfully engaging and enlightening article/book in this.

What is particularly charming about the badger article is that this exhibit is still on display at the museum, as anyone arriving in the beautiful entrance hall of the museum would have seen for themselves.

The badgers today, at Blackburn museum

Of course where images such as these are important is in providing a record of the displays at the museum that now have been updated and replaced. For some, they are the only record of specimens that have not survived the passage of time.

The diorama that these were a part of was a very popular feature of the museum and recovering reminiscences of those displays is something I’m very keen to do. Anyone with experience in this, or indeed with memories of the displays, do contact me, or post up a comment.

Mark Steadman



Filed under Objects

11 responses to “Animal Yarns from the Museum

  1. This makes me want to catch the next train to Blackburn to see the badgers. Has the vegetation in the diorama sprouted over the last century? From the photos, it’s now clearly above the badger’s eyeline.

    • Mark Steadman

      Ah ha, yes, well spotted Henry. It looks like the badgers received a bit of an overhaul when they were remounted in their current case. The original black and white photographs also include extra foliage scribbled in, in pencil, by the curator.

  2. sjmma

    The use of dioramas in provincial English museums is very interesting, I think. There doesn’t seem to have been the take-up for large-scale dioramas, as deployed in Scandinavia and the US in the early C20th, but rather cases like these badgers were used (possibly because they were cheaper?). In Manchester, the inter-war keeper of zoology, Cecilia Mirèio Legge, was interested in them on this smaller scale. It would be interesting to know how and when they were used in other museums…

  3. vinaiblackburn

    The badgers are a fantastic display to have by the entrance of the museum. They catch the eye of almost every visitor and are one of hte most popular exhibits with children and adults alike. I think they help to prove the value of maintaining and displaying strong natural science collections.

    • Mark Steadman

      Thanks for the comment Vinai. I think there’s still a lot of fond memories for the diorama in the town isn’t there? I wonder if it could be digitally recreated? I’m working on a digital recreation of the Leeds museum before it was demolished using the collection of glass plate slides made by the curator at the end of the nineteenth century. With good photographic evidence it is possible.

  4. It’s great to see old photos of known taxidermy. There is a series of photos of the 1862 tiger at Leeds in various places – and in front of various gawping school children. The same familiar face passing through time and altering very little.

    We have a researcher working on this very topic with the Leeds Museum collections at the moment. She is looking through (~100 year) old photos for existing taxidermy specimens. Their changing context makes for fascinating comment on our interpretations of natural science in museums.

    I really enjoy the existence of our current specimens in old photos – they provide such a tangible connection to the past.

  5. There are historical dioramas of Norfolk landscapes at Norwich Castle Museum. These were so very popular with the public, that rather than being removed as had been suggested, they were instead conserved in situ (just as a work of art would be treated).
    Bolton Museum introduced brand new dioramas to its natural history gallery in the 1990s.

    • Mark Steadman

      Thanks Patricia for the comment. Diorama’s seem so popular. I think that was the intention wasn’t it? Perhaps a response/reaction to taxonomic museum displays of natural science. I wonder if that’s why some institutions did and some did not create dioramas? Is there an underlying context to this (rise of environmental sciences perhaps?).

      Of course a great many specimens came to the North West from Norwich Castle Museum (including Rossendale Museum’s incredible ‘Tiger being killed by Python’). It seems most of this material arrived across the 1930s and 40. Perhaps this coincided with the creation of the dioramas at Norwich?

      • David Craven

        Probably a good idea to get in touch with Tony Irwin at Norwich.

      • Patricia Francis

        Yes, the dioramas at Bolton replaced an extensive taxonomic display of British birds. Serried ranks of birds – one male & one female of each species. Museum staff monitored visitors – generally people just walked by paying little attention to the specimens or labels. Dioramas offer so much more for the visitor to explore and, as you say, give the opportunity to look at ecology of a habitat.

        Mind you some people still ask where all the birds have of gone! I have to explain that many of them are still there, just rearranged & on different perches!

      • Patricia: “Dioramas offer so much more for the visitor to explore and, as you say, give the opportunity to look at ecology of a habitat.”

        Though many do not portray an accurate description of this habitat. I guess many of the creators of these displays may never have seen these animals in the wild, or did they just think it was artistically or commercially better/more engaging to dramatise the scene in some way?

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