The artefactual character of a zoological specimen with a geological name


This project is about the different meanings and uses of ostensibly scientific specimens. So I was delighted to find out about a taxidermy mount of a greyhound called ‘Bed of Stone’ now on display in Blackburn.

Bed of Stone (photograph by Mark Steadman, courtesy of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)

Bed of Stone (photograph by Mark Steadman, courtesy of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery)

During a recent ‘New Light on Old Bones’ team meeting, Vinai Solanki kindly pointed her out; thanks to him and Mark Steadman, I now know she was a champion racer who won the Waterloo Cup in 1872, and later was somewhat talismanic in local politics. Her owner’s brother was the Blackburn MP William Briggs – her name stemmed from the family’s quarrying interests.

This specimen of Canis familiaris stands deservedly proudly in Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery’s wonderfully eclectic social history display, embodying not only her zoological characteristics, but also local sporting and political history.

Sam Alberti

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7 Comments

Filed under Meanings, Objects

7 responses to “The artefactual character of a zoological specimen with a geological name

  1. Mark Steadman

    I was surprised by the dates… possibly making Bed of Stone Blackburn Museum’s earliest surviving example of taxidermy.

  2. David Craven

    One of the sites we link to, the ICOM Natural History Ethics Working Group blog, kindly made a post about NLOB. When I was reading it, a comment leapt out at me, and it’s of relevance here.

    Chris O’Neill asks “With regards to cultural objects, is it the object or the stories surrounding that object, that are important?”

    He sites Phar Lap, the champion New Zealand racehorse that won so many notable races 1929-32. The bones and hide are on display in two separate museums. But it’s only the story that makes those bones Phar Lap. Without the story, it’s just a horse skeleton/skin. And if you swapped the bones/skin, would anyone really know?

    I had thought about this myself when visiting the Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool. They also have a racehorse skeleton (the name of which currently escapes me*), and it occured to me we could mount any horse skeleton and say it was a famed racehorse, and make it a far more interesting object! Obviously we are all far too ethical to stoop to such shenanigans (!), but you get my point. The significance of the object comes not from the object itself, but from the associated information.

    Bed of Stone is similar. As a taxidermied greyhound, it’s uninteresting (except perhaps in the dates). But it has far greater significance because of the context.

    It leads us into that wonderful question “Is it real?”, so beloved of children confronted by taxidermy in museums. In these cases, the “reality” stems not from the very real dead horse/dog, but from its associated history. Bed of Stone seems far more real than another, less historic, stuffed greyhound.

    *Edit. It was of course, that great Grand National winner, Manifesto:
    http://www.famousracehorses.co.uk/manifesto.htm

    • Mark Steadman

      I would say that the skeleton of Phar Lap or indeed Manifesto contains a great deal of information that would add to each their own story. This is a point for the osteologists and other such experts but skeletal remains can reveal a great deal about an indiviudals life… such as diet, health, injuries etc. The objects have an authority that is irrefutable in a way that textual sources (being of human construction) do not. For example, if the history of Phar Lap explained how the horse had suffered an injuries as a result of being a racehorse… this can be confirmed or contradicted in the skeleton to a degree that no other primary source can. Maharajah the elephant is another example (and one I would love to work more on). Sam’s work on the history of this specimen has posed a question as to whether the specimen was anatomised, like the Leeds elephant, or simply buried and uneathered at a later date. A closer scrutiny of the skeleton would reveal different types of knife and saw marks that would occur during any anatomical study. The difference is important – the former scenario suggesting a scientific scrutiny of the elephant missing in the latter scenario. I’ve had a quick peek and can see no obvious marks but this is in no way conclusive. Richard Sabine at the NHM is the man to talk to… wouldn’t it be an excellent resource to have a study of differing defleshing/anatomical marks. I know that there has been work on this within the history of medicine but if anyone knows of anything specific to zoology do let me know.

      • David Craven

        I fully agree that the bones contain a wealth of new, fascinating stories. The pathologies, be they ante-, peri-, or post-mortem, can tell us so much about the life, death and afterlife of the animal. But that’s much harder to bring out. For most curators, while it’s worthwhile, the work required may be beyond them. Time, facilities, and training may all prevent them from exploring these lines of enquiry.

        But in these ‘mascot’ cases, the story turns the horse skeleton, the taxidermied dog, or Maharajah the elephant into the display quality museum specimen. There may be more there to elucidate the history of the animal, but the story provides a ‘quick win’ for the curator seeking to create an engaging display.

  3. Re: The grey hound. Is this fact/history known to those viewing the item? We were thinking about the elephant in Rawtenstall and the afterlives of exhibits, often being as important to the local community and revealing within the museum context as everything that went before. The staff at the museum know that this is the case with Nelly the elephant, and that many people still come to the museum to revisit their childhood memories. Little is displayed with the elephant to tell of Nelly’s afterlife, what this reveals, and what impact it might have had. Demographics change and memories have a lifespan. Many people we met at the museum didn’t know about Nelly’s story, locals and visiting tourists. The experience of the elephant is certainly much more interesting if you know this story. When we found out about how people used to ride her, or how the tail was stuck on with tape (or a drawing pin, we can’t remember anymore), and when we told other visitors, this changed each viewers perspective and made the object feel more relevant to its location. I suppose the question is do you try to keep these memories and relationships alive, or create new ones by developing new relationships to the objects at the museum (what we were trying to do with the adoption programme)? Or of course, both.

  4. Carol McGowan

    Went to blackburn museum today. Saw the bed of stone,but no mention was made in any of the notes of who or how she came there. What a shame I had to come home and google as I had been told the greyhound was Mick the miller. She deserves to be mentioned at least on the museum web site or on site.

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