The Powell-Cotton Museum’s 120th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 11:01 19 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:01 19 August 2016

Powell-Cotton Museum (Pics: Manu Palomeque)

Powell-Cotton Museum (Pics: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

In the 120th anniversary year of the founding of the Powell-Cotton Museum and the 150th anniversary of the birth of its founder, Kent Life finds out more in Birchington-On Sea. Words by: Jack Watkins. Pictures by: Manu Palomeque and courtesy of the museum

The ‘wow’ factor kicks in almost immediately at the Powell-Cotton Museum. In what is the first in a series of spectacular dioramas, The Watering Hole brings you face to face with zebras, giraffes, antelopes and buffaloes, poised before a painted backdrop of the splendid African savanna.

Beyond it, the soaring central diorama teems with different species of apes clambering up trees or rocks or dangling acrobatically from branches. Another, to the right, focuses on mammals of the mountainous regions of North Africa. An ibex, on a precarious cliff edge, underscores the overriding sense of drama.

I challenge anyone not to be enthralled. Kids will be thrilled by the sight of an elephant bursting out of the jungle undergrowth, and adults will feel the instinctive childhood curiosity in exotic wild animals stirring once again.

Yet while Percy Powell-Cotton (1866-1940), the visionary behind these magnificent scenes, wanted to excite popular interest in creatures from far-flung continents, he was also a serious collector. On 28 expeditions to Africa and Asia, undertaken between 1887 and 1939, he amassed an unrivalled personal collection of the mammals from these lands which helped further the cause of zoological study.

Powell-Cotton in the SudanPowell-Cotton in the Sudan

What started as a conventional pursuit of big game hunting developed into a genuine interest in the discovery of new sub-species in an era that witnessed the first stirrings of the global conservation movement.

“Powel-Cotton wanted this museum to be like an encyclopedia of animals, a Noah’s Ark where scientists could come and see an example of every known mammal in Africa,” says Inbal Livne, head of collections.

The museum celebrates the 150th anniversary of its creator’s birth, and the 120th anniversary of its founding collection this year, and Inbal stresses its continuing value.

“Some people say that what we have here is an overload, reflecting a scale of shooting which can’t be justified. But it has to be put into context,” she argues.

Powell-Cotton MuseumPowell-Cotton Museum

“Hunting for sport was common in Powell-Cotton’s day, but putting stuffed specimens in a museum was seen as a way to gain a better understanding of those creatures.

“Since 1950 more than 2000 academic papers have been written which have used our primates’ collection for research. The collection of ape skulls has even influenced studies of human evolution. More recently, after the Angolan civil war decimated the population of the Great Sable stag, DNA has been taken from examples here to help stabilise the species.”

Much of the collection which is of interest to researchers is not on display, but the dioramas are now objects of historical value in their own right. Long before colour photography and epic wildlife documentaries, dioramas were among the most effective ways to inform the public about exotic animals and their habitats, given the essential artificiality of early zoos.

But most museums destroyed or altered their dioramas in the last century, leaving Powell-Cotton’s as rarities.

Children at the Powell-Cotton MuseumChildren at the Powell-Cotton Museum

The Kashmir Diorama, its specimens placed in a dramatic Himalayan mountain setting, was completed in 1905. It’s considered the oldest untouched wildlife diorama in the world.

Powell-Cotton, a perfectionist, went to great trouble over diorama construction. Steel frames, an innovation at the time, were used so that no pillars obscured the view. Technicians from a theatre company in Margate built the scenery, and the gorgeous backdrops were the work of an accomplished local artist, Mr Wools. But Powell-Cotton also incorporated minute details.

Inbal says The Watering Hole diorama includes foliage which was either brought back from Africa, or created by the designers working with samples brought back by Powell-Cotton. Look closely and you’ll even see butterflies sunning themselves on leaves.

“There are also details which the public cannot see from this side of the glass, like animal footprints in the mud,” marvels Inbal. “Why on earth would he bother to with those?”

She says they recently discovered claw marks on the back of one of the zebras. “Clearly, it had survived being brought down by a lion, which reminds us these animals had a life before they ended up here.

“Some have questioned why Powell-Cotton brought back a scarred animal rather than a perfect one, but it is a Grevy’s zebra, which was rare even then. Powell-Cotton wanted the rare and the quirky. Whereas a trophy hunter collects the biggest and the best, he collected anomalies.”

Inbal also praises the quality of taxidermy, which she says has recently come back into fashion as skill. “A taxidermist comes and cleans the animals every 18 months, but they are in good condition for their age. The Asian tiger was collected by Powell-Cotton in 1897 but was left in a box for several years, which shows the ingenuity of the taxidermist who worked on it.”

Powell-Cotton devoted most of his life to travel and exploration, but his appreciation of wildlife clearly developed over time. While Gallery 2 contains a wall covered in mounted heads in the conventional style of the Victorian shooting man, his attitude had changed by the turn of the 20th century. “In 1904 he wrote the book In Unknown Africa at a pivotal moment in his life,” says Inbal. “He was starting to understand the role of science in the future of African wild game, and that continued human intervention was going to lead to extinctions. He realised a time was coming when we’d only be able to see some of these creatures in museums.”

Perhaps the most poignant exhibit in the dioramas is the group of Northern White rhinos, now considered effectively extinct thanks to human greed which led poachers to hunt it for its horns. The northern white rhino’s scientific name, Ceratotherium simum cottoni, references Cotton, who also described more than 10 new species and sub-species of primates, some of which were also named after him.

But Powell-Cotton and his daughters Diana and Antoinette, who followed in his footsteps, were also interested in the peoples of the lands through which they passed. “Diana and Antoinette made some of the earliest ethnographic documentaries,” explains Inbal, an ethnographer in her own right.

“They collected about 3,000 Angolan cultural objects, so we have probably the largest collection in Europe. As women, they were able to get access to the females of these communities in a way that their father would not have.”

A newly created gallery room embodies Percy Powell-Cotton’s belief that “anyone can be a researcher,” and enables visitors, including students and schoolchildren, to touch and have access to objects connected with taxidermy, natural history and ethnography.

The museum also connects to the adjoining Quex House, much of which is open to the public. While its origins date back to the 15th century, it was extensively remodelled in the 19th century. The library was used by Percy’s son Christopher Powell-Cotton up to his death, aged 88, in 2006.

The house, behind a magnificent Cedar of Lebanon, sits in seven acres of gardens, and head gardener Sue Harris is heading a £1.5m programme to restore the walled garden, with its Victorian glasshouses, bothies and fruits sheds.

Produce grown in the garden, including strawberries, soft fruits and figs from trees considered to be 150 years old, is sold in Quex Barn. “There was a walled garden here in the 1400s, although this one was established in the 1840s,” says Sue.

“We’re one mile from the coast, sheltered, with our own micro-climate and rarely get frosts. You could grow almost anything here.”

It was once said of Powell Cotton that he was a man of his time, the late Victorian era. Quex House is certainly reflective of a more luxurious age, and of a period when many wealthy collectors set up their own museums in the gardens.

“But Powell-Cotton was a man of science and innovation,” says Inbal. “He expected things to change and develop.”

It’s because of this that while many of these smaller museums have gone now, his lives on, still reflecting his vision, still relevant to the challenges of modern day conservation.

Best of all, it is great fun to visit, and you’ll never forget those glorious dioramas.

Get in touch

Quex Park, Birchington CT7 0BH. 01843 841119

Powell-Cotton Museum. 01843 842168

Museum and Gardens open daily. Quex House open until 30 October.

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