I love browsing museum collections, but if I had a choice, it’s so much fun to visit them inside out – that is, take a backstage tour of what museums don’t display, going behind the ‘private’ door signs into their secret stores which in most cases, are much larger than what is actually on display… And we’re not talking about 2 to 3 times larger, we’re talking about secret collections that are 99% larger, hiding behind the museum walls…
The Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton – an off-the-beaten-path museum and hidden gem in itself – kindly invited me in for my very own backstage tour; a chance to go behind the ‘private: staff only’ signs and raid all those backstage drawers and cabinets, packed with no less than one million objects relating to the natural world.
Side note: I know I made this sound exclusive to me, but anybody is welcome to take a backstage tour of the Booth Museum, taking place either during the day, or occasionally in the evening for a more atmospheric experience.
Tours are peppered with anecdotes about the collection and the museum’s founder, Edward Booth, an eccentric affluent Victorian. He was a man with a serious ambition – to exhibit an example of every species of British bird. Once he achieved his goal, he started collecting species from all around the world – from birds of paradise to parrots, even returning a Dodo skeleton. Let’s not forget the 525,000 insects and 50,000 minerals and rocks… He collected so much he had no choice but to start the museum in 1874 to house it all.
A wander around takes you up above the main museum, along darkened, creaky corridors lined with sets of old wooden drawers and cupboards crammed with butterflies, and bugs, bones, eggs and shells and cupboards dedicated entirely to fossils, minerals and rocks. Not to mention all the taxidermy birds and skeletons… It’s basically everything that doesn’t fit into the museum, plus other specimens which have been donated over the years, a lot of it illegal to collect now.
After seeing this lot, you could say that museums sure do like to hoard things, but of course, it’s not all just sitting there gathering dust. The Booth Museum’s collections are special resources that allow the museum to make unique contributions to answering significant scientific questions and play a vital role in advancing scientific knowledge, addressing societal issues, and increasing scientific literacy.
Fun fact: The Booth Museum of Natural History is known as the home of the ‘diorama’ – that is, it was the first of its kind to display birds in their natural habitat. It’s an idea since copied all over the world and perfected by the likes of the Smithsonian in Washington and NYC’s Museum of Natural History.
(The best photos in this post are by Lyndsey Haskell)