I’ve lived in Brighton for 12 years, but never been to a museum in the city. There I said it. I don’t have an excuse. It might be because I grew up in London with some of the world’s best on my doorstep and am not far away if I need a culture fix.
So in my ongoing effort to ‘rediscover’ Brighton, this weekend, Dan and I wandered over to the windswept Dyke Road Park just a stroll from Seven Dials to The Booth Museum. This is Brighton’s very own natural history museum, but with London so close, what makes this one worth visiting?
For one, this tiny museum is described as the home of the ‘diorama’ – the first of its kind to display birds in their natural habitat. It’s an idea since copied all over the world and perfected in New York’s American Museum of Natural History and The Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Imagine! A ground-breaking Smithsonian-approved museum just 10 minutes from my house.
Before we take a peek inside, first a bit about its founder, Edward Booth, a Victorian English eccentric born in Buckinghamshire, raised in Hastings and Brighton on the East Sussex coast. Here is Booth looking dapper and serious.
Booth was a typical affluent Victorian, exposed to shooting, the natural world and taught taxidermy at an early age, it’s no surprise he became a man with a serious ambition – to exhibit an example of every species of British bird. The more obsessed with his project he became, the more time he spent on expeditions – Trinity College, Cambridge, even asked him to leave for neglecting his studies. As time went on, he became more obsessed with his goal, keeping extensive diaries including frighteningly long lists and tallies of his prey, eating Cross and Blackwell tinned soup, drinking whiskey or four, recording the names of his dogs, but not his wife’s, and occasionally firing his shotgun at unsuspecting postmen…
And then there are those hunting sandals…
By 1874, his collection of birds and taxidermy had outgrown his marital home – Bleak House – on Dyke Road in Hove, so he built a new home for it in his garden, soon to become The Booth Museum of Natural History we know today.
A colour postcard showing The Booth Museum, 1909.
We’re almost ready to look inside… but first you have to close your eyes and imagine the sounds of chirruping forest birds echoing from the ceiling and around the museum, for the full effect, because this is what you hear while you’re browsing the cabinets. Then there’s that small-museum musty smell – inescapable when you’re surrounded by over 100-year-old stuffed birds and animals. With all this in mind, let’s begin!
There are 300 dioramas – glass cases depicting birds in their natural habitat – inside The Booth Museum, a basic building that resembles a giant shed with a high galvanised pitch roof.
The cabinets of diaoramas stretch along each side of the museum from one end to the other, show every British bird in its natural habitat. From seagulls and owls, to hawks and starlings.
Once he’d fulfilled his ambition to exhibit one of every British bird, he began setting his sights further afield, collection species from all around the world… from birds of paradise to parrots – even returning with the skeleton of a Dodo, that mysterious and beautiful extinct flightless bird once found on the island of Mauritius until the 17th century.
A recreation of his home reveals a treasure-trove of Victorian curiosities and taxidermy, giving us a sense of his character and life…
Perhaps most mind-boggling is the extensive and carefully categorised collection of butterflies and moths – 23,070 in total…
But don’t stop there, for hidden at the back of the museum is a gigantic skeleton cupboard filled with all kinds of bones, from human to horse, blue whale to narwhal, turtle to terrapin, spider monkey to chimpanzee… even an Indian elephant.
Who needs big tourist-packed museums when local gems are this good? There are also another million or so objects in its secret collections, but that’s another story.
Visit The Booth Museum at 194 Dyke Road, Brighton