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Britain’s best places to see: Taxidermy and natural history collections

Founded to teach, to show off, or just to house an obsessive collection, the UK has some pretty impressive taxidermy collections. Here’s our pick of the best

The Museum Crush guide to the best natural history museums in the UK

Grant Museum of Zoology
London

photograph of a lightbox covered in microscopic slides showing various natural history specimens

The Micrarium display at the Grant Museum of Natural History © Kate McNab

Established in the 1820s by Robert Grant, this collection brilliantly traces the history of the teaching of zoology and is the only remaining university zoological museum in London. Today the space is packed full of skeletons, jars and taxidermy specimens – a real Victorian cabinet of curiosities.

Perhaps the most mysterious object on display is the rather grotesque jar of moles, which greets you when you enter the museum (and has its own twitter account, of course). Make sure you get a good look at the striking Micrarium – a place where the museum’s tiniest creatures get to shine.

 

Natural History Museum at Tring
Tring

photograph of taxidermy mammals in an exhibition case with blue background

The Natural History Museum at Tring © The Trustees of the NHM, London

Once the private museum of Walter Rothschild, The Natural History Museum at Tring contains the largest zoological collection accumulated by one person and was first opened to the public in 1892. Though smaller than its sister site in London, the museum at Tring houses one of the most remarkable natural history collections in the UK, including extinct mammals and birds, and scientific oddities.

One display to make sure you take in is the display of dog breeds, charting the incredible spectrum of canines humans managed to breed from the mighty wolf – from the impossibly skinny to the ridiculously fluffy.

 

Horniman Museum and Gardens
London

photograph of the interior of a museum gallery showing natural history exhibits

The Natural History galleries at Horniman Museum and Gardens. Photography Sophia Spring © Horniman Museum and Gardens

A rather famous, and preposterously plump, walrus guards the natural history gallery at Forest Hill’s Horniman Museum, which showcases a selection of the museum’s 250,000-strong collection. This gem of a museum, overlooking the city, houses the historical collections of several major naturalists including the museum’s founder Frederick Horniman.

As well as presenting these amazing specimens the gallery also explores the history of taxidermy – how the craft awakened a love for nature in the Victorian public, served as a teaching tool and satisfied a need for knowledge but which ultimately had an undeniably devastating impact on many species.

 

Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Oxford

photogrpah of museum exhibit showing models of a dodo and dodo skeleton, and painting of dodo

The dodo display at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Image courtesy of Oxford University Museum of Natural History

It’s not just university students that benefit from this internationally important collection; the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is housed in an impressive neo-Gothic building and open to the public to peruse its colossal collection – the largest of any non-national museum in the country.

The museum has a couple tables of touchable taxidermy, which explore the story of evolution whilst letting you get hands-on with the animals. The real star of the museum is the mummified foot and head of a dodo; the most complete remains of the famously extinct bird you’d find anywhere in the world.

 

Royal Albert Memorial Museum
Exeter

photograph of interior of museum gallery showing taxidermy african elephant

The Natural History Galleries at RAMM ©Richard Moss

As well as botany, geology and a zoology collection comprising fish, reptiles, echinoderms among others, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is home to a particularly spectacular mammal collection. The collection was partly acquired, and donated to the museum, by big game hunter Charles Victor Alexander Peel, a natural history enthusiast with the rather deadly habit of shooting the animals he admired so much.

Peel travelled the world collecting these trophies, and defended his destructive pastime by claiming it showcased his bravery and manliness. Peel’s antics brought some of RAMMs most loved specimens to Exeter, including star exhibit Geoffrey – a magnificent bull giraffe.

 

Powell Cotton Museum
Birchington

photograph of large taxidermy diorama display

Gallery 2 at the Powell-Cotton Museum © Nikhilesh Havel

Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton took the environmental diorama to the extreme when he established his natural history museum in the grounds of his family’s home at Quex Park. Featuring the genius craftsmanship of Rowland Ward, Powell-Cotton’s go-to taxidermist, the Powell-Cotton displays specimens collected from Africa and Asia, offering you the unique chance to trek the Himalayas and explore the plains of Africa without ever leaving the Garden of England.

Galleries 1, 2 and 3 are the labour of Powell-Cotton’s love – containing his incredible dioramas which fill the walls with busy, if eerily quiet, wildlife scenes.

 

Booth Museum of Natural History
Hove

photograph of a taxidermy small colourful bird with long beak on wooden perch

Photograph of hummingbird at the Booth Museum, Hove. © Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton.

The Booth Museum was built out of necessity when Edward Thomas Booth’s rather obsessive hunting and collecting habit had successfully filled his home with just about every bird species native to Britain. This little museum holds a colossal collection, at the heart of which are the wonderful dioramas.

Booth is recognised as one of the pioneers of the environmental diorama, which presents the animal in the kind of scene they would inhabit in the wild – a display technique now seen in some of the world’s most iconic museums. To achieve these settings after shooting unfortunate specimen Booth would produce a quick sketch of the surroundings, the perfect reference point for their backdrops.

 

Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum
Glasgow

photograph of taxidermy tiger in natural history display at kelvingrove museum

©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums

Kelvingrove is home to a menagerie of animals, with the recently-renovated Life galleries exploring animals from distinct eco zones – from the Serengeti Desert to the frozen Antarctic and the tropics of the Indo-Malay forests.

These galleries, a firm favourite for many visitors, feature museum star object Sir Roger – a taxidermy Indian elephant who once toured Glasgow but was sadly put down in 1900 after developing a dangerous illness and mauling his handler. The museum also contains an active beehive, displays on extinct and endangered creatures and examples of Scottish wildlife including a golden eagle, red deer stags and a wild Scottish haggis…

 

Natural History Museum
London

photograph showing three deceased lizards preserved in liquin in glass jars

Three specimens from the Natural History Museum’s wet specimen collection © Trustees of the NHM, London

If you don’t fancy the queues (and gleeful screaming) associated with the popular dinosaur galleries there’s plenty more on offer at the NHM.

If you can pull yourself away from the epic Mammals display and the beauties in the Earth galleries then book onto a tour of the spirit collection, which guides you through a selection of the 27km of shelving holding the museum’s stash of things in jars. The NHM’s spirit collection contains specimens collected by Charles Darwin himself, and is home to a real-life Kraken – an eight and a half metre giant squid, named Archie.

 

Norwich Castle Museum
Norwich

photograph of a taxidermy lioness in a natural history gallery

A natural history gallery at Norwich Castle Museum. © Martin Pettitt (CC BY 2.0)

Perhaps a rather unexpected addition to the list, alongside the museums’ history as a castle and prison Norwich Castle Museum also has some wonderful natural history displays. These shine a light on the collectors behind the galleries, who spent their lives accumulating specimens and explore the methods and tools that curators and specialists use when dealing with taxidermy and other natural history objects.

The Museum also has an impressive display of birds, which covers almost every native British species as well as a polar bear, lions and an example of the now-extinct great auk.