Sunday, July 15, 2007

On the Booth museum

I've been past Brighton's Booth museum many, many times, and have often meant to have a look inside. So yesterday I finally went, and was seemingly the only person in the city to have had the same idea of how to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. Part natural history museum, part petting zoo with disappointingly dead exhibits, and part *League of Gentleman* set, the Booth museum has an unloved and unlovable feeling that is hard to shake. A large, one-storey building, the museum is essentially filled with case after case of dead birds, preserved by taxidermy, labelled and categorised. Perhaps once their feathers were still bright, and their yellow eyes still vivid, but the years have served to make them dull and murky. It reminded me of one of my favourite Alan Bennett jokes; he remembers a primary school friend of his declaring that nature was boring, 'and besides, all birds are brown'.

As I walked around, I realised that it wasn't just birds that had fallen under the taxidermist's scalpel. In one ghoulish display case, a collection of toads of various sizes sat astride seesaws and hung on to doll-sized swings with webbed hands. The note at the side of the cabinet explained straight-facedly that toads were one of the most difficult animals to stuff. Later on I saw a tiny stuffed vole, prone and in the talons of a pouncing Peregrine Falcon.

The museum's centrepiece consisted of a mocked-up colonial gentleman's drawing room, which featured a dead cheetah rug on the ground, a monkey's face attached to the wall, and a stuffed tortoise with a hollowed out shell in which a pipe and some cigars were stored. It was grotesque and horrible, but strangely interesting - like imagining a Roman feast at which people actually ate mice and eels, and cooked live birds into pies. The gentleman's room had so many dead animals in it - from butterflies and stick insects pinned onto the wall in a display case, to monkey-hand ashtrays, that you could begin to imagine what the Colonel would have been wearing too - maybe a tiger skin smoking jacket, a flamingo-feather shirt, and a pair of hollowed-out anteaters as shoes.

Towards the back of the museum, things got a bit more normal, and there was an interesting collection of animal skeletons. I particularly liked the bat, which seemed to have a bone structure as slight as a balsa-wood aeroplane. But overall it was an odd sort of tourist attraction; rather Victorian and austere. Almost like a horror movie, it served to unsettle, and after the dubious fun of feeling its chill, I raced back out into the sunshine, relieved to have left.


Unknown said...

Hadn't heard that Alan Bennett quote before: it's rather lovely.

Looks pretty creepy, especially photo #1: Barry Gibb's death mask?

Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.