The man behind the menagerie
Amy Carter explores Rothschild’s passion for nature and how this impacts museums today
The recently refurbished Rothschild Room at The Natural History Museum Tring, opened in April, explores the story of the man behind the menagerie and museum. Walter Rothschild’s passion for nature led him to collect and create a world-leading museum which now, as part of the Natural History Museum, looks after one of the finest ornithological collections in the world.
The pursuit of natural history was a Victorian craze that permeated through to all levels of society. It brought with it many advances in scientific understanding of the world, a considerable body of literature, and a number of new inventions to satiate collecting frenzy, including the appearance of the aquarium in lower class homes. Yet, by the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the aristocratic collecting of animals and plants was dying out, the result of being pressurised by cost, increasing competition from the emergence of the zoological garden as an attraction, and changing fashions. To this day, a large number of stately homes have the remains of aviaries and menageries that have been sadly overlooked in official histories. However, the growing field of Environmental History has led to increasing interest in the study of the interaction between humans and their environment, including interaction with animals and, as such, there is a new body of research into the keeping of animals throughout history.
As described by Rennie in his The Menageries Vol. 1 published in 1829, natural history was ‘the science of observation’, making its study, unusually for a science, accessible to the lower classes.(1) It was a subject that could be pursued in the garden, the park, on trips to the beach. Indeed, the practice of natural history by the common man was encouraged by social elites as a form of rational recreation, a term that referred to involvement in activities to improve the mind, as the limitations of working hours meant that workers had a growing amount of holiday time. By convincing these workers to take up natural history, the elite perceived themselves as protecting their workers from taking part in more distasteful hobbies. (2) It was within this environment of common involvement with natural history that Walter Rothschild was raised.
When Walter officially opened his museum to the public at the agricultural show in 1892, 5,000 visitors flocked through its doors in the first few days and, despite its lack of advertisement, the museum continued to attract 30,000 visitors a year.(4) Walter’s decision not to advertise the museum was interesting; it meant that knowledge through word-of-mouth was vital. Equally, his choice to open the museum to the general public free-of-charge was also a radical challenge to the attitude of his zoological society competitors. Barber has commented on the difference between the theory of openness to the public and reality of limitation, the British Museum was supposedly open to any person of decent appearance, but in fact was only open three days a week between ten and four, which effectively closed the museum to the working class.(5) A similar situation often occurred with the zoological societies, especially the London Zoological Society which required recommendation from a fellow of the society to be admitted to the gardens, although similar policies were, out of the necessity of a lack of funding, dropped over time.
Therefore, the impact of the museum on the public was extensive. Tring’s museum was, as Axelsson and May note of many such museums, arranged taxonomically, which highlights the importance Rothschild placed on bringing the public into interaction with scientific methods. (6) Visits to the menageries could be the point at which the working class became interested in natural history. Encouraged by the exhibits of insects and butterflies at Tring, the museum’s outgoing letter books contain records of large numbers of local people, and individuals from places further away, getting in touch with information about specimens of animals that they had come across in their natural history investigations. Often, these individuals had already identified their specimens with their scientific names and offer to send the specimens to the museum for display and research purposes. In one letter from E Varvel (who was the chauffeur of J. Caton from Norwich, which in itself shows the geographical reach of country menageries) the writer offers to send Rothschild a rare Black Swallowtail butterfly caught by his son and mounted by a local tradesman.(7) Examples such as this suggest that the growth of Rothschild’s collection was, in part, the result of public interest in the museums and the continuing of its work, through public contribution of rare specimens.
Outside of the museum the public could also encounter Rothschild’s collection. In his earlier years, Rothschild collected an impressive live menagerie at Tring Park in Hertfordshire, before further collecting of live animals was discouraged by his father. It is here that the use of ‘eccentric’ to describe the man can be defended. Rothschild’s determination to keep live kangaroos, emus, rheas, walleroos and cassowaries in Tring Park to roam as they willed also led to encounters between the animals and the public, as a result there were a number of incidents that may have led to Walter’s father barring him from further expanding his collection
It is clear, then, that Walter Rothschild had a considerable impact by challenging the way museums were run, providing an experience accessible to all tiers of society. His interaction with the local public and encouragement of those enthusiastic about the study of natural history has meant that his collection, added to by people of every class, is one of the most impressive and broad in the world. Today, the Natural History Museum at Tring captures the spirit of Rothschild. Keeping entrance to the collections free, the museum continues to encourage interest in the collections through new exhibitions and special events, along with the information provided throughout the displays, and, to commemorate the more eccentric parts of Rothschild’s personality, the newly re-opened Rothschild Rooms contain a life-size replica of his favourite tortoise.
History BA at The University of Nottingham.
1. J. Rennie, The Menageries Vol. 1 (London, 1829), p. 1.
2. P. Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885 (London, 1978).
3. M. Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds, Butterflies and History (London & Philadelphia, 1983), p. 102.
4. Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild, p. 101.
7. NHM, TM 3/18, Tring uncatalogued, Letter from E. Varvel to Lord Rothschild, Black Swallow Tail butterfly, undated.
13. Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild, p. 63.
14. Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild, p. 108.