194 Dyke Road, Brighton
Could this be the strangest museum in Brighton?
I am staring into the black eyes of a 3-foot Griffon vulture. Its sickle-shaped beak an unsettling few inches from my face. Her great, smothering wings spread out as if just landing, and that neck, craned intently as if to get a closer look at my face. But it’s okay – this one was shot down in Egypt in 1870, and now inhabits one of the thousands of glass cabinets in the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. Welcome to the weird world of taxidermy.
This is no ordinary museum. The musty, vintage smell I remember as a child, is as strong as I remember. But things have changed since my last visit. The cherrywood floors replaced by a baby blue carpet and the dim lights upstaged by new, brighter lights. But in no way do these changes retract anything from the atmosphere. It’s still there, gloomy and mysterious as ever.
The Museum was set up in 1874 by Edward Thomas Booth, whose love of birds led him to pursue an interest in taxidermy. His idea was to collect examples of every British species of bird and display them in re-creations of their natural habitats. Booth bought an isolated property on Dyke Road, facing the sea, which he aptly named ‘Bleak House’. By 1874, his collection outgrew the house so he built the museum in his back garden, where it stands today.
So here I am on a frigid February afternoon. At my feet there is an inquisitive platypus, and an alligator, who is looking less inquisitive, and more on a mission to take a bite out of my ankle. It would be a lie to say I ever feel completely at ease in the Booth Museum.
My imagination goes on a rampage. What if all the exhibits suddenly came to life, Night-at-the-Museum style? I turn and see a dodo in the aisle with its head tilted to one side, looking at me with a curious expression, a flock of flamingos rush past, the tiny merman on the wall suddenly leans towards me and says, “hey, how you doin’?” in a Southern twang.
I hastily try to escape these troubling visions of mine, and enter the ‘Discovery’ Lab, inside which there are a beautiful array of tropical birds & butterflies brought in from all over the world.
Booth loved birds. Birds in snow scenes, desert, forest, and beach scenes; flamingos with long legs like the stems of cocktail glasses; snow-white pigeons in glittery faux snow; little duck families with chicks trailing behind their mothers through bulrushes in winter.
Suddenly, I’m in the backroom, and I realize I don’t want to be here. It is more unsettling than I remember. The glass cages become bigger, housing gruesome murder scenes – Great Black Beaked Gulls terrorize a lamb, which lies helplessly on its back. I retrace my steps through silent rooms of skulls, where frames of animals hang suspended, and make my way to the exit.
As I exit the museum, I see what is probably the most impressive display in the museum: a Golden Eagle with another lamb clamped underneath its claw. It’s partner looks dismissively over its wing as his mate does the dirty work. I walk out and breathe a sigh of relief as I return to the world of the living.
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