Childhood Memories of Taxidermy: Arthur, the Siberian Brown Bear, Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey

Arthur, the Siberian Brown Bear, Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey, early 20th century

Childhood Memories of Taxidermy: Arthur, the Siberian Brown Bear, Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey

 

In the galleries there was a bear. But the bear wasn’t a real bear but the skin was a real bear’s skin but they stuffed the bear. The animals up on the wall they were dead then the men take the animals then they put them on the wall.

(Laxmi Wadher, 1996)

 

Unearthing the ground to reveal a bounty of hidden and precious treasures bears a metaphorical resemblance to the wonderfully gifted mind of a child. One can be amazed with delight in discovering how children’s astute minds, together with their shrewd intelligence can capture a certain level of attention to detail and accuracy, through careful observations and a methodical mindset.

I feel that these qualities noted are subtly accented in the introductory passage above. This notable excerpt is recollecting my first encounter with taxidermy in June 1996, when I attended a field trip to Haslemere Educational Museum, Surrey, with my fellow pupils, whilst completing our studies at infant school. I wrote this description shortly after our visit, and what made my experience memorable, was a large, brown, taxidermied bear.

At the time, even though I had unfortunately not encountered the term ‘taxidermy’ before, I was simultaneously recounting the appearance of the bear and explaining qualities attributable to the practice of taxidermy without realizing it. Over time, however, I became aware of the word taxidermy. Although, for a significant period of time, I did, admittedly, believe that the meaning was with regards to the mode of transport… taxis!

Reminiscing about this encounter inspired me to revisit Haslemere Educational Museum, this time with my mum. It was like we went on a quest together, in search of the taxidermied bear I once confronted sixteen years ago. There was definitely an anticipatory feeling inside me; I knew the moment of discovery was imminent, but I did not know when it was going to happen. The surge of excitement building up did in fact mean that I was becoming a restless spirit. But I knew that my patience would be worthwhile. And it was. It was a surreal moment when my mum and I found the brown bear, standing in the corner of a room, secluded. Even though the bear was standing upright and preserved to have his front paws out and a ferocious growl upon his face, I somehow did not feel fear when I saw him, which I might have experienced as a child. Rather, I was filled with sensations of nostalgia and contentment, and it made me smile to see him again. The happiness I succumbed to evaporated any trace of fear that might have once existed.

Back when I had initially encountered this brown bear I could only remember the physical characteristics and nothing else. Reuniting with him meant I had the opportunity to learn more information regarding the origins of the taxidermied animal. I found that he is a Siberian Brown Bear (Ursus arctor) called Arthur, named after a former curator of the museum, Mr Arthur Jowell. The bear was donated to the museum, circa 1930s, by Mr Oswald Sisson of Fernhurst, who obtained the mammal during his visit to the Soviet Union in 1919, and later, brought the trophy back to England.

I find the degree of history surrounding Arthur extraordinary. It made me realise that each individual taxidermied specimen has a life story to tell; each one is subtly enveloped in its unique series of life events, unravelled over time through examining the specimen, creating much intrigue and fascination during this process of discovery. It may have taken sixteen years before meeting Arthur on a second occasion, but it is never too late to fulfil a hope or a dream. Visiting Haslemere Educational Museum, first as a child and now as an adult, what I noticed to have materialised is a deeper sense of appreciation and awareness of one’s surroundings. Amongst the many subject areas the museum addresses, what is striking, however, is their rich collection of natural history on display, therefore providing a source of primary reference for an in-depth study of botany, entomology, geology and the works of researchers such as Charles Darwin and Sir Archibald Geikie. In addition to this, the museum also houses a noticeable selection of taxidermy too such as reptilian displays, for instance, of tortoises and a crocodile, mammals, ornithological exhibits and other taxidermied trophies.

There are a couple of aspects in particular that I am fascinated with regarding the preservation of natural history. First is the infusion of unusual specimens in ethanol or formaldehyde. These objects always fill me with such intrigue and curiosity, and a sense of how something implemented for practical purposes has the potency to be enchanting and visually captivating. Each of these glass jars has a unique aura of aesthetic beauty. The bottling of history for future generations to revel and marvel at is the image that comes to my mind when referring to this form of conserving specimens.

The second medium of preservation that captures my heart is entomology displays, especially of butterflies. During my visit, it was wonderful discovering the ethereal magnificence held in two old wooden cabinets. What was revealed to the visitor, as they are opened with care, each of the copious, small drawers individually numbered, with its very own brass handle, is an assorted collection of butterfly specimens. It was evident that the butterflies, compiled for exhibiting, had been methodically organised. The meticulous execution was reflected in how the collection of butterfly variations was aligned in single-file rows in each drawer, along with a small inscription underneath each one: identifying the type of specimen, sex and place of origin.

Strangely, when I reflect back on the compositional structure of the butterfly collections, it reminds me of the 2011 BBC horticultural series, Monty Don’s Italian Gardens, specifically when the presenter discussed fifteenth-century Italian gardens (see the DVD Monty Don’s Italian Gardens, 2011). During his journey across Italy Don highlights a few fundamental traits Renaissance gardens epitomise: balance, harmony and order. I feel that these traits are subtly echoed here in Haslemere Educational Museum’s collections of butterfly specimens.

Although the primary objective of preservation, like the distinct forms described above, is to conserve and maintain specimen collections for future references, it nevertheless simultaneously echoes a subtle but poignant contradictory moral, of how life is of an ephemeral nature that cannot be regulated. This I felt to have symbolically transpired when I saw some of the delicate wings of butterflies broken. The hidden jewels in the drawers give a reminder of how the existence of a living being will be met by the eventuality of death, whilst illustrating the coexisting relations between preservation and death, and as a result accentuating the complexities surrounding the concept of conservation. Preservation enables the illusion of ‘life’, but it does not eclipse the concluding stage this once living form has already transitioned into. Although this connotation projects a rather saturnine tone the outlook is more importantly giving a true reflection of reality, in conjunction to providing a beneficial vehicle, to recognizing the value and precious nature of existence and even more so: to embrace life.

It is charmingly poetic how our visit had a metaphorical as well as a literal association with the expression ‘a child in a sweetshop’. Not only did I experience this feeling whist at the museum, with their abundant collection of history on exhibit, but after our visit, my Mum and I went to a local sweetshop that held an equally exciting variety of confectionaries in numerous traditional glass jars, such as homemade Sicilian lemon-core dark chocolates, treacle toffee, sherbet lemons and small clusters of handmade rum and raison fudge! I think that Haslemere Educational Museum is a great place for children to come and visit, because it will support them in broadening their understanding of natural history, through a fun and interactive approach. Furthermore, it will also show them the spectrum of approaches to the field. But the museum experience does not exempt adults in any way. My journey reiterated for me the importance of our own individual childhoods; the memories we have from such a significant period of our life should be cherished and remembered, rather than forgotten or abandoned.

Reminiscence of one’s childhood, or embracing our childhood dreams, can be comforting but also a source of inspiration. Nurturing one’s early memories has the ability to influence the development of one’s future adult life, in unique and extraordinary ways. In each of us, we are a child at heart. I hope that one day I can bring my own future family here. A place where we can share, build and reminisce on our unique taxidermy encounters, and to keep these memories preserved for years to come.

Memory comes when memory’s old…

…I will never disappear forever, I’ll be here…

(Fever Ray, Keep the Streets Empty for Me, 2009)

 

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It was like we went on a quest together, in search of the taxidermied bear I once confronted sixteen years ago.