Cabinets of Curious Creatures
Lord Walter Rothschild assembled the largest—and weirdest—menagerie ever collected by one man
By Josie Glausiusz
The Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum
Tring, Hertfordshire, U.K.
Photograph by Peter Fraser
One case in Rothschild’s museum houses a ponderous mix of hoofed grazing mammals, among them small, swamp-dwelling African bushbuck (left, seated on shelf and floor), a large dark-brown fruit-eating Indian nilgai (center, seated), a four-horned antelope (center, standing), as well as bison and buffalo heads.
Lionel Walter Rothschild, scion of the famous banking family, was exceedingly fond of zebras. In 1894 he harnessed three to a carriage and drove them through the streets of London and on to the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. He was also an exceptionally keen ornithologist. In 1931, in order to pay off a debt to a blackmailing peeress, he sold his collection of 280,000 bird skins to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He also amassed a collection of 2.25 million moths and butterflies, which, upon his death in 1937 at age 69, was bequeathed to the Natural History Museum in London. The insects now lie pinned in glass-bottomed drawers within tall wooden cabinets in the bowels of the museum, their wings still shimmering in glorious shades of green, orange, and purple.
Lord Rothschild was, in fact, fascinated by any animal that ever walked, crawled, swam, or flew upon the face of the earth. In his lifetime he assembled the largest collection of fauna ever accumulated by one man. His menagerie included a flock of flightless kiwis from New Zealand (which accompanied him to Cambridge when he arrived as a university student in 1887), 144 giant tortoises imported from the Galápagos Islands, a sheep-size South American rodent called a capybara, as well as wild asses, spiny and scaly anteaters, emus, and kangaroos. All these animals were allowed to roam freely around his Tring Park estate in Hertfordshire, 33 miles north of London. Thousands of others were stuffed and placed in a nearby museum, which has changed little since Rothschild’s time. In variety of species and sheer, enchanting eccentricity, this collection has no peer.
Housed in a gabled Victorian mansion, the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum is divided into sections devoted to marine and terrestrial mammals, birds, insects, fish, crustaceans, and reptiles, but it is often hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. In the ground floor gallery, for example, the turquoise-browed motmot and the iridescent green, feathery-tailed quetzal, both birds from Central America, share a glass-faced wooden cabinet with lions and leopards. In the same crowded room, one case is filled with all forms of pigeons, from the green-winged Southeast Asian emerald dove to the big, blue-black Victoria crowned pigeon from New Guinea. Others house a motley array of primates, including a dusky titi from Brazil, a long-fingered aye-aye from the forests of Madagascar, and a rat-size Southeast Asian slow loris.
Photograph by Peter Fraser
The eclectic collection ranges from the extinct to the extant to the extremely rare. Rothschild sent explorers to five continents, and one cartographer described the map dotted with sites sampled by his collectors as “the world with a severe attack of measles.” In the museum one can find a dusty white-striped beige-brown quagga—a subspecies of zebra hunted to extinction in South Africa more than a century ago—as well as a blue-speckled scaly coelacanth, an ancient fish thought extinct until one was hauled up off the eastern coast of South Africa in 1938. Duck-billed platypuses jostle with all kinds of marsupials, including koalas and bandicoots and a greater gliding possum, which looks like a squirrel that has been flayed and ironed. One display case is filled only with different breeds of dog, among them a Great Dane and a dachshund with considerably longer legs than those seen on its descendants.
Gazing at this great profusion of beasts, one begins to wonder whether Lord Rothschild was eccentric, obsessive-compulsive, or slightly insane. Certainly the collecting mania seemed to run in the family. His younger brother Charles was a noted flea expert: He discovered Xenopsylla cheopis, the notorious plague vector, on an expedition to Egypt. Or maybe Rothschild’s zeal was simply an extreme form of that peculiar Victorian passion for plundering the world of its then-abundant natural riches, an ardor that was abetted in part by access to a British empire that stretched across vast swaths of Africa, India, and Australia.
Rothschild was no mere hobbyist, however, but rather a keen scientist who with his curators and collaborators described 5,000 new species and published over 1,700 books and papers based on his collections. (He was also a member of Parliament and, as the de facto head of the Jewish community, the addressee of the British government’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, which viewed “with favour” the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.) Some 250 species are named in his honor, including a Rothschild’s giraffe, a Rothschild’s elephant, a bird of paradise, a porcupine, and a Galápagos finch. Indeed, a key study of the beaks of these birds, which Charles Darwin so famously described in The Voyage of the Beagle, was carried out in 1938 by careful examination of the New York bird collection.
Still, not everyone shared Rothschild’s Victorian penchant for stuffing dead animals. In a letter dated December 16, 1891, his enlightened Cambridge mentor Alfred Newton argued that it was far better to examine birds alive than to extirpate an already expiring fauna. “I can’t agree with you in thinking that Zoology is best advanced by collectors of the kind you employ,” he wrote. “No doubt they answer admirably the purpose of stocking a Museum; but they unstock the world—and that is a terrible consideration.”