On a recent visit to London we did something that I have been wanting to do for years. We visited the Powell-Cotton Museum to see the dioramas...
The Museum is about two hours train ride along the coast past Margate and was the home of the Powell-Cotton family, an interesting and curious family who explored, and brought back to the UK, artefacts from their travels in Africa and Asia from the late 19th into the late 20th Century. An old family, Percy Powell-Cotton had the money to build a fantastic museum in which to display his unique collections including the Kashmiri animals which form the earliest of the natural history dioramas that still survive in the world.
Although the times have changed and many of the stuffed animals and birds which used to be in museums across the world have disappeared into storage, these dioramas show the art that went into creating these representations of life. I am glad that we no longer kill things in order to display them but I do love these ways of explaining the natural world. Perhaps it has something to do with the amazing collections in Bulawayo Natural History Museum, a place which I used to spend much time in as a youngster...
What was surprising, however, were the other interests of the family. Travelling across Asia and Africa they befriended and were befriended by local people, treating those they met with a mutual respect and collecting items of clothing, art and jewellery to bring back to the UK for their museum. Today that collection is full of pieces that are no longer worn in their countries of origin, and so this collection forms a special area of study for many.
Here are some pictures (the one above is the uniform of a military commander from Abyssinia in 1899) of pieces from the family, now on display for everyone to enjoy. What a wonderful experience to go and see this museum. Get there if you can!
Right: a hip-apron from Southern Angola, made of ostrich egg shell beads.
Left: a model of a weaver creating cloth for indigo dyeing. Cameroon 1928/9
Right: a pair of shoes, handstitched from old carpet. Morocco, 1930's.