On Wednesday, I visited the Natural History Museum in London while on vacation with my family.
I looked for the taxidermied beaver specimen that Sigvald Salvesen of Aamli, Norway, sent to the museum in 1925 (I have a copy of the letter correspondence about the transaction from the NHM archive). Unlike Jensen-Tveit who was also in Aamli, Salvesen took a more scientific approach to beavers: he published an article “The Beaver in Norway”in the Journal of Mammalogy in 1928, as well as an extensive handbook on raising pelt animals (Pelsdyrboken) and a scientific article on moose and red deer in Norway. In one of Salvesen’s letters to the NHM Keeper of Zoology Martin Hinton, he suggested that the specimen be stuffed standing upright eating on an aspen branch. I do not know if that was the configuration he finally used, but if so, the beaver on display is not from Salvesen. Hinton was actually not happy that Salvesen had stuffed the beaver at all–he had wanted it as a skin and skeleton for the museum’s scientific collection–so it’s possible that the museum already had a beaver on display before Salvesen sent his. So, alas, I found no direct connection to my beaver reintroduction story in the halls of NHM.
But I did make an observation about the way that stories around the mounted specimens are told. They all become stories about a species. The beaver I took a picture of is a stand in for all European beavers. It is labelled with the species name (Castor fiber) and range distribution. A longer text gives the feeding preferences and lodge construction techniques of beaver. The mammal specimens in the displays are Platonic forms: they are taken them out of time and space to capture the “essence” of the animal.
The particular beaver on display has no story. It is just one of the unnumbered masses of beavers that it represents. If this specimen does date from the 1920s or before, it was one of only about 1200 European beavers left. It was actually part of a dying race on its way to extinction. It was an important individual as far as the species was concerned, yet that story– whether the story of the individual beaver or of its species at the time of its collection–is invisible.
But I saw two places in NHM where the individual animal stories were paramount.
The first I encountered was in the restaurant area on the Ground floor. Chi-Chi the panda sits in a glassed enclosure eating bamboo, an appropriate choice considering its placement in the eating area. Chi-Chi had been a resident of the London Zoo from 1958 to her death in 1972, and was a favourite with visitors.
The exhibit is very different from the mammals hall. Rather than “Giant panda” being the label, it is “Chi-Chi” in very large print. While there is some general information about the species, including a range map, there are historical photos of Chi-Chi when she was alive and text about her individual history.
There is a similar exhibit on the second floor across from the door to the Treasures room. In this empty glass case, Guy the gorilla sits looking somewhat skeptically out on visitors. Guy was a resident of London Zoo from 1947 to 1978, so Chi-Chi’s life at the zoo was during Guy’s lifetime there as well.
Guy’s exhibit has a up-to-date electronic media display that allows the users to choose different pages, each with text and a historical photo about Guy. These boards allow Guy’s history to be told like flipping through a family photo album: a cute baby Guy, him as adult “Gentle Giant”, and his death by heart attack followed by taxidermied afterlife.
These two animals were stars. They were well-known and loved by the British public who visited the London zoo. Their individual lives had intersected with human lives before their death, so they had stories that NHM wanted to tell about them as individuals. All of the other mammals on display did not have that connection to people in London before they were killed, stuffed, mounted, and set in cases. While they certainly had individual life histories, they were not deemed worthy to tell, nor were they likely easy to recover. But I could not help but think that although their stories are lost in time, we mustn’t forget that they too were individuals.