Creatures of the Wild Wood and the Eton Natural History Museum

Creatures of the Wild Wood is a new online exhibition that explores the natural environment through the collections. It features native British woodland mammals, birds, butterflies and plants, plus examples of introduced and invasive species – just a few of the thousands of specimens in the Eton College Natural History Museum.

The diverse array of material in the museum is the culmination of decades of donations and acquisitions from notable collectors and enthusiasts. It’s a reflection of generosity and the belief in bringing together resources for scholarly study and education for students from Eton and further afield. While we are working to more fully acknowledge and understand the contexts, and their impacts, behind our natural history collections and their collectors, we are also pulling together the history of a remarkable scientific collection.

To get an understanding of how a notable collection of British birds, that was once the most comprehensive display in the country, is displayed alongside herbarium specimens collated by an Anglo-Irish Unitarian naturalist who moved to Canada, we have to step into Eton’s history, before it even had a natural history museum.

Provost Thackeray’s birds, on display in an ‘Albert’ case, from the Great Exhibition in 1851.

It wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that, in response to the Public Schools Act of 1868, subjects taught at Eton expanded drastically from Latin and Greek and informal tutorship in subjects such as art and modern languages. There were indications that maths and science were gathering momentum by mid-century; in 1850 a former Eton Lower Master (and subsequent Provost of Kings College, Cambridge) by the name of the Rev George Thackeray (1777-1850) died and his comprehensive collection of British birds came to Eton. When the Great Exhibition closed in 1851 seven of the ‘Albert’ display cases were sent to the College to house this renowned collection of Thackeray birds. Two are still in use in the museum today, one of which continues to display Thackeray’s collection. Despite this rising support for the sciences, it wasn’t until 1869 that the first official science master was appointed. After this point, support for natural sciences that led to a dedicated museum came relatively rapidly.

In 1875 the science masters founded the Eton Natural History Museum through subscription. In 1879 the eminent biologist Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895) became appointed Fellow of Eton, which aided the growing support for a science curriculum. Queen’s Schools saw the first dedicated science laboratories built in 1895, and along with it, a purpose-built natural history museum. This formed part of what we know as the Eton College Natural History Museum today. When a tragic fire claimed the life of a student called Lionel George Lawson in 1903, in honour of his passion for ornithology, his family funded the Lawson Memorial wing in his memory.

Over the next six decades more and more natural history collections became acquired by the museum, which was predominantly run by students in the Natural History Society with the oversight of science masters. By 1971 the museum was crammed so full it was barely usable as a teaching resource as there was no clear view of any specimen.

Lepidoptera display, Eton NHM.

Over the next 20 years the museum radically transformed; between sales of objects, the expansion of the science schools for teaching space and the loss of artefacts due to lack of appropriate care and conservation, by the mid-1990s the Keeper of the museum was wrestling with presenting a collection that was in some ways diminished, in some ways bolstered by the specimens and data arising from their own specialisms, and in need of reimagining. Working on the collections at this time was Dr David A. S. Smith, who, alongside Professor Denis Owen, contributed comprehensive Lepidoptera collections that feature throughout the museum’s current displays, and built on the butterfly and moth specimens from William Barnes, Brigadier Cooke and Sir Christopher Lever. He also donated a number of specimens such as snail shells that have aided in describing the remarkable adaptations of this prey and its predators.

David Smith masterminded the major refurbishment of the museum that saw it closed from 1994 to 2000. He was not without assistance – in 1994 the Natural History Museum came under the remit of the College Collections, although boys continue to this day to be involved in the study and presentation of the museum collections. A number of specimens were purchased at the time of renovation, to help illustrate particular stories and scientific details, including a number or the mounted mammals that are featured in this online exhibition.

It was during this refurbishment that an old herbarium was rediscovered. The Hincks Herbarium, so-called by Smith after its principle contributor William Hincks (1794-1871), who signed and labelled the majority of its sheets. Hincks, who was born in Ireland and died in Canada, spent some years in Yorkshire preserving plant specimens amidst the early development of natural history as a science. With no direct links to Eton, how this came into the collection was unknown, until Smith and George Fussey (current Keeper of the museum) unearthed a social link with Philip Carpenter, who was a science master that had himself given a collection of mollusc shells to the museum.

The herbarium has since revealed exciting connections: Fussey discovered a scientifically valuable type specimen of the marine red alga Gloiopeltis tenax. A type specimen is the first specimen from which a species was originally described.  This specimen, collected in China for Sir Joseph Banks, was sent by him to a botanist called Dawson Turner (DT) at the turn of the nineteenth century.  On the herbarium sheet the initials DT and the species’ original name, F[ucus] tenax, can be seen in pencil.

These examples focus on the background to objects used online in the Creatures of the Wild Wood exhibition, but are just a few of the provenances behind this remarkable collection. The Eton Natural History Museum continues to collect, using artefacts to explore and understand our natural world, so that we may learn from and protect it.

Creatures of the Wild Wood is now open, bringing the Natural History Museum to you online.

By Rebecca Tessier, Museums Officer

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