This lovely display of zebras can be found at the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring. It’s a delightful museum, built around the collections of Walter Rothschild, a classic British eccentric aristocrat. There are pictures of Rothschild riding around on giant tortoises, with a lettuce leaf held out on a stick to encourage them to walk, and another of him in a carriage pulled by zebras (I don’t know if any of the ones in the picture pulled his carriage…).
Rothschild decided aged seven that he would run a zoological museum. This makes me feel a certain affinity towards him, as I too had childhood yearnings towards museums, as proven by a school exercise book from around 1989, in which I declared that by the year 2000 I would be working in a museum (I was out by 1 year — it was 2001 when I got my first museum job).
But back to the zebras… What I love about this display is the way that it strikes a balance between ordinariness and weirdness. In almost any natural history museum that you care to visit, you will find specimens displayed like this, on glass shelves at various heights in a class cabinet. But what is odd about this one is a) the animals are all quite large, and b) they are all the same type of animal. Plus, the taxidermy is so beautifully done that they have a certain nonchalant quality, as if they just happen to be hanging around in a museum display case.
I noticed during my research in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History that young children often notice or imagine relationships between taxidermied animals. Displays like the one above are great for this — you don’t need anything as obvious as a diorama to imagine something going on between the animals. Even a technique as simple as facing some animals towards each other and some away creates a strangely compelling social scene.
But what’s also lovely about this display is that it somehow has the feel of a work of art, but without the affectation of art. It is essentially a comparative study of zebra species, and yet within this display we also have aesthetic appeal, surprise, narrative and wit. Or am I just getting overexcited by some shelves of zebras?
(This post builds on a post that originally appeared on my now-defunct Tumblr blog Stuffed Stuff)