Britain: The Powell Cotton Museum- For those who like their animals dead and stuffed.

A country mansion which has its own Natural History Museum stuffed to the brim with……… stuffed animals.

Why visit?
Imagine a cross between the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ and a stroll around an English country mansion and garden.

Birchington in Kent, South East England. Map.

THE POWELL COTTON Museum at Quex Park is named after Percy Powell Cotton, an explorer and early conservationist, who embarked on many expeditions to Africa and Asia in the heyday of colonial exploration. The museum is rather unique as it houses some huge internationally renowned natural history dioramas – three dimensional life-size models using taxidermy and painted backgrounds to show animals in their natural environment.

Natural history dioramas were very popular in the UK and USA in the early 1900s. They were a way of visualising the natural, far-away world for the public audience in the days before TV, film and YouTube. These dioramas were the IMAX 3D experience of the Victorian age - only without the ridiculous glasses.

This museum houses the world’s oldest, mammal habitat diorama - the Kashmir diorama - which was completed in the early 1900s. The primate diorama is the largest and most diverse in Europe. Impressed? You should be! Percy was a stickler for getting the scenes in his dioramas anatomically and visually correct, and they are indeed impressive. If you like your animals dead and stuffed then this is the place for you.
Powell Cotton used to send the animals from his expeditions to ‘the jungle’, (the nickname of the studio of Britain’s foremost taxidermist Rowland Ward who was based in London), where they were expertly stuffed and then driven a hundred miles to the museum on the back of a truck. One can only wonder at what passing motorists thought as elephants and giraffes trundled past them on the road.
Powell Cotton, although very much a man of the times (late 19th Century/early 20th Century), seemed to have noble intentions of furthering the study of natural history by his voyages and use of dioramas. And while we have rather different ideas of conservation in the 21st century (which thankfully don’t involve shooting and stuffing), his meticulous record-keeping means that today the museum is visited by experts from around the world who come to study his collection. With the museum’s massive collection of animal skins, bones, tusks and horns, it provides scientists with data to help them research into very current environmental issues for many animal species.

With a very knowledgeable and friendly museum guide to point out some interesting little exhibits we may well have missed, our visit among the huge dioramas was quite something. We donned our pith helmets and became explorers of the past. We practically had the place to ourselves.
The house and museum was used as a hospital for injured soldiers during the First World War and there are some great black and white photos of soldiers convalescing amongst the tusks, horns and skulls. As thanks for the nursing care he received, a Belgian soldier painted one of the diorama backgrounds, and if you look carefully at the African landscape in Gallery 3 you can still see his signature.

While the dioramas are the unique aspect of this place, there is plenty for aficionados of weaponry, ceramics, jewellery and fabrics to enjoy. Percy and his family travelled many times to Asia and Africa and there are lots of personal photos and mementoes of the Powell Cotton family’s voyages which give a personal feel to the place. There is also a room that is devoted to hands-on exploration, with modern microscopes to examine unusual objects that you can take out of beautiful wooden drawers. Our favourite was the long snakeskin that just kept unrolling and unrolling………..

The museum is a Victorian time capsule; it provides an insight into the era when wealthy men like Cotton Powell were exploring the world. Full of eccentricity and adventure, it is social history and natural history combined.

Once you have had your fill of the museum you can retire to the mansion, imagine you are Lord or Lady of the manor, and wander around Powell Cotton’s family house (packed with yet more unusual objects from around the world). And then you can promenade around the expansive gardens where you’ll discover fountains, a walled Victorian kitchen garden, a collection of cannons (yes, cannons) and African inspired garden art. There are peacocks and peahens wandering around as if they own the place.

On the outer edges of the estate is the Waterloo Tower, an unusual 12 bell tower whose white cast iron spire bears more than a passing resemblance to the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, access is only granted to this tower on certain days of the year.
Go and experience this place if you want to step back in time, it’s not a stuffy museum but it is a museum stuffed with……… well, you get the point.

Getting there:
Quex Park is a twenty minute walk from the nearest train station in Birchington-on-Sea. It takes 1 hour 45 minutes by train from London Victoria. If you arrive by car, there is plenty of parking.

Useful links:
The Museum's official website.

About the author:
Vicky Turner was born and raised in West Yorkshire in the UK but has gradually been moving South (via the East Coast of the USA) for the last fourteen years. She currently explores in Kent.


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