Percy Powell-Cotton began collecting natural history specimens during his first expedition to Kashmir in Northern India and Tibet in 1890. Over the next six years, he made several more visits to the region, collecting the specimens that formed the foundation of his new museum at Quex Park. By 1895, he began his travels to Africa, and would spend the next forty years exploring the African continent.
Percy was collecting at a time when European Victorian explorers were pushing their way across Africa and Asia, discovering new places, animals and peoples previously unknown in the western world. Yet unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not an indiscriminate hunter, nor was he solely interested in collecting trophies to hang on his walls.
Percy Powell-Cotton quickly became interested in the recording of animals for scientific purposes. As he watched many extraordinary species disappear from the African wilderness, he noted that:
‘one day, when it is too late, it will be found that a species belonging to some special district has been extinguished and it will then be realised that the only specimens extant are in some museum’. (In Unknown Africa, 1904).
Percy’s interest in recording disappearing species did not make him a conservationist as we understand the term today. He and other collectors in the early twentieth century believed that if Africa’s animals were going to disappear, it was best to collect a record of them before that happened. That record consisted of complete groups of specimens for museums and scientific institutions, which required more hunting and more collecting. He hoped to build up an encyclopaedia of animals of Africa, which could be displayed in his museum against a backdrop of their natural habitats. It was through this interest in the science of natural history that the incredible dioramas at the Powell-Cotton Museum were born.
The collection represents a diverse array of African mammals, including those which are greatly endangered today, such as the Ethiopian Wolf, the Angolan Giant Sable and the White Rhino. The skeletons and skins that make up this vast collection provide excellent study samples. The level of detail with which Percy recorded each specimen – including exact longitude and latitude locations and body measurements – make these collections invaluable research tools for students and conservationists today, working to keep these rare and endangered animals safe and thriving in their natural habitats.