Percy Powell-Cotton was inspired to create the gallery in 1925, while on expedition to Northern Nigeria. He sent detailed pencil drawings and notes home, outlining his plans for dioramas displaying the animals of north and west Africa and India. He also planned to move the diorama of primates, on display in Gallery 3 at this time, to the centre of his new gallery.
The new gallery used up to the minute technology, including a steel frame, which allowed such a wide structure to be built without any supporting posts in the middle of the room. This meant the dioramas could be deep, with plenty of room for a large variety of animals. But work progressed slowly; Percy Powell-Cotton spent seven years in Africa between 1927 and 1938, meaning that a lot of the work had to be overseen by other people. The economic depression of the 1930s was probably also a contributing factor, as money had to be diverted to other, more practical, matters.
In 1938 technicians from a Margate theatrical company were employed to build the scenery and a painter called Mr Wools painted the backgrounds. In 1939 the large panes of glass were installed and Percy Powell-Cotton was able to see the gallery finished – fifteen years after he first drew the plans on the back of an envelope!
Today, this is the first gallery visitors see on entering the museum but it was actually the last gallery built by Percy Powell-Cotton himself, being competed in 1939 the year before his death. The gallery should therefore be seen as Percy’s grand vision of Africa’s wildlife and landscape, and a culmination of his many ideas on how to present a vast and varied continent to the people who visited his museum. It is full of innovative designs and imaginative uses of materials, all cleverly disguised so that the visitor only sees the amazing African landscapes and natural history specimens.
The large diorama to the left is known as ‘The Watering Hole’ and represents many species from across northern Nigeria and Chad. Some of the amazing details that Percy Powell-Cotton built in to the scene are not visible to the visitor on the other side of the glass. For example, there are a number of carefully constructed animal footprints in the ‘mud’, and lots of beautiful but tiny butterflies nestled in the grass. We don’t know why he did this, but perhaps he enjoyed walking around the diorama when all the visitors had gone home?
This diorama also holds some intriguing stories about the lives these animals had before they were collected by Percy Powell-Cotton. The Grevy’s zebra, in the middle of the case, was attacked by a lion shortly before its death. The lion’s claw marks can be seen along both sides of the zebra’s rump - if you stand behind it! The giraffe, bending down to drink from the water hole, also had a run-in with a clawed creature, although something much smaller than a lion. It too has claw marks, either side of its nose. This giraffe may have reached into a tree or a bush to take a tasty mouthful and got more than it bargained for when it disturbed some other napping animal.
The central diorama showcases the amazing diversity of Africa’s primates and the different landscapes they live in. Percy Powell-Cotton was particularly interested in collecting primates, especially the Great Apes. During his travels, he found over ten new species or sub-species of primate, some of which he named after himself. Examples of these ‘type’ specimens (specimens which are the first known of their kind) are on display in Gallery 6.
The diorama to the back right of the gallery depicts animals from the Indian state of Madya Pradesh (which translates as ‘Central Province’). Although the gallery was completed at the end of Percy Powell-Cotton’s life, he visited India and collected these specimens in 1896, at the start of his career as an explorer and traveller. When the gallery was completed in 1939 many of these specimens were already forty years old, but were so well preserved and cared for, they have survived in almost perfect condition.
The final diorama, to the right of the gallery, incorporates a variety of landscapes and animal habitats. The far left represents the more lush woodlands around the Mkuze River, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Today the area includes a large game reserve, where the species on display in this gallery are now protected from human interventions such as hunting and agriculture. The central part of the diorama, formed of a high rocky crag, represents the Ethiopian Highlands, an area where land levels rarely fall below 1500 meters. The Mountain Nyala displayed here, are only found in this region and have become a rare and endangered species. Finally, the desert habitat at the front of the case showcases the diversity of species found in the Sahara desert. These animals, such as the Addax, have adapted to life in these hot and dry conditions. Their splayed hooves allow them to walk in the sand dunes with ease, and their fat reserves allow them to go for several days without food or water.Photographs: Nikhilesh Havel
The steelwork supporting Gallery One was erected in 1927 but it would be another eleven years before the gallery opened. Hannah Powell-Cotton (pictured) oversaw much of the development whilst Percy Powell-Cotton continued to travel.
Taken on the 15th June 1936, this photograph shows the construction of the scenery within the newly built Gallery One. The base of the rockwork was constructed out of wooden planks and packing crates, covered in a wire mesh and then sculptured in concrete. This diorama is to the right as you walk into Gallery One.