This is the heart of the museum; the first gallery designed and built by Percy Powell-Cotton and the starting point for his relationship with the taxidermist Rowland Ward, who helped build and design the museum’s famous natural history dioramas. If you look carefully in the bottom right hand corner of the large diorama, you will see Ward’s signature and the date 1905 painted on to one of the stones. This was the year Ward finished creating this natural history masterpiece.
Percy Powell-Cotton began construction of this gallery, which he called ‘The Pavilion’, in 1896, designing a standalone building with a doorway opening into Quex Park’s beautiful gardens. It was built to house specimens and objects gathered during his early expeditions to the Himalayas, India, Somalia and Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia). The gallery was completed in 1905 and the large Himalayan diorama is now considered the oldest untouched diorama of its type in any museum around the world.
The diorama, depicting the Himalayan landscape at dawn, was the first of Percy Powell-Cotton’s famous animal scenes to be completed. The painted scenery looks down on the Baltoro Glacier, which is found today in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan but would have been part of British India when Percy went there. Many of the animals in this display have their winter coat, as Percy undertook much of his collecting during the hard winters, often at heights of up to 5400 metres! Dioramas such as this were a new and innovative way of displaying natural history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They fell out of fashion in the mid to late twentieth century and today very few dioramas of this quality or age are still standing in museums worldwide.
Opposite the diorama is a case of mounted animal heads. This was a very typical way of displaying natural history specimens in the late Victorian era – as trophies of the hunt – but one which Percy moved away from quite quickly as he gained knowledge and experience of the benefits to science and education that collecting could have. Today the display reflects this scientific interest as the specimens are organised to reflect Percy’s interest in taxonomy – the naming, organising and classifying of animals into groups, or species.
The gallery also contains several cases of interesting ethnographic objects, collected during expeditions to Abyssinia (1899-1900), now Ethiopia, and British East Africa (1902-1903), now Uganda. Of particular importance are the objects associated with the Ethiopian Church, known as the Coptic Church, from the ancient Abyssinian capital of Gondar. Many of these items were already important and antique relics when Percy Powell-Cotton collected them, having been made in the late seventeenth century. They had been taken from the city’s churches and hidden in advance of hostile forces from northern Sudan, who ransacked the city in 1887. When Percy travelled there is 1899, he was able to buy many religious artefacts from the local people who had hidden them.Photographs: Nikhilesh Havel
This image shows Gallery 2 in 1909. Percy Powell-Cotton had laid out the room to best show off his collection to dinner guest at a party. The lion and buffalo in the centre of the room are now on display in Gallery 3, and the tables covered in objects collected in British East Africa (present day Uganda) have now been replaced with cabinets which house this material. Although the famous diorama has remained unchanged, the rest of the displays in this gallery were continually developed in Percy’s lifetime and beyond.