Sheffield Educated - Sheffield City Museum

by Clare Scott (Factulty of Arts and Humanities Librarian) and Ian Trowell

Photo: Sheffield Museum
Sheffield Museum in original form.

As we saw when looking at the links between the University of Sheffield anatomy and zoology departments and the Sheffield Jungle, the passing on of expired specimens was an established practice for Frank Bostock. This was also recorded with the Sheffield Weston Park Museum, the same newspaper articles sharing the news of donations of primates to the University and Museum.

Sheffield Museum and travelling menageries

Surviving accession documentation from the Museum shows that around 8 specimens were donated by Frank Bostock, the aforementioned chimpanzee arriving early in the Jungle tenure in December 1910 and a myriad selection of other animals including a tiger, anteater, hybrid leopard / jaguar cub, ruffed lemur and a further chimpanzee arriving later in 1911, presumably some of these as 'expired on arrival' as the Jungle saw a sizeable re-stock of specimens docking in to Goole in April 1911. It is interesting that some of these species are not covered in the general reportage and advertising of the Jungle, with an emphasis instead on the spectacular interaction (lions, snakes, etc) or a general thematic exhibition strategy (the primates and elephants). One must assume that the anteater and lemur were simply exhibited for general purpose viewing as in the course of a standard menagerie such as those travelled by Frank Bostock's wider family.

Records go on to show that the second 1912-13 incarnation of the Jungle saw just a single donation of a chimpanzee, though there is more extensive evidence of Weston Park Museum working closely with travelling menageries in the late 1800s. One of Bostock's chimpanzees still resides in the museum, incredibly providing a tangible link across the last 100 years.

Photo: Sheffield Museum Bostock
Preparing the chimpanzee (undated).

Photo: Sheffield Museum Bostock
Detail of plaque linking specimen to Bostock Jungle.

Bostock and Wombwell, operating in various (and often concurrent) incarnations in the 1890s, were regular visitors to Sheffield, continuing to visit the Edmund Road Drill Hall right up to the cessation of their menagerie in the late 1920s. Weston Park Museum accession registers sees an extensive stream of donations in 1890 including a porcupine, coypu, lion, pair of opossums, and seemingly two further lions. It is Wombwell's 1892 donation of a lion that formed the most recent incumbent at the museum, a popular attraction with children that showed its age after over 100 years of patting and fussing.

Day's Menagerie is also a big partner with the museum, donating a camel, various monkeys, and lemurs in 1893. Bartlett's lion show, operated in later years by the fantastically named 'Martini Bartlett' (actually an amalgamation of the surnames of the London Zoo superintendent and the Bronx Zoo female big cat keeper), was an offshoot of Day's Menagerie and donated a further lion to the museum in 1902. Martini Bartlett is said to have retired to Sheffield in later years, when his action-packed adventures of life on the road with a menagerie were taking its toll. In a retrospective article in the World's Fair newspaper (5 December 1936) he romantically recalls his longing to put on the best show with animals by growing a French imperial beard and wearing long locks to his shoulders as soon as his age allowed! Bartlett, along with some of the other menagerists we have studied in this project, was a snappy dresser favouring velvet tailoring and an adornment of various medals giving the impression of numerous awards for acts of bravery. Bartlett recalls his lion 'Joey' - the animal donated to Weston Park Museum - as a Christian lion such that he had a kind nature and was happy to agree to most things asked of him. Bartlett's story, told from the fading vantage point of his twilight years, runs parallel with many other menagerist tales - aspects of bravery, escaped animals, stylish dress and performance, and nominally a lion in a local museum!

For Frank Bostock, the providing of specimens to museums (presumably this was continued elsewhere as his Jungles moved around) seemed a preferred option. As we have seen in our project article looking at Bostock's use of Darwin's ideas, and our more general piece on Bostock as a publicity entrepreneur, there is a web of contradictions at work that Bostock skates across with the greatest of ease. The rule of thumb seems to be to extract value from his operations, and so at times to appear educational and altruistic was a method in getting best value for his continuing operations. If he happened to actually be educational or altruistic then this could almost be seen as a by-product of his strategic aims of maximising his operations.

Certainly one of the unique selling points of the menagerie was to bring the 'denizens of the forests to the masses' and so there must have been some calculation as to whether allowing the burgeoning natural history wings of the museum movement would compromise the attraction of the show. There would have been other options available to the likes of Bostock in selling expired specimens to wealthy collectors who also enjoyed the Victorian fascination with taxidermy. However cooperation between menageries and museums became the norm, and often the back-story associated with a more famous expired specimen (typically a lion or big cat) allowed the museum to get more value for money with an added exciting back-story, and for the menagerie proprietor to get good publicity for both the kind gesture and the potential excitement imbued upon the animals remaining in the menagerie.

Sheffield Museum in history

Before tackling the Weston Park Museum there is an intriguing diversion to mention, drawing some parallels to Frank Bostock and his portable jungle. William Bullock is an interesting character and local to Sheffield, starting as a goldsmith and jeweller he accrued wealth to pursue an interest in collecting animals and curiosities. These were exhibited in a "Museum of Curiosities" in Sheffield through the 1790s. The collection moved to Liverpool and then to London in 1812. Bullock was an avid taxidermy experimentalist - he developed the overcrowded, theatrical and almost surreal dioramas of stuffed fish, birds and mammals which remain partly evident today, whereby an abundance of normally rare occurrences (eg a kingfisher plucking a fish or a snake and a rat engaged in a fight) are juxtaposed in a mass fashion singular instance. We hope to investigate Bullock's work with 18th Century Sheffield as a separate enquiry within the Sheffield Jungle Project.

The private collection of the wealthy Bullock was mirrored in Sheffield by Jonathon Salt's growing collection. Salt, also a wealthy local having ownership in the cutlery manufacturing sector, enjoyed collecting on a more studious and research-based footing. Salt put together a herbarium documenting the particular lichens of the region and beyond, as well as pursuing his wider interests in entomology and botany. Salt's collection stayed in the city, passing on to the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society (SLPS), and this became a key lever in the setting up of Weston Park Museum.

The Literary and Philosophy Societies were part of the early 17th century middle-class interest in self-improvement and study, marking also the need to express visibly such sentiments through the formation of a society. These 'lit and phils' societies were pseudo-democratic, operating a working democratic structure with rules and arrangements, but often preventing a barrier for democratic involvement with expensive membership fees and membership by invitation and election. Operating procedure included a sensible avoidance of religion and politics, allowing the society to flourish and thus be viewed as a record of wider aspects of science and thought cut away from the tainting of ideological concerns. The dynamics of (natural history) collection assembly and ownership thus started to shift from wealthy individuals to 'lit and phils' societies. Sheffield's society was part of the second wave of these societies, distinguished by their efforts to push collections to the fore alongside previous concerns around reading, discussing and studying.

The SLPS was formed in 1822 by Arnold Knight, a local physician and a keen exponent of natural history. By 1826 the SLPS had a reasonable collection including fossils, insects, plants and a specimen leopard. Keen to display both their own existence and their materials, exhibitions were initially housed at Cutlers Hall in Church Street. Through the middle part of the 19th Century these collections moved to the Music Halls on Surrey Street and then the School of Art in 1868. As with many of these societies there was a need to work with the local authority and secure some kind of permanent residence for the collection, thus in 1871 the SLPS cut a deal with the Corporation to donate their provisions in exchange for the promise a dedicated premises for a museum. Two years later the Sheffield Corporation bought Weston Hall and associated grounds from the Harrison family, with the Weston Park Museum (City Museum) opening in 1875.

As with the societies, there was an aspect of civic pride in both collating and exhibiting these collections, the bourgeoisie initially wanting to show themselves as learned and enlightened, and then later passing on this trait as the civic goes into contest with neighbouring towns and cities. Better collections, better presentation, better museums seemed to be the driving force. There was still some class division inherent in these early museums, mirroring the class division in early zoos set to distinguish themselves from common menageries. Weston Park / City Museum worked closely with the University, offering set aside weekdays for student study and research when the University established itself alongside the park in the early 1900s. Alderman William Brittain, influential on the museum committee and mayor of Sheffield, was keen to distance the museum movement from the fairs, circuses and menageries. Possibly a blind eye was turned when the offer of such 'lower class' derived specimens was made from the self-same proprietors such as Frank Bostock and his forebears with the Bostock and Wombwell travelling show.

Sheffield's museum was an incredible success, pulling in a mammoth 350,000 visitors in its inaugural year. Its location in the park, a popular destination for the Victorian promenaders, helped secure continued good crowds. The museum was extended in 1884 with the building of the Mappin Art Gallery. In 1936 Weston Hall, still housing the museum, was demolished and a new museum built. Opening in 1937 this building was bombed in the Blitz only three years later. After the war the museum was gradually rebuilt and underwent further changes to its current state in 2006.

The complex origins and trajectory of natural history exhibitions

Our article on provision looks at the procurement and 'movement' of animals from native homeland through to exhibition life and the difficult issues this may present, not least through the moral lens of our current society. Recent times have seen museums grapple with wider issues of colonial connotations, resulting in the mothballing or reorienting of displays accordingly.

The colonial period presented a twofold problem for museums, manifesting itself in decades to come: firstly, the volume of animal capture or hunting increased exponentially to contribute towards obliteration of environments and local species, whilst secondly, the colonialism itself contained an inherent 'virus' that would later call to question the taste and rationale of the collections. Museums were not in some kind of 'Burke and Hare' arrangement with big game hunting colonial appropriators, though by later accepting surplus aspects of (or complete) collections they set themselves up to fall foul of the interrogations from present-day campaigners. The rhetoric seemed to be in looking to obliterate any aspect of 'bad history' under the simplistic rubric of 'having it, displaying it, means endorsing it'. The inter-relationship between museums and colonialism runs a wide spectrum from accidental encounters through accepting a bequeathed and disused collection, to more ingrained partnerships: for example the India Museum was funded by the East India Company, allowing a concrete representation of its commercial and political influence in conquering and developing the colonies, whilst the famous hunter Frederick Courteney Selous worked as a key imperialist and (on his death) donated over 500 of his specimens (including 19 lions) to the British Museum.

There is no suggestion that a majority of museums were overtly complicit in the gathering and collecting of exotic animals during the hectic colonial period, though arguments about colonial treasures, including natural history material, still run hot. The exhibition of natural history pieces was, and remains, an important part of museum culture and society in general, even in the current entrenched environment.

As we have illustrated in this brief article, collecting natural history specimens predated both the colonial explosion and the commercial explosion of animal procurement and trade discussed in the 'provision' article elsewhere on the project website. The modern, post-colonial, politicised dialogue can easily obfuscate the multiplicity of expressions and trajectories of educational exhibition culture. Learned and learning members of the upper class, cascading through to society-organised sections of the enlightened middle-class, through philanthropically inclined gestures to all classes, were all putting together their own collections in whatever way possible, with the aim of learning. The museums, emerging from this movement, were happy to take and develop specimens and collections from wherever offered, however the period around and after colonial muscle-flexing was to become problematic.

Skeletons in cupboards?

Relationships between museums and menageries were simpler, donation being the usual practice such that it has not been called in to question (so far) in the current heavily reflective society. Expired specimens generally had no use for the menagerie operator, though there are occasions when dead animals have been exhibited when competition is rife to show something new and unusual and the exhibit arrives dead or expires in the run-up to being exhibited (Wombwell's dead elephant, expired en-route but still used to outshine his rival being the famous example). Museums getting supplied with specimens was almost an afterthought in the 'lifecycle' of the animal exhibit: the calculation of keeping and feeding the animal no longer a factor, however as an attraction the menagerie crowd wanted to see something alive and preferably curious, fierce or both.

Ritvo's "Animal Estate" looks at all aspects of 18th and 19th Century society's relationship to animals, through hunting, exhibiting and displaying. The work being situated in, and concerned with, the colonial dynamic, naturally jumps to various linkages and explanations. However, outside of this politicised tension, Ritvo studiously points out (through an article appealing for high-quality skeletons in the 1872 edition of Nature journal) that menagerie and zoo specimens were not often the preferred option for natural history collections, the curators preferring specimens killed in the wild, having had the opportunity to "exert their bones and muscles in a violent manner" such that "skeletons were fully developed". Whilst this points to the fact that menageries were thus happy to work with museums (and vice versa), and that menagerie specimens - brought through in captivity - were somewhat diminished in physical stature, Ritvo uses this statement to strengthen the impression that the zoologically oriented museums encouraged and fostered a mediated and unsteady allegiance with famous hunters and collectors, entrenching the contemporaneous links between the early Victorian museum and the extension of empire and colonial necessities. The article in Nature presents an interesting case for consideration. Whilst not quite an 'incitement to kill' it does openly show that the author making the request is happy to appeal to "English sportsmen" who would be "content with preserving the skin of his tiger or lion". The article goes on to list (in detail) the practicalities of preparing and packing a skeleton.

Where have all the animals gone?

The last 20 years have seen much change, reflection and criticism within museums. The basis of the museum, spread across various older definitions, becomes uncomfortable. Measures of the 'civilizing process', a historical record of 'high art', all of these are troublesome when the weight of progress and civilization comes to bear, disentangling itself from the positivity of enlightenment. Change within museums is a difficult subject. In some regards the museum itself is a marker of how we used to learn and understand things, as much a part of the civilizing process as the objects themselves. This suggests an abstract notion, perhaps not without some seriousness, that a museum (or at least some museums) should become a museum of itself.

Natural history collections often come high within this call for reassessment and apologetic frenzy. The civilizing process, through colonialism and then on through multinational expansion, has seen rich environments virtually stripped bare with flora and fauna pushed to the point of annihilation. As zoos reconsider themselves as conservation centres, taking in animals from endangered environments or offspring from the offspring of those existing in captivity from the days of the active pursuing of specimens, so too do museums begin to feel uncomfortable with exhibiting expansive collections of animal specimens. The more we ask about our environments the question "where have all the animals gone?", so too might we start asking the same question about the animals in the museums.

We hope to use the Sheffield Jungle Project as a starting point to develop some of these ideas around animal exhibition and the role of contemporary museums.

Thanks to Paul Richards and staff at Weston Park Museum for suppling images and for invaluable help linking the City Museum with travelling menageries