Natural History Exhibits – the dark side of museums?

First Impressions

Last week I visited Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow. I wasn’t there to see anything in particular, just a general visit. Once the doors opened, I grabbed a floor plan, sat down with a coffee and organised my day. I was happy wandering around until I entered the hall with the natural history exhibits; with lots of animal skins.

Sitting down in the hall, I was overwhelmed with emotions and I just knew I couldn’t take any photographs. Faced with these magnificent creatures and thinking about the practices that brought them to the museum, I felt sad and disgusted. Victorian explorers, collectors, hunters capturing them as trophies to be shown off to impress their friends. Our history is a strange place and coming to terms with the actions of our ancestors can be hard to accept.

For me, thinking about how these animals were trapped, collected and treated to be brought to the UK and put on display in Glasgow, was distressing. Particularly, seeing babies/young animals on display – chicks in a nest and a young elephant – for me just seemed wrong.

Exploring the reality

While at the museum, I knew I wanted to write about my reaction to the natural history displays. To write a good post, I knew I would have to research to have a better understanding of how the museum built up its collection.

Victorian attitudes to museums

Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum was established in the early part of the 20th Century after the funds for the magnificent building were raised through the profits from the 1901 Empire Exhibition held in Kelvingrove Park. At the time it was the biggest museum in the UK. The museum is owned by the people of Glasgow and entrance into all of the city’s museums is free.

The wealthy classes of Victorian society had a desire to improve the people of their cities. They wished to create an encyclopedia of knowledge through the real objects they collected and exhibited. Many of the items from the various empire exhibitions held in Glasgow were bought by the city. Museums were also a means for Victorians to display their cultural worth. (Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums); 2019).

Today’s approach

Once home, I read some of the literature and the the guidebook published by Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums), (2019) and understood the more responsible approach being adopted today to obtain animal skins etc to display. The museum has engaged with the local population to understand what they want the museum to showcase. They were told that we want the museum to tell stories, to put artefacts and exhibits in context, so this is what they’ve tried to do across the whole museum. They want to be a focus on education as well as entertainment. There are Discovery Centres where we can learn more, through our own research – magnifying insects, see bees in action (Kelvingrove have their own bee hives) and we can examine their records. There is so much to see in the museum that its not possible to do it credit in a single day. Next time I visit, I will need to ask if the honey on sale is from their own bees.

The exhibits in the Natural History Section are broken down into different themes, including exitinct and at risk animals. Today’s focus is much more on conservation. We can learn why creatures became extinct and understand what we can do to protect endangered species today.

I just realised my photo of the spitfire also caught some animals below.

Image shows a Spitfire suspended from the ceiling. Below the spitfire are animal exhibits for the Natural History Display. Includes an elephant and calf, a tiger and other animals. People are wandering around the hall
Natural History animal exhibits, with Spitfire overhead

As for the collections themselves. I was surprised to find that many of the creatures on display are fairly recent and are obtained when animals in zoos etc die. Additionally, not all are “real” skins etc. Some are re-creations, particularly with extinct animals, but there is also a collection of marine animals made in glass from the early 1800s. What I did like, from my reading, is the museum explains the provenance of all its exhibits and none of the animals were caught purely to be used as exhibits.

Final words

Discovering that the museum is taking a responsible approach to telling the natural history stories of many different species, and sharing a conservation message is encouraging. That a visit to the museum can be educational and interactive hopefully means a place for museums in our future. Now I understand the provenance of the skins etc too, I will be happy to return, maybe even taking photographs next time.

I’m glad to see the museum engaging with the community to ensure it remains relevant. I have posted an overivew of my visit to the museum on my personal blog, and I’d love you to hop over and have a look.

While at the museum I also saw some information about how they’re tackling the legacy of Glasgow’s involvement in colonies and the slave trade. I will be posting about this next week, so I hope you’ll come back. If you haven’t already done so, I’d really encourage you to sign up to the Wise & Shine blog.


Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums), 2019, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum: A Souvenir Guide, Philip Wilson Publishers, London

28 thoughts on “Natural History Exhibits – the dark side of museums?

  1. I understand your feelings upon entering the museum! I recently had the chance to tour a zoology research museum at a university in Wisconsin. There was the bone room, the skin room (think animals in drawers), the taxidermy room, and the animals in jars room. Like the museum in Glasgow, many of the animals came from zoos, but many were collected on research expeditions. My issue wasn’t so much how the animals were collected – rather the impact of all those dead beings in one place. The animals in jars especially got to me. I think it’s a good place to set a horror story!

    1. Sounds like the Surgeon’s Hall museum in Edinburgh. But there all the specimens, some in jars, and some pieces of skin, we’re all human. It wasprwtty overwhelming

  2. Thank you for walking us through your feelings about your museum experience. I was with you all the way, and grateful to read toward the end that things were not as they first appeared, and that the “provenance of all its exhibits and none of the animals were caught purely to be used as exhibits”. What a blessed relief to know!

    1. I agree Julia. I’m glad I did some reading and now I look forward to going back to see and appreciate the beauty of these beasts. Maybe I’ll have a better understanding of what we can do to protect them

  3. Killing for the sake of entertainment or simply for killing has always been an issue for me. I am glad that you took the time to learn about the displays opposed to making assumptions based your preconceptions.

    1. Thanks Danny. I’m glad that I discovered that the Museums appear to be taking responsible steps

    1. I think it was not so bad as it was just one section of the museum, rather than just being natural history

  4. From your readings and your article it seems that nowadays museums are becoming more responsible and want to educate instead of only exhibit. Interesting post, Brenda!

    1. I guess they know public opinion is changing. They have to reflect society to stay relevant

  5. It must be challenging to bridge attitudes of different eras in a natural history museum. Interesting post, Brenda. <3

    My late husband and I once walked out of a fancy Washington, DC restaurant when we saw that the taxidermist's art was the main decoration.

  6. I have the same concerns when visiting places like this but never took the time to find out how the collections were obtained. At least in your case, things were not as bad as they seemed- hopefully that’s true for other, similar museums as well. Interesting post!

  7. I love how you didn’t just stop at your initial reaction, but dug into the research for a better understanding of the pieces. Thank you for the informative post! πŸ’žπŸ’žπŸ’ž

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