There are certain places in Brighton that will immediately incite a strong reaction when referred to. The Booth Museum is definitely one of those places.
The museum was founded in 1874 by Edward Booth, a Victorian gentleman born to a father of independent means. Built in the grounds of the Booth family home, Bleak House, the museum was designed to display a vast collection of taxidermy British birds. Being an enthusiastic gunner, and having been taught taxidermy as a young man, Edward Booth shot and collected the specimens himself. The museum and its contents were finally bequeathed to the Brighton Corporation, and consequently remain at the original site, on Dyke Road, to this day.
Walking into the museum space today, feels like stepping back in time to a Victorian era dominated by cabinets of curiosity. Glass cases run along the walls, filled with faux natural scenes which are brought to life, rather ironically, by taxidermy birds. Other stuffed animals, and mounted skulls, watch over these strange encased worlds. And as one ventures further into this Wunderkammer, a wealth of natural objects are revealed – skeletons, insects, fossils, crystals and curiosities of the living world, preserved in yellowing solutions. There is an overwhelming sense of ‘preservation’ throughout the whole building – not only are living things suspended in time, but also the museum itself.
A colleague once described her children’s shifting reactions to the museum, in a manner that seemed to sum up my own ambiguous response to the space. She explained how they loved the museum at a young age, because it gave them the opportunity to appreciate natural objects in a way that would otherwise be impossible. As older children, however, they became aware of the life that had been sacrificed in order for the collection to exist. Finally, as young adults, they became engrossed by the space itself, and how it existed as an unchanging microcosm.
The Booth Museum is a truly unusual maximal space. Its vast collection of enshrined life is enthralling to behold, and its status as an unchangeable space offers a rare means of connecting with a world that has long since past.