Museums at Night 2011: Night at the Museum, Powell-Cotton Museum, Birchington, May 14 2011
In a leafy old corner of a small Kent town, a 15th century country mansion and estate is full of taxidermy from the African savannah.
Perfectly preserved in a display of 5,000 animals, ranging from lions attacking buffalos to zebras and stags roaming through faraway forests, the Powell-Cotton Museum (formerly known as The Quex Museum) was established here in 1895 by Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, a controversial conservationist who spent decades hunting in Africa and Asia.
As the venue itself admits, most people accuse Powell-Cotton of being little more than a rich boy with a gun taking pot-shots at trophies. The best way to find out the truth, suggests Tessa Sheriff, is by looking at the accompanying collection of more than 2,000 letters written by the man to his family.
“It has been a real eye-opener,” she says, having read and archived the lot of them during three years at the museum.
“For Museums at Night I wanted to share the discoveries I have made about Percy, his attitudes, his character and adventures and the political map he crossed.”
Together with co-organiser Keith Dunmall, Sheriff has enlisted local drama stars the Birchington Guild of Players to plan a performance based on the letters, bringing the man behind the museum to life.
“We are looking at relighting the animal displays and punctuating the performance with a soundtrack of animal calls,” confides Dunmall, who put a band on in front of the exotic stuffed ecosystem last year.
“When Tessa brought the idea to me, I knew we would have an interesting time creating something exciting within the constraints of displays that are unchanged in some areas since they were put in place by Percy himself.
“When you walk into our Museum you see an incredible display of animals and African Cultural Artefacts, yet are still left wondering about the man who collected them.”