A cabinet of curiosities

Curator Prof Tim Birkhead looking in to one of the display cases
Curator Prof Tim Birkhead looking in to one of the display cases
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In a secret Yorkshire museum, Stephen McClarence comes face to face with giant beetles and one 8ft monster.

By rights, a “secret museum” should stay secret, but I need to know where it is. “Next door down,” says the man at the porter’s lodge. “Look out for the penguin. You can’t miss it.”

And you can’t. An Emperor Penguin, standing proudly to attention in a glass case, looking chuffed to be stuffed. Brought back from Scott’s first Antarctic expedition and probably “obtained” (now there’s an interesting word) on April 8, 1902, along with 20 others.

It’s a taste of things to come at the University of Sheffield’s Alfred Denny Museum, known to generations of biology and zoology students but, until now, unknown to the general public.

For the first time in more than a century, it’s staging regular open days, giving people a chance to behold such natural wonders as the spear-nosed bat, the 
blue-tongued skink, the giant zonure, 
the short-headed flying phalanger, 
the vertical-swimming shrimp fish and Arthur the Half-Hedgehog. Also the reconstructed skull of an 8ft monster known as the Terror Bird, for reasons that are pretty obvious when you’ve seen its skull, bigger than many a family-sized turkey.

“It lived in South America about 60 million years ago,” says the museum’s curator, Professor Tim Birkhead. “A predator on mammals. Look at the beak.” And that big red and yellow eyeball? He added it to amuse visiting children.

We browse the glass cases in the museum, created in 1905 and named 
after the university’s first Professor of Zoology, remembered as “a tiny man with a lisp”.

They’re packed with animals, birds and insects, some stuffed, others reduced to their skeletons, like a zoo stripped back to the bone.

Tim points out a four-inch-long beetle (“When it flies it must sound like a helicopter”) and a display of sun spiders, feared for their poisonous jaws.

“I was once doing fieldwork in Botswana and some of them appeared. They’re incredibly fast. They tend to run around until they hit an upright, and if that upright happens to be your leg, they’re up it.”

Tim, a leading expert on bird behaviour (including their sex lives), is the sort of academic you always hope to meet: accessible, full of good stories, and, crucially, enthusiastic. I mention the stomach-churning stench of bird cliffs, such as Bempton near Bridlington. “I love that smell,” he beams.

He’s equally enthusiastic about Victorian-style “cabinet of curiosities” museums, full of exotic jumble, the sort of “museums of museums” of which the Alfred Denny is a kind of university-educated first cousin.

“Whitby Museum – wonderful,” he says. “People are awed by that sort of collection. And Leeds City Museum – I remember it as a boy; it was fabulous. There was this enormous tiger in a glass case that greeted you.”

The Leeds museum’s first curator was the entomologist Henry Denny, Alfred’s father, so, as Tim says, “Alfred had museum genes: it was in his blood.”

Two letters Henry Denny received from Charles Darwin (about body lice) are now part of the Sheffield museum’s collection, which was originally much bigger than today and spread over three floors, with a strategically sited giraffe to give it a sense of scale.

As a teaching museum, it aims to give students insights into animal anatomy: hence Arthur the Half-Hedgehog. He’s actually a hedgehog of two halves, one side fully-spined, the other reduced to a skeleton with an overcoat of skin.

The specimens were donated by zoos, menageries and collectors. Mothbally cabinets offer neat displays of pinned-down butterflies and fragile birds’ eggs, some gathered in Yorkshire. Tim lifts a mottled guillemot egg from a drawer. Faintly pencilled on it is “Bempton 1872”. He pulls out another drawer of eggs: “This looks like a lesser whitethroat.”

Sometimes collecting became frenzied. “When Great Auks looked as though they would become extinct, there was 
a stampede to collect their eggs and 
skin. People clubbed the last pair to death and they went into a Copenhagen museum.”

Other exhibits were bought from continental dealers. “There were companies – there was one in Prague - which specialised in providing ‘educational displays’. There was no question of it being illegal; you just shot stuff. I suspect birds of paradise like ours were shot to order in New Guinea and shipped over in vast quantities.”

Occasionally, the exhibits were home-grown. Tim discovered that one of his predecessors reared armadillos in his back garden, not a common hobby in suburban Sheffield.

All this was “secret” until last Autumn’s Festival of the Mind 
in Sheffield, which aimed to engage the university and the city more closely with each other. Professor 
Vanessa Toulmin, director of the university-based National Fairground Archive and the festival’s driving force, suggested opening the museum to the public. It was a huge success; some 2,000 people came over two weekends, so it’s now opening on the first Saturday of every month. The hope of the open days, and related courses, is that, in a digital age, it will show people the real thing and inspire children to take up science in the way that similar displays and now-forbidden activities inspired Tim as a child.

“You ask naturalists of my generation what got them interested and a lot will say it was through egg-collecting,” he says.

“If you were to get rid of this stuff you’d never replace it. It’s not dumbed-down – which seems to be pervading everything these days.”

What else is there to see? Sea urchins and starfish; botanical lantern slides of abstract artistry; a couple of lion skulls, jaws hinged, in a drawer (compare with the jaws of a tiger shark); a plaster cast of the egg of an elephant bird, as big as medicine ball (“David Attenborough has a complete egg”); a stuffed kiwi with one of its eggs, practically half its size; an aardvark and a pangolin.

Seahorses and flamingos, pelicans and bush babies and macabre, faintly disturbing, things: the ghostly embryo of a green sea turtle; a posse of tiny opossum embryos, snuggling up to each other; a chameleon drained of colour by time and formaldehyde; a silent humming bird; a stick insect from Sumatra, a leaf insect and a praying mantis.

A spectral bat raises its wings like Count Dracula raising his cloak, a pair of tiny fossilized pterodactyls are caught in a delicate pas-de-deux, and there’s a haddock, pure and simple, and a 4ft long half-porpoise.

“It turned up in Sheffield fish market and Oskrs Lusis, my predecessor as curator, went down and bought it and brought it back on the bus.”

It survived the journey, reassuringly fit for porpoise.

Free tours, on the first Saturday 
of the month, must be booked in 
advance, preferably online at 
r.myers@sheffield.ac.uk, 
or ring Rachel Myers on 0114 
222 9308.