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Pets in Museums

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

Art galleries and museums normally feature the usual, traditional objects. But quite a few are also the home of pets, either stuffed or in skeletal state. Spooky? Quirky!

The items we are thinking of are in addition to the dead creatures found in natural history museums, mummified animals in ancient Egyptian galleries, or the creepy and tasteless display of dead animals by certain contemporary artists (think of Damien Hirst). Many other some museums offer unexpected encounters with pets from the past (we might call them R.I.P. pets), whose stories are often personal and touching.

1. Everybody’s heard of Florence Nightingale (not the coronavirus hospital at the ExCel, the nurse who reformed nursing), but did you know she used to go everywhere with a pet owl in her pocket?

While walking by the Parthenon in Athens in 1850, Florence Nightingale saw a little ball of fluff being tormented by a group of children. An owlet which had fallen from its nest, it was going to be tortured to death. Florence rescued the baby owl, fed it and named it Athena. She left Greece with the owlet and her other pets, a cicada called Plato (who inhabited a mustard pot and was later eaten by Athena, consolidating two pets in one), and two tortoises, Mr and Mrs Hill. Florence trained the owlet to perch on her finger to receive its meals and to bow and curtsy. The owl travelled everywhere, tucked safely in Florence Nightingale’s apron pocket. In Florence’s home, Athena loved to enjoy the warmth of the fire, perched on an armchair, and to investigate Florence’s library shelves. Above all, she was infamous for pecking fiercely at visitors with her impressive beak.

In the haste and confusion of Florence’s departure to the Crimea, in 1855, Athena was put into the attic, thought to be a safe place full of mice. Too domesticated to hunt by herself, and devastated by loneliness, Athena sadly died. Heartbroken, Florence delayed her trip by two days, to arrange for the services of a taxidermist. She kept the stuffed pet in the family home for the rest of her days.

In the Florence Nightingale Museum, you can also bump into Jimmy the Tortoise, a 19th-century shell of a soldier’s pet from a hospital in Scutari. Florence Nightingale, visionary in so many ways, believed animals were a therapeutic benefit for patients.

2. Sir John Soane’s Museum is well worth a visit for its eccentric collection, which will amuse and amaze the most obstinate eyes. The basement is a satirical exercise in faux Gothic, a set of rooms named the Monk’s Parlour and haunted by Padre Giovanni, a fictional character invented by Soane, who loved to offer tea to his visitors in this gloomy, macabre atmosphere. The yard is home to the Monk’s grave. Is there an occupant inside? Yes, the remains of Mrs Soane’s pet dog, called Fanny!

Fanny, a favourite dog, by James Ward

By that time the word already meant vulva, thanks to the erotic novel Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1748). Did the Soanes name their bitch Fanny as a sexual pun? 'Bitch' was in use as a slang word since the 15th century, suggesting high sexual desire in a woman, comparable to a dog in heat. In Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), the word is a stronger insult than ‘whore’!

Did the Soanes have a pussy, too? By the 17th century that word referred specifically to female genitalia. Anyway, let’s look at the painting of Mrs Soane with her bitch Fanny on her lap with these etymologies in mind …

Posthumous portrait of Eliza Soane with her pet dog Fanny on her lap, by John Jackson, 1831

Fanny was a typical small black and tan Manchester Terrier with fine limbs and without the cropped ears that were fashionable in the early 19th century. She was a most loved and pampered pet and holidayed everywhere with her mistress. The dog lived to the considerable age of 18, outliving Eliza Soane by five years. She died on Christmas Day 1820 and was buried in the grandiose gothic tomb with the inscription ‘Alas Poor Fanny’, a reference to Hamlet and a final joke (Soane was a fan of Shakespeare).

Sir John Soane’s Museum contains other oddities, such as two mummified cats and a dried rat which he found inside the walls of buildings being demolished for his architectural projects. It was a common practice in the past to inter cats in walls, a superstitious charm to frighten off vermin or to ward away bad luck. Yuck! Soane had a particular taste for all things macabre, which may explain why they are displayed outside his bedroom.

3. The Museum of London Docklands also has on display a mummified cat, this time along with his dinner. They were found in the 1890s behind some bottles in the London docks. Cats were allowed to run freely around the warehouses to control vermin. Some of these working cats were even on the payroll: the Post Office paid them one shilling a week to keep down the rodent population.

4. Fulham Palace, the former residence of the Bishop of London, has been the home of several archaeological digs in recent years, with the discoveries displayed in its newly-renovated museum. In 2017, the archaeologists there found the skeleton of a very large dog. Analysis has shown that it was a male Mastiff which suffered very badly from arthritis, suggesting it died of old age. The skeleton dates from the 19th century, and community archaeologist Alexis Haslam speculates tha the Mastiff belonged to Bishop Archibald Campbell Tait, who owned a Mastiff named ‘Captain’, referred to by the Bishop’s daughter as ‘The Grand Old Captain’. It’s now one of the star items in Fulham Palace’s collection.

If you look carefully, you can also see a mummified rat in one of the neighbouring cabinets as well as the bones of the earliest devoured turkey in London! In the 2017 excavation, Fulham Palace unearthed a large ditch backfilled in early Tudor times. In it were a large quantity of bones from animals that would have been slaughtered onsite for the Palace kitchen.

If you look carefully, you can also see a mummified rat in one of the neighbouring cabinets as well as the bones of the earliest devoured turkey in London! In the 2017 excavation, Fulham Palace found a large ditch backfilled between 1480 and 1550, containing a large quantity of animal bones (slaughtered on site for the Palace kitchen) which gives a great insight into the Tudor diet.

5. At the National Army Museum, who do you think you’re going to bump into? None other than Marengo, Napoleon’s favourite horse.

Marengo, a small Arab horse with a light grey coat, was purchased by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799 and named after the battle of Marengo in 1800 (a French victory, by the way, did you really think Napoleon would name it 'Trafalgar'?).

Ridden by the Emperor in many of his campaigns, the horse was captured on the battlefield of Waterloo in 1815 and was taken to England while Napoleon was sent into exile. Marengo died in 1831, and its skeleton is now preserved and displayed at the National Army Museum in London.

6. At the National Railway Museum in York, you’ll meet Laddie, a stuffed Airedale Terrier, who used to collect money for the Southern Railway Servants Orphanage. Born in 1948, Laddie worked at Waterloo Station for seven years before retiring in 1956, when he went to live at the Southern Railway Home for Old People at Woking. After his death, he was stuffed but continued to raise money on Platform 8 at Wimbledon until 1990. He replaced Wimbledon Nell who was moved to the now defunct Museum of British Transport at Clapham. (Where is Wimbledon Nell now? What happens to the collections when a museum closes down?).

7. The spookiest encounter of all is found in Salisbury Cathedral Library, which is home to the remains of no less than three mice!

One squashed mouse survives nearly intact inside an old book (books are clearly great for embalming), while the other two left a mark and some fur behind.

Pets? Probably not. A handwritten inscription says, 'the first mouse we killed was August the 2nd'.

The librarian told me in great confidence that a group of schoolboys had chased and squashed the mice sometime in the 19th century. The moral of the tail, sorry, tale? Be careful when you research old books, you never know what you may come across.

Please tweet us @cradlesnlabels if you know other examples of dead pets displayed in galleries around the world. We would love to extend our list!

Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels

PS: All museums are currently struggling with the Covid-19 crisis, and small museums are particularly at risk of closing. Please visit their websites to find out how you can help them., and read our blogpost, The Plight of Our Cherished Museums.

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