Horniman Walrus (photograph by IanVisits/Flickr user)
When Victorian taxidermists received a strange creature with heavy folds of grooved skin, they thought all those wrinkles needed to be smoothed out. And so the Horniman Museum’s walrus, as with so many taxidermy works made by those who hadn’t yet glimpsed the dead animal in its living state, became its own sort of walrus — heavily overstuffed until he seems about to burst, and not a wrinkle over his taut skin.
Walrus at center in the Horniman Natural History Gallery (photograph by Nick Richards)
For over a century, the hefty walrus has proudly been the centerpiece of the Horniman Museum in London, perched on a fake iceberg since the 1980s in the Natural History Gallery after being presented for decades in a custom glass case. Yet this May he went on his first journey since traveling across the Atlantic after he was hunted in the Hudson Bay of Canada, spending time at the Turner Contemporary in Margate as the showpiece of the Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing exhibition. This past week he returned with fanfare to his home museum, replacing the slender giraffe sculpture by Laura Ford which had taken his place with much more delicacy and lightness in its form.
“He’s very memorable — visitors from years ago recall seeing him,” Alison McKay of the Horniman Museum explained to Atlas Obscura. “Until his trip to Margate, he had moved no more than 25 feet in over 100 years. The earliest record we have of him is a illustration in the Penny Illustrated News 15th May 1886 in an article about the ‘Canada’ Section of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in South Kensington.”
Penny Illustrated News 15th May 1886, with the Walrus at left (courtesy Horniman Museum)
The walrus first arrived in England with the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition as part of a display of Canadian wildlife, a majestic menagerie of moose, mountain goats, grizzly bears, and other northern creatures. Soon, though, it was the rotund walrus that caught the eye of Frederick Horniman, a tea trader with eccentric tastes in collecting the wonders he saw on his world travels, from musical instruments to natural specimens. Horniman was such an avid collector that his home was basically already a cluttered museum, so the transition to a public institution was a logical step. And — as an inadvertent metaphor — what better to reflect an inflated personal collection-turned-museum than an equally ballooned walrus?
Walrus, standing proud (photograph by Tom Natt)
The Horniman Museum opened in 1902, with the walrus a visitor favorite from the start. Now he serves as something of a mascot, even tweeting from his own account. His trip to the seaside town of Margate wasn’t just an adventure for the walrus, but for those conservators and others involved in sending a one ton animal on holiday. Here’s a video from the Horniman Museum on the traveling taxidermy:
HORNIMAN MUSEUM AND GARDENS, London, England