Free enamel pin when you buy any two Atlas Obscura products. Shop now.

Birchington-on-Sea, England

Powell-Cotton Dioramas

An English explorer's vast natural history collection has the first realistic dioramas of animals staged in their natural habitats. 

The Powell-Cotton Museum started out as a single room, built on the grounds of explorer and conservationist Percy Powell-Cotton’s Birchington-on-Sea estate in 1896 to house the collection of natural history specimens gathered on his trips to India and Tibet. It grew to include over 16,000 artworks, zoological specimens, and ethnographic objects that he and his family collected on their travels. But it’s the dioramas at the museum that are truly notable. These artfully arranged, lifelike displays made Powell-Cotton a pioneer in the field of taxidermy.

Powell-Cotton created his dioramas to show the animals in surrounding that echoed their natural habitats. At a time when many natural history displays were just mounted animal heads, Powell-Cotton recognized the scientific and educational benefits that exhibiting whole animals could have. He posed the animals in ways to show their facial expressions, body movements, and anatomy. In some instances, the animals’ veins and blood vessels are visible.

Although he was an avid hunter, Powell-Cotton’s interests were far more varied than that. He took an interest in helping to catalog many of the animals he came in contact with, taking field notes and photographs. He also took an interest in the people he met along the way, collecting objects and stories that spoke to their lives, experiences, and cultures.

Between the years 1887 and 1939, he traveled throughout Africa and Asia 28 times to collect zoological specimens. In the late 19th and early 20th-century, dioramas were an innovative way to display wildlife, and Powell-Cotton’s were certainly no exception.

His collection is now displayed in eight galleries, each representing a different aspect of Powell-Cotton’s travels, from Chinese Imperial porcelain to his remarkable dioramas. In Gallery 2, a diorama representing the Himalayas at dawn is considered the oldest untouched diorama of its type in any museum. There are also over 30 films Powell-Cotton and his daughters made of their travels to Sudan, Somalia, and Angola.

Today, the museum is also active in the field of conservation, working to help protect animals threatened by over-hunting and habitat loss. Artifacts from the museum have helped researchers find solutions for the declining black rhino population and help conserve primate habitats.