From the beginning of this project crate 20 has always been known as our ‘textile crate’, as it mostly contains rugs and wall hangings. However, when we actually opened it four weeks ago we were surprised to find a beautifully hand painted and unusual wall hanging which was made from elephant skin.
Painted in a Japanosiery style which became popular in Britain during the 1860’s (see Dayna’s blog ’https://shinealightproject.wordpress.com/2013/05/28/chinoiserie/‘ for more info), the skin features oriental flowers and birds* that are intricately painted in gold, brown, green and yellow.
While a lot of work and care went into its design (making it fascinating to look at), this object highlights the sometimes controversial issue of the display of animal specimens and remains.
While some people may be horrified that an elephant skin was hand painted and then used as a wall hanging, in times gone by animals that had been hunted were frequently displayed in wealthier homes (and then later museums). This not only showed hunting skills, but also taught people about the world and wildlife around them. These days we are taught to interact with the world around us, leaving nature as undisturbed as possible. However, museums are still left with animal specimens that were donated years previously. With this in mind museums try to display such objects in a sensitive and careful manner taking in to consideration both the object itself, as well as the visitors who will come to see it.
Sadly, while we do not know what species the elephant is or where it from, from the object record we do know that it was thought to have been hung in the ‘Great exhibition’ of 1851.
The ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’ was organised by Prince Albert and other members of the ‘Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’ (or ‘Royal Society of the Arts’ as it is known today). The ‘Great Exhibition’, as it was more commonly known, was influenced by the French ‘Industrial Expostisition’ of 1844.
The ‘Great Exhibition’ displayed items from over 15, 000 contributors and was seen as a good opportunity to showcase British technology in an international setting. It was held in the purpose-built ‘Crystal Palace’ in Hyde Park and some 100,000 objects were displayed, half of which belonged to Britain or its Empire.
Notable visitors to the exhibition included Charles Darwin, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Lewis Carroll. The ‘Great Exhibition’ was immensely popular and provided low priced tickets (1 shilling) allowing the general public to attend.
After its display at the ‘Great Exhibition’, the wall hanging is thought to have been removed to Rollesby Hal, near Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. The original Rollesby Hall was built in 1618 by Leonard Maples. It passed to the Ensor Family in 1824 who then extended and modified it. Sadly it was demolished in 1949 (for picture please see http://www.dicamillocompanion.com/houses_detail.asp?ID=2828#images) and a new hall built on the site. The wall hanging was donated to Norfolk Museum Service in 1975 and will hopefully be accessible at our Superstore when it opens next year.
As John Donne the poet (1572-1631) once said ‘Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing’. However, in this instance it is also an incredibly unusual thing.
*(We are working with our Natural History Department to be able to identify what all of these birds and flowers are, so please check back for updates!)