By Melissa Milgrom
Athletic toads? Rats gambling in a dollhouse of decadence? How about bespectacled gentlemen lobsters?
No, this isn’t Wes Anderson’s sequel to Fantastic Mr. Fox, but the work of English Victorian taxidermist Mr. Walter Potter. Potter was famous for his over-the-top anthropomorphic scenes—kittens at the tea table; guinea pigs playing cricket—which were displayed in his Museum of Curiosities from 1861 until 2003 when his wondrous collection was sold in a contentious auction, which I attended in Cornwall.
One of England’s oldest private museums, Potter’s belonged to the era of the amateur nature lover when museums were spirited jumbles, not the sober typologies they would become post-Darwin. Potter’s verged on the freakish: random, cluttered, crammed to the rafters with curios and oddities, weird accumulations and creatures that were stuffed, pickled, dissected, and deformed. And I was lucky, though it filled me with sadness, to wander through Potter’s crooked corridors on its very last day.
It’s remarkable—attempts to save it by Damien Hirst and others failed— that Potters managed to evade the hammer this long; nearly every museum of its kind—Peale’s in Philadelphia; Scudder’s in New York, and London’s Museum of Stuffed Animals—had long shut down. Potter’s hung on for 147 years. And that’s not surprising given Potter’s staggering attention to detail. In “The Rabbits’ Village School,” for example, forty-eight newborn rabbits, each with its own writing slate, sit in a one-room schoolhouse, knitting socks, learning about Westminster Bridge, and solving math equations. Potter carved the inkwells out of chalk.