See this: The Powell-Cotton Museum in Birchington, Kent

powell cottom museum 02As the long summer holidays approach, can we recommend anyone with small boys, a love of taxidermy and/or Africa plans a trip to the Powell-Cotton Museum in Birchington? It’s a gem.

The current thinking is that Margate (which is three miles down the road from Birchington) is the cool new place to visit, what with the Turner Contemporary gallery and all, but in our opinion it’s not. The Powell-Cotton museum is the best kept secret in the museum world and will keep you and your children entertained for hours.

Middleagedad and I discovered it accidentally on our way back from the Margate Turner and it made us wish our three sons were small again. And that doesn’t happen very often.

In a nutshell, Major PHG Powell-Cotton shot or bought a great deal of Africa during his lifetime (1866-1940) and sent it back to his home in Birchington,  Kent, where he ended up with so many animals, guns, bugs, jewels, pots, textiles and such like that he built extensions to his house to accommodate it all. Including some extraordinary, life-size dioramas (stage sets) of African animals, such as the one above with giraffes, there’s even a full size elephant. it’s all set out beautifully with handwritten labels and a slight old-school feel to the place. It (almost) puts the Natural History Museum in the shade…..

powell cotton museum 03Now of course it horrifies us to hear of so much shooting but in Powell-Cotton’s time things were different and however we now feel about such slaughter, Powell-Cotton was so meticulous in his recording of detail and preservation of the animals he shot that the museum gets scientists from across the globe using it as a major resource about Africa’s animals. They even extract the DNA from the carefully preserved hides. Records show he paid a good price for everything he purchased and was nice to his workers and he must have adored Africa as he spent his whole life on a permanent expedition and was hardly at home for longer than six months.

His plucky wife and daughters went with him, pretty unusual for the time and both daughters continued the scientific work after their father died, travelling alone into remote parts of Angola.

powell cotton museum 07The size and scale of the dioramas is amazing, if you love taxidermy this is your sort of place. The African plains full of animals and the monkey forest were enough to make me gape, but the lion attacking buffalo- complete with dripping blood- was truly terrifying. Powell-Cotton (not short of a bob or two) had all the taxidermy done by the London firm Rowland Ward, considered the best company in the world at it, with animals such as the elephant being shipped down to Birchington by train in an open carriage, due to their size and often with just a dust sheet thrown over them. It must have been quite a sight in 1909, when elephant sightings anywhere were pretty rare…

powell cottom museum 01It’s a brilliant place for children, speaking from experience I know my boys would have loved everything if we had been when they were young; the expedition stories, the snakes and monkey foetus in formaldehyde, the huge gun and dagger collections and the cases full of of giant, scary, African bugs….I have little experience of girls and how they feel about this Boy’s Own adventure stuff, but I’m guessing most would love it too….

powell cotton museum 08There’s also a collection of musical instruments, some which can be played and lots of jewellery and textiles, don’t you love the patchwork horse quilt below?

powell cotton museum 09

powell cotton museum 10The safari suit Powell-Cotton wore when he was attacked by a lion is on show, with clawed rips clearly visible….

powell cotton museum 05There’s a great cafe, beautiful gardens and the sea close by, so really everything for a great day out, specially if combined with a trip tp the Margate Turner Gallery. If you are in the area, don’t miss it.

The Powell-Cotton Museum details can be found on the website

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  • Theresa Greenoge says:

    I would pack up my little guy tomorrow and go to that museum if it were in our city. I felt like I was there in the past as well as the present. It sounds like a wonderful and magical place for children and adults.

  • sarah says:

    If we are bigging-up Kent, can I put in a word for ‘The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’.
    Miniature steam trains you can ride on. Fabulous! And it will take you to trendy Dungenness and Derek Jarmans house and garden.

  • Amanda says:

    Honestly Theresa, it’s a fabulous place to visit. A

  • Amanda says:

    Sarah, I have been on the railway…it too, is fabulous! A

  • Sarah says:

    No why didn’t you tell me you were in Kent? I grew up in Margate then Birchington before escaping to the London badlands and now a Kentish maid once more just west of Whitstable! Margate is unrecognisable from my days of rollerskating along the seafront and I am so pleased that down from Londoners are once again recognising the beauty of the town. There is still such a long way to go before it becomes the Brighton or Bournemouth of Kent but an increase in visitors will help the renaissance. The Powell Cotton is definitely worth a visit as is the Hornimann in Forest Hill – another wealthy young man that toured Africa in the 19th century.

    Let me know the next time you swing this way although I spend far too much time working in London for my liking!

  • Sue says:

    I think I need to take the younger two here. Immediately.They loved that nutty museum in Florence with all the animals and stuff too.(La Speculo).And then on to the R,H & D Railway.

  • Amanda says:

    Sarah, toured round earlier this month, loved the long cycle ride from Birchington to some castle on the hill…lovely place although agree on Margate. Am heading to Dungeness for our family holiday later in the year and of course have our rented cherry tree to pick in early August! Love Kent! Sue, what nutty museum in Florence? ‘heads to google’ A

  • Sue says:

    That would be La Specola.Sorry can’t spell…

  • Sarah says:

    Did you head west? Probably Reculver towers – about 4 miles west of Birch. Lots of restaurants around Folkestone to try when you are in Dungeness. Rocksalt has a good write up although I have never been. Also, try to see Lympne Castle, Thomas Beckett lived there, I have mixed feelings about the place as I married there but now divorced. You should also see Derek Jarman’s garden.

    If you want some dinner company then let me know!

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