January 19, 2021, by lzzeb

Placement joys: the Parkyns Collection

A blog by Matthew Carter, a PhD History student at the University of Nottingham, during a part-time, M4C-funded placement with the Nottingham Museums and Galleries Service in 2020. Matthew’s supervisors are Charles Watkins, Ross Balzaretti and Onni Gust.

The newly-renovated bird room at Wollaton Hall includes some fascinating specimens from the Parkyns Collection, which consists, in its entirety, of over two hundred specimens of taxidermy birds and a small number of mammals and ethnographic items. These were all collected by the Nottinghamshire-born explorer, Mansfield Parkyns, during his travels in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) and Sudan in the 1840s and were given to the museum by his descendants around 1927.

By delving into the story of the Parkyns Collection, these specimens gain historical significance in addition to their zoological and scientific value. To this end, Parkyns’ two-volume account of his travels, Life in Abyssinia, published by John Murray in 1853, usefully documents his nineteenth-century experiences of collecting these specimens and objects and transporting them back to Britain.

Parkyns: the traveller and collector

Portrait of Mansfield Parkyns in Albanian dress

In Life in Abyssinia, Parkyns presents himself strictly as an amateur naturalist, explaining that ‘anything ending in ‘ology’ has too scientific a sound for my unpretending pen’. Consequently, in order to help him to obtain his collection, Parkyns employed a Sudanese man called Said, who not only acted as his constant companion during his travels but also, through his knowledge of preparing bird skins, proved invaluable for the preservation of Parkyns’ specimens. During his time in Abyssinia, Parkyns clearly integrated himself into local life, dressing like the indigenous people and marrying an Abyssinian woman with whom he had a son.

Parkyns presented his travels in Abyssinia as a contribution to European scientific and geographical knowledge and provided vivid descriptions of largely unexplored territories with an abundance of wildlife. His interest in collecting specimens was also deeply intertwined with his love of hunting and his travel narrative contains many accounts of his hunting exploits, which we would not condone today. Parkyns actively placed himself within a heroic narrative of one man’s survival in a beautiful, but dangerous, wilderness and his specimens reflect his many encounters with animals in this Eden-like landscape.

Transportation problems

Many of the specimens collected by Parkyns were stolen, damaged or lost during their transportation to Britain. Parkyns explained that his ‘great collection’ of over 1,200 birds was ransacked during its four-year stay in a customs house during his return from Abyssinia. His second collection, due to some confusion, remained in Aden for four years with catastrophic outcomes; some specimens were destroyed by rats and others were ruined due to the hot climate. Another case also failed to reach England. Parkyns was very disappointed about his lost specimens, which included leopards, monkeys and many beautiful birds but not a single lion, as he never killed one during his whole stay in Abyssinia.

Learning from his failures, Parkyns accompanied his third collection to Britain, which arrived safely and in good condition because he ‘never left it a moment till it was safely housed’. Indeed, the majority of the Parkyns specimens we have today were sourced from this third consignment.

And finally…

Many of Parkyns’ successfully-transported specimens were prepared and mounted by Leadbeater and Son, London, who exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

On his return, Parkyns’ bird collection was shared with prominent ornithologists and his specimens of the shoebill, which he referred to as the ‘king stork’, were officially described and named Balaeniceps rex by the ornithologist, John Gould.

In 1844, Parkyns spent some time in Khartoum with a fellow traveller, Francis Galton, the half-cousin of Charles Darwin, and, through this connection, Darwin corresponded with Parkyns to settle a matter regarding pigeon domestication in Abyssinia, as he considered Parkyns to be an expert in this area.


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