Menagerie is a delightful book and rewards slow reading. It is beautifully written and beautifully illustrated. Readers of this journal will find much to value in its detailed and comprehensive coverage of fascinating stories of the English (and then British) encounter with and collection of exotic animals. The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with the acquisition of animals for the Royal Menagerie in the Tower of London (in the early thirteenth century) and culminating with the closure of the Tower Collection and the opening of London’s zoological gardens (in the early nineteenth). We learn of the variety of roles played by exotic animals: as pets, as status symbols, as diplomatic gifts (not always wanted), as spectacles for commercial exploitation, and as objects for scientific (and gastronomical) enquiry. Grigson’s examples are global. Although not explicitly stated, a central argument of the book seems to the present author to be that the history of the human encounter with exotic creatures is a crucial topic for study precisely because it is also a history of the ‘West’s’ discovery and documentation of the rest of the world. As such, this book is valuable to scholars from a variety of disciplines. Historians of leisure culture will find much of interest in Grigson’s careful exposition of the emergence of an outdoors entertainment industry. Economic historians, especially those interested in global trade, will find analysis of the role of the East India Company and Dutch traders in collecting and transporting foreign species fascinating. Those interested in élite conspicuous consumerism – especially the acquisition and exhibition of prestigious objects (living as well as inanimate) – will find much to appreciate here in accounts of royal and aristocratic collections often intended for public display as well private pleasure. Historians of science will profit from reading about the development of natural history as a scholarly and public interest. As Grigson is at pains to point out, the gathering of animals was not merely for kudos but born of genuine scientific curiosity. Menagerie spans 600 years. This is a strength of the book. The study of animal histories is a growth topic in both cultural history and the history of science. Most of these studies focus on the ‘modern’ – that is, they tend to situate research in the chronological period defined by, and following, the overlapping impacts of Enlightenment and imperialism. Although the weight of Grigson’s coverage is in the seventeenth and (especially) the eighteenth centuries, as commercial enterprises emerged to rival élite collections, her book profits immeasurably from its longer chronological scope. Occasionally, Europeans developed intimate knowledge of overseas animals before they had developed detailed knowledge of the territories from which the animals originated (examples include birdlife from the Amazon and primates from Africa): this is a key insight that would have rewarded further exploration. Grigson is a zoologist and this expertise is evident in her respectful accounts of animal encounters. She is also a former curator of museums at the Royal College of Surgeons. Again, her expertise shines through in the sheer weight of examples deployed, the meticulous attention to detail, and the impressive range of archives consulted. It is this strength of the book – its considerable detail (as well its careful pitch to the general interest reader) – that is also a limitation. The complexities of the topic are often underexplored. In terms of social history, I would have liked to learn more about the people who had daily experiences with the animals: the sailors, the keepers, the audiences. Indeed, in a book organized by monarchical reign and focused predominantly on élite collecting, the emergence and dominance of animal display for commercial gain – especially in exhibitions targeted to those of lower income – is often obscured. I would also have liked to read Grigson’s thoughts about some of the conceptual issues emerging from recent scholarship. The adjective ‘exotic’ is used almost uncritically – in this book, animals were ‘exotic’ because they were foreign and because they excited curiosity about their difference. Central to histories of science, however, is analysis of the how the definition of ‘exotic’ shifted over time reflecting how the metropole’s understanding of the periphery changed. The question of animal agency is to the fore of recent study, and I wondered what Grigson might have to say about the animal experience of its capture and internment. Grigson dismisses the idea that fascination with foreign animals can be interpreted as part of a wider fascination with empire; yet this is a claim that merits further investigation, especially given the prevalence of the dual exhibition of colonial human subjects alongside non-human captives. Yet these are suggestions for a broader analytical enquiry beyond the remit of this otherwise fine and compelling publication. Readers who are curious about the history of animal collection will be impressed by this book and learn much. Highly recommended. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
Journal of the History of Collections – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 6, 2017
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