AHG Seminar - The Elephant in the Archive

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Join us for our December seminar with Rachel Jennings

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Much has been written about the lives of ‘celebrity’ elephants who lived in zoos or performed in circuses. These animals were usually given names and their fame often followed them beyond death. Several ended up in museum collections, where they became mascots.

The Powell-Cotton Museum’s bull African Savannah Elephant (Loxodonta africana) was not a celebrity in his lifetime. He was an anonymous free-living animal until Percy Powell-Cotton set his rifle sights on him in 1905, in northern Uganda. In death, the taxidermied elephant became the star of the Museum, and helped boost Powell-Cotton’s own claims to fame as a hunter. The elephant has been a favourite with visitors for over a century. However, his individual history – as both a living animal and a specimen – has never been investigated.

This paper will explore what can be recovered of the animal’s life, death, and afterlife from the Powell-Cotton Museum’s archives. I will examine how the elephant has been represented, and whether he really was – as claimed - “The Tallest Elephant yet brought out of Africa”.

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Organiser Animal History Group

Organiser of AHG Seminar - The Elephant in the Archive

The Animal History Group was founded in 2016 by the conveners, who were working on an eclectic range of topics within animal history. The history of animals is a broad-ranging field, which draws unexpected connections between different subjects and facilitates new understandings. Yet this very diversity can mean that researchers in different areas are unaware of each others’ work. We intend for the Animal History Group to continue to provide a forum for animal historians to meet and exchange knowledge, thus reaching new insights and making new links within the discipline.


Dr Elle Larsson completed her PhD, ‘Collecting, Curating and Construction of Zoological Knowledge: Walter Rothschild’s Zoological Enterprise, c.1878-1937’, at King’s College London in April 2020. Continuing with her research, Elle has since been working on several articles, thinking about future projects and devoting her time to her role on the Council for the Society for the History of Natural History. Elle is one of the co-founders of the Animal History Group.

Dr Felicity McWilliams completed her PhD at King’s College London in 2020, with a thesis entitled ‘Equine Machines: Horses and Tractors on British Farms c.1920-1970’. A museums professional prior to her doctoral project, Felicity was the curator of two new permanent galleries at the the Museum of English Rural Life in 2016. She is currently the Research Assistant for Science & Industry at Birmingham Museums Trust. Felicity is one of the co-founders of the Animal History Group.

Alison Skipper is a veterinary surgeon with a particular interest in the medical history of the pedigree dog. She is a Wellcome Trust funded PhD student at KCL, working on ‘Form, function and fashion: health, disease and pedigree dog breeding in the twentieth century’. Alison is one of the co-founders of the Animal History Group.

Nicole Gosling is a PhD student at University of Lincoln. She is currently working in collaboration with an inter-disciplinary team of scholars on the Wellcome trust-funded FIELD project (Farm-level Interventions in Endemic Livestock Disease). Her role is to examine the history of lame sheep, focusing on how definitions of lameness and ways of responding to it have changed since 1947, in relation to developments in veterinary science and practice, farming communities and education, agricultural economics and politics, and methods of breeding, keeping and relating to sheep.

Scott Hunter is a PhD student at King’s College London working in partnership with the National Horseracing Museum. His project, ‘Animal Celebrity and Mass Spectatorship in British Horseracing, c. 1918 – 2018’, examines the meaning of sporting celebrity for racehorses and the changing nature of public-racehorse relationships as new ways of viewing sport emerged throughout the 20th century.

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