Already something of a mecca for museum-lovers, Dorchester now has another one thanks to the restless curiosity of local entrepreneur Stephen Ware.
Having collected film and sci-fi memorabilia since the age of eleven, last year he decided to sell it all and invest the proceeds in a new collection… of skeletons and taxidermy. In October he opened the Bones Museum, the county town’s newest attraction, in Trinity Street. Billed as a ‘mini museum of osteology’ it is nothing if not quirky – where else could you find a cast skeleton of a dodo, a sabre toothed tiger and what can only be described as a centaur?
‘The film and sci-fi memorabilia was taking over to the extent I had rooms I couldn’t get into any more,’ says Stephen, MD of local contract cleaning company Voyager Cleaning. ‘I’d had years of fun out of collecting it, but ultimately I was the only person who saw it and I wanted to do something else that others could enjoy as well. There was an opportunity for me to take a side step from the business so I sold almost all the film stuff and invested the money in this.’
‘This’ is a strangely captivating collection of ethically sourced skeletons of animals that died of natural causes, in accidents or in the meat trade. There’s a sheep, a rabbit, a bat, an Edwardian cockerel, a couple of snakes and lizards, a parakeet, a dog, an ostrich, the head of a giraffe, but there’s no ignoring the head and shoulders stars of the show…
‘The dodo is obviously a cast and it’s about ninety-five per cent accurate, I think the ribs are those of an albatross. It’s only a few years old and was made after a group of scientists got together to recreate a dodo from existing fragments – you’d be surprised at how many pieces of dodo turn up – after which they made a limited number of casts and I was able to buy one of them.’
The saber-toothed tiger is a cast head on the actual body of a lion (structurally very similar to the extinct saber-tooth) that died of natural causes in a zoo in the 1990s; while the centaur occupies a level of whimsy that Stephen found impossible to resist.
‘Obviously it’s a mythological beast and therefore completely fascinating, but there are centaurs in the Harry Potter stories and a lot of younger visitors recognise it from that. We’ve had one or two that are a little frightened of him but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to own a centaur skeleton, just look at him, it’s amazing.’
None of the skeletons in the museum are named on their labels. When visitors arrive they are led down the steps to the museum’s gallery, the doors close behind and them and a music soundtrack plays as they make their way around the room, reading about the various creatures, their habitats and lifecycles, and hopefully working out what each animal is.
‘It’s a different approach but it seems to be working. Most people are genuinely up for the challenge,’ says Stephen. ‘I mean, everyone can recognise a rabbit, we just look at the ears, but what about if the ears have gone, how do you recognise a rabbit then?
‘I have a couple of mystery skeletons that I’m guessing are a lizard and a venomous snake – because of the ridged fangs – but I don’t know what species they are.’
Maybe it’s the dodo, or perhaps it’s the look and feel of the Oddi-tea Room into which visitors step from the street, but there’s something about the Bones Museum that recalls the eccentric private collectors of the Victorian and Edwardian eras – its contents are curiosities, novelties, oddments; the idiosyncratic artefacts of a (literally) dying art.
‘Taxidermy is actually enjoying a revival in fortunes, especially with the skeletons, which are becoming more fashionable. I think it’s because people appreciate the clean lines; look closely and you’ll see they are quite beautiful. Some people say it’s macabre, but I don’t think so, and I don’t think there’s any link between collecting film and sci-fi memorabilia and collecting skeletons, other than collecting of course.
‘We only opened in October so I don’t really know what to expect from the summer season yet, but so far we’ve been found by visitors from as far afield as Australia and Switzerland, while some people have discovered us online and travelled to Dorchester from Cornwall and Hampshire simply to visit us. We also hosted a meeting for a group of osteopaths, including veterinary osteopaths and they loved what we’re doing.’
The enterprise may be a flight of fancy, but Stephen makes no bones (sorry!) about it – the Bones Museum has to earn its keep. Stripped and decorated in a single weekend, the Oddi-tea Room serves hot and cold drinks and cake to visitors while they feast their eyes on the taxidermy, framed items and the medical tools and instruments, there’s even a plaster death mask.
‘Oh, that’s Philippe, he’s from France,’ offers Stephen by way of explanation. In the corner of the tea-room, tiny green skeletal figures climb a rope ladder.
‘They’re my helper elves – have you never wondered what they look like under their costumes?’
In 2016 Stephen and his partner Marcus staged the Greedy Goblin charity film and TV convention at the County Museum and if that previous collection taught them anything it is that collections grow. And grow. And grow.
‘Our next step is to expand onto the ceiling. I’ve just bought a three-foot seal that was a beach find; although it’ll be a while before we get it as the preparation is quite a lengthy process. Then as we get more pieces we’ll be able to update the displays from time to time to keep things fresh.
‘In the longer term I’d like us to concentrate more on species that occur in Dorset so there are more things in here that relate to the immediate environment, but for now I’m really looking forward to seeing how we get on this summer. I’m sure it will be fun.’
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine