Museum Visitor Experience Creator, Clare McNamara, chooses a tiger skin rug as her item to talk about. So why would a professed animal lover and caregiver to two black female kittens – Tuff Titty and one whose name keeps changing (Wonder Woman/My Little Pony/Witch) but answers to anything really – choose a once majestic feline which ended its days as a floor covering? “It’s the Year of the Tiger … and there are more tigers in captivity in the US than there are in the wild in the whole world,” says Clare.
The World Wildlife Fund also says that three sub-species of tiger have become extinct since 1940 and a fourth one, the South China tiger, hasn’t been seen in the wild in 25 years. “We are moving to a stage where we might be living in a world without them,” says Clare. And here we were, looking at a tiger skin on the floor of the museum.
Clare says it’s a female Bengal tiger, shot in 1930, and further research suggests it was dispatched by a chap called Arthur Challoner Nixon in India. Nixon, who was a member of the locally famous Sedgebrook Nixons, bagged another big cat during his long sojourn in the sub-continent. He also bagged a wife and married her in India before bringing her home to Wanganui.
Richard Bourne, chairman of the Wanganui Collegiate School Museum Trust, delved a little deeper and says that Arthur attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1905-1908. He was also a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers during the Great War and served both at sea and in Mesopotamia. After the war he became manager of the Delhi Electric Supply and Traction Company, based in India. In 1926 he married Ella, daughter of W Plumley and they had two sons. Arthur Nixon was awarded the OBE in 1946.
That information does not tell us much more about the tiger skin but it does give it a human perspective. Times have certainly changed. Killing a tiger now is an occasion for shame; then, it was a masculine rite of passage for those who could afford the trip and the accoutrements. Big game hunters were heroes, of sorts, pitting themselves – and a high-powered rifle – against regal beasts in foreign lands. Values were different in the closing stages of the British Empire and while we have been taught to abhor the senseless killing of endangered species we would be wrong to impose today’s standards on yesterday’s inhabitants. Besides, in 1930 when Mr Nixon shot his tiger, they were probably neither endangered nor desirable.
Here endeth the lesson.
The hide is in remarkably good condition, considering its age, and the head once received the best attention from a skilled taxidermist. The face is frozen in a permanent snarl and looks incredibly life-like. There is some minor damage to the edges of the ears but, otherwise, it seems to have weathered the past 80 years quite well. The museum received the skin in 1969, the year Arthur Nixon died.
So there we were, gazing on this splendid trophy skin, feeling a little sad that its life ended the way it did and yet admiring the beauty of the beast and the skill of those who were able to preserve it so well. Even the claws are still intact, fearsome utensils that they are.
Clare, who has obviously done some homework, says the markings on a tiger’s head are the same as the Chinese written character for king. That’s either coincidence or a pictograph which didn’t evolve further. One wonders. I also learned that the tiger’s stripes create a skin-cooling mechanism as well as providing convenient camouflage.
The museum visitor experience creator did profess some admiration for the tiger skin rug and seemed to suggest her cats would one day look rather good, similarly tanned and presented.
Clare says Mr Nixon’s tiger will be on display, “sometime in the not too distant future.”
Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in March 2010. Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.