Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Length: 32.000 cm (approx.)
From the collection of Sir Hans Sloane
On loan from the Natural History Museum S/1952.2.544
Enlightenment: Natural world
Skull of a rhinoceros hornbill
Locality unknown, around 1750
A unique survival from Hans Sloane's collection of birds
Until recently, it had been assumed that all the birds originally acquired by the great collector Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) had subsequently perished. But we now know that this damaged skull of a rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros) was part of his collection.
Sloane's collections included many bird skins and mounts. Almost all have since been lost due to decay and insect damage, as well as the common nineteenth-century practice of replacing specimens with 'better' ones. Many specimens from other early collections have been lost in the same way. This skull may have survived due to its large size and spectacular appearance.
The beak and casque of the skull are marked with several different catalogue numbers, each representing a stage in its history as a collected object. The oldest number on it refers to an entry in a catalogue dating from the 1830s, which reads 'Buceros rhinoceros… rostrum, Sloane's Museum', indicating that it was once part of Sloane's collection of birds.
Rhinoceros hornbill beaks are known to have been on display in Montagu House, the first home of the British Museum, in the early 1800s. The skull was transferred to the British Museum (Natural History) at South Kensington - now the Natural History Museum - with the rest of the natural history collections in the 1880s.
J. Thackray & B. Press, The Natural History Museum: Na (London, Natural History Museum, 2001)
F. Steinheimer & J. H. Cooper, 'Sir Hans Sloane’s Rhinoceros Hornbill skull: an avian remnant from the founding period of the British Museum', Archives of Natural History-1, 30:1 (2003)