Uncovering the museum’s past: The story of Rosie the Rhino.

26 October 2023

The Story of Rosie the Rhino, by Caleb Howgego

Rosie the Rhino has been a much-loved feature of Ipswich Museum since she arrived in 1907. The exact details of why and how she entered the museum collections are not completely clear, but according to Ipswich Museum’s accession register the mount came from the then British Museum and it was ‘arranged between the curator and Mr. Lydekker to exchange for a pig with Rowland Ward at cost of £16 0s 0d’, the equivalent today of around £1,584. Rowland Ward was a renowned taxidermist and his firm was responsible for mounting many of the taxidermy specimens in Ipswich Museum. Ipswich Museum appears to have got a good deal in the transaction as, under ‘remarks’ in the accession register, the person filling it in wrote ‘Some Bargain!’.

The specimen is a female Indian Rhinoceros, which could once be found ranging in the entire North Indian River Plain, which includes parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal but, due to excessive hunting and agricultural development, today they can only be found in the wild in India and Nepal.

The rhinoceros arrived in Ipswich on 15th March 1907 and a crowd gathered to watch her being unloaded from the Fraser’s horse-drawn pantechnicon (furniture van) as shown in the image below.

The weight of the specimen is unknown but it is so heavy that it required 10 men working for about two hours to move the rhinoceros into the entrance of the central gallery.

The specimen should have been carried to the rear of the gallery. It was only because she was so difficult to move that she stood in the entrance of the gallery for over eighty years. Eventually, Rosie, as she was by then known, was moved to her current location in the 1990 redisplay of the gallery as the Victorian Natural History Gallery.

According to the correspondence about Rosie in the museum’s documentation, an interesting rumour seems to have been circulating about the rhino in the 1970s. One member of the public got in contact from Bristol to ask if it was true that the rhinoceros in Ipswich Museum was previously used as a secret store for a supply of bottled beer. The curator replied to say that they had heard the rumour too, but that they had enquired amongst the older members of staff who had indicated it was only a rumour started by an attendant who, when asked what was inside the rhinoceros, replied “It is full of beer bottles”.

The addition of the name “Rosie” is a relatively new one as the rhinoceros was given the name by Miss Debbie Brown of Ipswich in a competition to mark the centenary of the opening of the Ipswich Museum building on High Street in 1981.

Rosie was repaired and re-coloured as part of the update of the Victorian Natural History Gallery in 1990.

Rosie is perhaps most well-known in recent times for the theft of her horn in 2011. At 12.27am on Thursday 28th July, thieves broke into the museum and wrenched off and stole Rosie’s 45cm horn as well as a rhino skull that was on a ledge in the Victorian Natural History Gallery and left the scene before police arrived. This was one of many similar targeted thefts of rhino horn in museums around the same time, due to its very high commercial value. The horn was replaced with a replica in 2012.

Because Rosie is so large and heavy, it has been impractical to move her off-site during the preparations for the museum building works. Instead, the museum decant team has wrapped her up with conservation grade materials such as sheets of Tyvek and Plastazote foam and moved her slightly further back in the gallery, where she and other exhibits will be kept safe during the redevelopment building works.

A new gallery is being planned to incorporate the best and favourite features of the current Natural History Gallery. Rosie will be ready to take pride of place in the re-vamped gallery.

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