The nilgai is Asia’s largest antelope1. In February 1879, a stuffed nilgai was purchased by the museum for £18. £18 in 1879 is equivalent to somewhere between £1,430 and £7,180 in 2010 money, the most recent year for which figures are available2. The former figure is calculated based on a retail price index, and the latter is based on a comparison of average earnings between the two times.
For a further comparison of cost, it could be noted that in the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, 1887’s ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ Dr John Watson could proclaim himself to be “as free as air—or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be3.” Apparently, this sum was a government payment received by Dr Watson during his ninth-month convalescence as a result of injuries sustained as a surgeon in the army. Seeing as how there were at that time twenty shillings in a pound, and twelve pence in a shilling4, it would have required approximately thirty-one days, or one month’s worth of Dr Watson’s government income to pay for the nilgai, ignoring of course any inflation which may have occurred in the intervening years.
The nilgai pictured below can be viewed on the first floor of the Natural History Museum. When this nilgai was recently catalogued, no evidence of its provenance could be found. Such evidence would usually take the form of a label with a number, a taxidermist’s name, or some such piece of information. However, as the only stuffed nilgai in the museum’s collections, it seems plausible that it is indeed the animal alluded to in the register entry above. With further study, this could be affirmed with greater certainty: old photographs of the collections studied to ascertain how long the animal has been in the museum; register books and other documentary sources researched to discover whether there is mention of any other nilgai specimen; an expert sourced to appraise taxidermist’s technique, and link it with the firm mentioned in the registers. A great deal of time could be spent investigating the museum’s collections in this manner, and thus in their own way do museologues take on the role of Sherlock Holmes.
1. (2010) The Natural History Book. Dorling Kindersley.
2. http://www.measuringworth.com/. Accessed on June 13th, 2013.
3. Conan Doyle, Arthur (1887). A Study in Scarlet. Version quoted is a Project Gutenburg EBook, and can be found here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/244/244-h/244-h.htm. Accessed June 13th, 2013.
4. http://resources.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/moneyold.htm. Accessed on June 13th, 2013.