Hippo being renovated (5)

Billie’s looking 'smiles' better thanks to historic hippo makeover

An expert conservator has travelled across the Lancashire-Yorkshire border to collaborate with industry colleagues

His friendly face and super-sized smile have made him a favourite fixture for visitors to Leeds Discovery Centre.

But as he approaches 100 years old, the decades have finally started to take their toll on much-loved Billie the hippo, who has begun to show some inevitable signs of wear and tear.

That’s why an expert conservator from Lancashire teamed up with curators from Leeds Museums and Galleries this week to give the mammoth mammal a much-needed makeover as he prepares to go on display alongside his prehistoric ancestor.

Recently, curators noticed that some of the vintage paintwork and plaster on the hippo’s face and stomach has begun to crack and peel, and set about giving Billie a makeover in time for his 100th birthday next year.

Lancashire County Council's Conservation Studios, one of the foremost conservation services in the country, was tasked with bringing Billie back to his former glory.

Lucie Mascord, a specialist conservation officer made the trip to Leeds to carry out the work.

She said: "Taxidermy like this can still hold significant educational value. Few people have seen a hippo, let alone one unsubmerged by water.

“Working on a full mount hippo is a rare opportunity for a natural history conservator. I am very lucky to be able to take my time to learn more about the animal and to have the honour of returning this hippo to its full majesty so it can be shared with many more people for years to come."

Formerly a resident at London Zoo, Billie was one of the attraction’s biggest stars in the late 1920s, a time when zoos became hugely popular and would strive to collect all manner of exotic and unusual animals from around the world.

Sadly, records show Billie later died from an intestinal obstruction on July 12, 1932 at the age of just seven.

At that time, deceased animals were often purchased by taxidermists, which meant Billie’s remains were stuffed and mounted before being acquired by Leeds City Museum in 1938.

Weighing a hefty 170kg and mounted on wheels, Billie went on display and even survived a wartime bombing which destroyed much of the Leeds collection at the old museum site on Park Row, before he was eventually relocated to the Leeds Discovery Centre.

In the wild, hippos like Billie are one of the world’s largest mammals, weighing around three-and-a-half tonnes and spending most of their time in the rivers and lakes of Africa.

When conservation work on Billie has been completed, he will eventually go on display at Leeds City Museum next to the bones of the famous Armley Hippo, the bones of an extinct species of hippo which lived near what is now the Armley Gyratory bypass around 130,000 years ago. The bones were found in 1851 by workmen digging clay.

Clare Brown, Leeds Museums and Galleries curator of natural sciences, said: “Billie is certainly one the most recognisable specimens in our taxidermy collection and visitors are always curious to see such a complete example of a hippo up close and get a sense of how huge and impressive these animals really are.

“It’s great that we’ve teamed up with our colleagues from Lancashire and we’d like to thank them for helping us bring Billie back to his best before he becomes part of a display which tells the story of how these remarkable creatures and their habitats have evolved over thousands of years.

“Historic specimens like Billie can also teach us a great deal about how we can protect and conserve hippos and other vulnerable species today.”

The conservation work has been generously supported by the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society and Arts Council England.

The Leeds Discovery Centre is home to more than a million objects and is used to store parts of the Leeds collection which are not currently on display, spanning tens of millions of years of world history.

Notes to editors

Image caption: Lucie Mascord, a specialist conservation officer at Lancashire County Council's Conservation Studios made the trip to Leeds to carry out the work on Billie, the 99 year-old hippo at Leeds Discovery Centre.