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A Christmas Curiosity: Jorbba Gisa

As the Collections People Stories team have been making their way through the Anthropology collections, they’ve made some pretty fascinating finds.

One particularly intriguing object was ‘nn11104’ (‘nn’ meaning ‘no number’).

It was originally labelled as a ‘charm’ and stored with other similar objects. What made it stand out was not just the fine craftsmanship, but the tiny handwritten labels that had been carefully attached.

Collections Assistant Rachel decided to investigate further. She headed to the internet armed with the text ‘Jorbba Gisa’, which she discovered is a Norwegian term.

By complete coincidence, another group of objects were discovered on the same day, in another part of the collection, by another member of the team.

These tiny objects were unnumbered and without any accompanying information, but it was clearly the same script on their handwritten labels.

Interest sparked, Deputy Keeper of Anthropology Fiona decided to contact an expert in Norwegian material. Leif Pareli, Curator at the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo, was able to tell immediately that our ‘Jorba Gisa’ wasn’t a charm at all, but a small model of an everyday object from the Saami culture in Norway: a type of reindeer pack saddle.

He was also able to tell us a lot more of the fascinating story of where these miniatures came from.

The ‘charms’ were made by an extraordinary Saami man called Lars Hætta. Lars found himself imprisoned in Oslo with his brother Aslak and sister-in-law Elen for their participation in the Kautokeino uprising (1852). Aslak was beheaded but Lars (because of his young age —18 at the time of the uprising) and Elen were pardoned to prison for life.

While in prison from 1854 to 1867, Lars made beautiful models of everyday objects as he knew them. These were bought by the University in Oslo and became the beginning of a collection which eventually opened as the Ethnographic Museum, now part of Kulturhistorisk Museum, in 1857.

Today Lars’ work can be found in The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, the National Museum of Denmark, and The Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford.

Lars was pardoned in 1867, he then returned home where he died in 1896. His creations remain a wonderful depiction of the material culture of Saami people in the early 19th century.

We are very proud to say we have some of Lars' creations at the Horniman, particularly at this time of year when our 'Jorbba Gisa' can show us just how Father Christmas might be getting his reindeer to carry all our presents.

At Home With Music

Mimi, our Deputy Keeper of Musical Instruments, explains some of the ideas that will be covered in our upcoming At Home With Music display.

Keyboard instruments form an integral and familiar part of our musical life, both past and present. Yet, of all the Horniman’s significant musical collections, keyboard instruments have been among the most under-represented in the Music Gallery.

At Home With Music will go some way towards redressing that imbalance, providing us with an opportunity to showcase some rare and exquisite examples from both our own and the V&A’s collections.

Each of the instruments in the new display has its own stories to tell.

Videos, drawings and explanations included in the display will get inside the instruments to show how they work.

But their design does not just display technical innovation. Style and decoration represent the artistic ideas of their creators, representing moments in the history of fashion and taste.

How people used keyboards, not only for private practice and tuition, but also in the rituals of courtship and status, can tell us more about past perceptions of love, marriage and social aspiration.

They can also represent social, political and even religious upheaval, acting as statement pieces for their owners and giving us an insight into contemporary minds.

The display will relay opinions and attitudes of those who knew the instruments and lived and played them. One of the instruments itself, a late 18th-century English harpsichord, has been restored to playing condition so that it can speak to us directly.

  • 1772 Jacob Kirckman Harpsichord, Once restored to a playable condition, this instrument will become a focus for lecture demonstrations, master-classes and concert performances.
    Once restored to a playable condition, this instrument will become a focus for lecture demonstrations, master-classes and concert performances.

At Home with Music will open to the public at the end of January 2014, as a free display in the Music Gallery.

Horniman Inspiration - Katherine May

Artist Katherine May tells us how the Horniman Dye Garden inspired her latest exhibition, Water – Colour, at the London Design Festival 2013.

Water – Colour is a textile installation that aims to raise awareness of water consumption in the production and use of textiles. The installation evolved over the course of 9 days during the London Design Festival 2013 using an exhaust dyeing method to dye 100 meters of cloth.

This unconventional dye process uses the same dye bath and rinse water until the colour runs out, producing a gradation of fabric colour as the amount of dye decreases.

The Horniman dye garden revealed to me just how many plants have been historically used for dye. Alongside the more well known Indigofera varieties, were Dahlias and Hibiscus, producing a vibrant range of colours.

A natural indigo dye was chosen for the installation, partly for its transformative qualities as it turns cloth from yellow to green,a dn then to blue as it is exposed to air, and partly because it can ‘fix’ to cloth without the need for chemical pre-treatment.

Plants from the Horniman Gardens were displayed within the exhibition to display the natural origins of colours. They were an integral part of communicating the material life-cycles that played part of the installation.

Once the indigo dye vats were exhausted, the final stage of the exhibition saw the dye station replaced by a sewing workspace and the making of the cloth into quilts.

These were then hung through a five story atrium space to show the gradual change in colour, alongside the Horniman Gardens plants and natural dyes to show the full material ‘life cycle’, all the way from seed to cloth.

The finished quilts from the exhibtion are now available to purchase online.

Brilliant Bioblitz

Project Coordinator Russell sums up our Bioblitz Natural History Collection Review project as it comes to a close.

My role at the Horniman has now come to an end after 15 months, as the Bioblitz Collection Review Project is winding down. In just over a year, we managed to achieve what we set out to and more.

The reviews themselves have been completed. With the help of 15 specialist experts, we looked at 12 subject areas across natural science. In total, we looked at 250,000 specimens in one way or another and, out of those, we identified some wonderful star specimens, as well as some potential deaccessions.

  • Moulted lobster shell, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Over the next few months, the Natural History team will be celebrating some of the stars in different ways and planning the investigation of several areas of the collection identified by the experts as in need of research.

  • Mammals Bioblitz, Pat reviewing the fluid collection, Photo by Russell Dornan
    Pat reviewing the fluid collection, Photo by Russell Dornan

The review allows our curators to critically consider how the collections can be used in the future for the benefit of different types of people.

  • A stunning piece of bismuth., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

For the next few months, you can see behind the scenes photographs and information from the project in an exhibition on the Balcony Gallery. It runs until 2 March 2014.

Winter Gardening Jobs in the Materials Garden

Head of Horticulture Wes gives us an update on the important work going on in the Gardens to protect our plants for Winter.

Many of the plants we grow in and around the display gardens are from warmer climates and will not survive a London winter, so at this time of year the gardening team are busy protecting them from cold temperatures, wind and rain.

Some plants like the Cyperus papyrus (papyrus) we dig up, containerise and leave in a heated green house until the spring.

Our banana plants are the hardy Musa basjoo. They will survive being left in the ground if protected from the elements. Bananas are often referred to as trees, but they are really giant herbaceous plants, the largest in the plant kingdom. Their true stem is underneath the ground in the form of a large rhizome. This is the part of the plant that really needs to be protected.

Gardener Damien begins this task by removing all the leaves and using them as mulch around the base of the plant. The stems are cut in half.

He then puts canes up in a wigwam like fashion around the clump and ties horticultural fleece tightly around, securing at the top and bottom.

This will keep the frost off of them, and more importantly keep them dry to avoid the rhizomes from rotting.

This appears quite a brutal way of treating these plants, but it does them no harm and in the spring, when the weather has warmed up they re-shoot from the cut stems or from the base of the clump. They will get a good soak and some fertiliser and they are good to go for another season.

Five Go Collecting: A Wedding Gift to the Bride

Modern-day collector Farhana Hoque reports on her research progress for the RAI Horniman Collecting Initiative.

Location: Bandarban, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh

Project: Anthropological Research on the Marma people

Langajulako: lan (husband), ga (protection), ju (spikes), lako (bracelet)

My first month in the field and I have been busy trying to piece together the epic history of the Marma people. The Marma population is approx. 15,000 and they are one of 11 ethnic groups in the town called Bandarban which is part of Bangladesh with its total population of 155 million people.

I’ve met with local historians and various experts within the Bohmong (Royal) families. The Marma people have a unique and complex history. They came to be here through a series of migrations from neighbouring Myanmar that began in 1614 when Maung Saw Pyne, son of the King of Pegu (now Bago) became Governor of Chittagong. The Marma people are thought to be a fusion of Mon, Burman and Arakan.

The word ‘Marma’ is thought to come from ‘myrma’ which carries the concept of Myanmar nationalism. I am here to see how culture is maintained, remembered and affirmed through cultural objects.

In my first days in Bandarban, I visited the Tribal Cultural Institute and visited the Marma cabinet in this museum. To my absolute delight, Prokash Marma, the in-the-field collector and curator of the cabinet allowed me to select objects for handling. The collection consisted of women’s clothing and ornaments. There were blouses (Bedai ungi), wrap-around skirts (thami), ornamental belts, hairpins and both wrist and ankle bracelets.

Prokash had collected these objects himself from Marma groups living in rural settings. He could remember the owners of these objects and their stories. He was the connection between the field, the people’s narratives and a museum cabinet. It felt wonderful to be able to quiz this man who opened up the museum especially for me (the only visitor in weeks).

One set of objects particularly drew my attention. They were a pair of bracelets that were spiky/jagged all round. They looked heavy but were in fact quite light due to the type of material used – thought to be alloys.

This set was rare and possibly dates back to the early 1900s. They were made for a young bride and they served the function of protecting her from beatings from her husband.

The Marma consult the Laws of Menoo (Manu), Volume IV, 14th Law – The Law when a man and woman fight.

“If a man shall beat an unresisting woman, let him pay in compensation double the twenty-five tickals laid down in the Damathat as the price of her body, or fifty tickals.” (page 123)

Collections People Stories Update

With the year drawing to a close, Alix updates us on the progress of our major Anthropology collections review.

With the Collections People Stories project currently focusing on 'Health and Healing', we thought we’d give you an update on the review. By September we had reviewed 10,000 objects, a major milestone. Only 20,000 more to go…

Work started on objects for Health and Healing theme in December 2012. One team started by looking at beliefs, including religion, charms and magic, and have since moved onto toiletries and hygiene, medical science and narcotics and intoxicants.

The second team also worked on Health and Healing, but has primarily been finishing off the Food and Feasting theme and starting work on containers, which contains some food related items, but mainly falls under our next theme of Family and Home.

If you are wondering why the review teams seem to work to ‘sub-themes’, such as Narcotics and Intoxicants, it is because of the way our stores are arranged. When the stores were initially set out, objects were arranged thematically and then by country or continent.

This followed the model of the Pitt Rivers Museum, as there was a belief at the time that a comparison of similar objects told you more about the culture and people. Most anthropology museums now prefer objects to be arranged by country and then by use. 

In addition to improving the object records and photography, the project is also beginning to improve storage conditions. Historically many objects were stored in special bags, but the museum now prefers to store objects in low acid boxes with acid free tissue. We have had volunteers working on repacking objects into boxes.

As well as improving the storage, it has also created lots of space, making the Collections Management team very happy!

We have also been busy working on getting the photographs the teams have taken onto our collections management database. These are slowly filtering through and now you can see some of our wonderful photographs in the online collections. Many objects had not been photographed, or had photographs that were of a poor quality meaning they weren’t that useful.

In addition to putting object photographs online, we are still putting objects on our Tumblr blog. We sometimes get a little excited at events and celebration, like Halloween and Frederick Horniman’s birthday. You can follow us there now to see our Horniman advent calendar objects.

Bioblitz: Botany Reviewed

We have recently completed our final Bioblitz review. The last subject area to be looked at with visiting experts was the botany collection. We asked Dr Rob Huxley along from the NHM to look over our pressed plants and seaweeds to see if we had any specimens of particular significance.

Most of what he found will need further research but a few things of interest were highlighted. For example, Thomas Drummond’s moss collection from Scotland may be significant. We also came across some volumes of Braithwaite’s moss collections. He supplied collections and books to many institutions during the Victorian era so, although not uncommon, they represent a part of botanical history.

In addition to finding some seaweed specimens which now may be extinct in the UK, we also have some wonderful volumes which typify the Victorian obsession with ferns. The main benefit of the review was to highlight areas of the botany collection in need of further investigation.

This was the last review of the Natural History Bioblitz project. We'll soon be revealing some of the star specimens we discovered in the stores, so stand by to see something special.

The Big Draw at the Horniman

A couple of weeks ago, the Horniman took part in the annual Big Draw event. This national campaign for drawing sees events spring up all over the UK to encourage people to have a go at drawing, and not just with pencils and paper.

At our Big Draw event, we asked visitors to first choose a word from our list, then to explore the galleries and choose an object that reminded them of their word. The creative bit came in when they were asked to draw their object and then use the drawing to create an artwork from wires and pipecleaners which joined together with everyone else's art to create a massive wire image.

The word choices were ‘love’, ‘memory’, ‘power’, ‘belief’, ‘safety’ and ‘exchange’. Can you guess which word inspirec each of these images?

Some visitors spent their time making faithful reproductions of objects from the collection.

While some chose to set their creativity free and created images not strictly related to the Horniman.

But it wasn’t just about fun and creativity. Events like these are a fantastic opportunity for us to learn from our visitors. For instance, ‘love’ was the run-away winner in the popularity stakes: over half the participants chose this word. Words like ‘safety’ and ‘exchange’ were not chosen nearly as often. Stats like these help us learn which ideas are important to people, and which we should be exploring further.

It also helps to highlight popular objects from the collections: many people chose to recreate masks on display in African Worlds and the Centenary Gallery.

What we learn from events like the Big Draw will be used to inform future developments at the museum so that our visitors can get the most out of the Horniman and its collections.

At the end of the day, all the artworks created were displayed in Gallery Square.

We’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who took part in this year’s Big Draw. Our learning team are always looking for more ways for our audience to participate in the museum’s future, and we hope to plan plenty more fun and creative events for the future.

Stories on a Staff

Tom, Assistant Curator of Anthropology, gives us another update on the research being carried out for Collections People Stories.

A couple of weeks ago Julie Adams from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge and Wadrokal Wadra, an archaeologist from New Caledonia visited our stores. They were interested in having a closer look at the eighty odd objects which we have from New Caledonia.

One object in particular held their attention for a long time. It was a bamboo staff about a meter and a half long, covered in beautiful, finely engraved line drawings.

Wadrokal explained how this staff facilitated the telling of stories. It would have been held by an important person as he spoke to his clansmen. The drawings on the staff recorded events in the clan’s history, in this way the staff acted like an archive for the clan. The drawings could also be useful to the speaker when employed as aide memoire for the telling of stories. Alternatively the drawings could act as illustrations which would be pointed out to the audience.

Wadrokal told us that at important points in the stories the clansmen would make a special sound of agreement. This shared sound, resonating through the chests of the clansmen generated a feeling of togetherness. Ancestral stories held in common and the bringing together of clansmen to hear them constituted an important mechanism for the maintenance of unity in New Caledonia.

The staff bore several representations of European sailing ships and sailors. These prompted Wadrokal to tell us the story of how his grandfather had left New Caledonia, taking passage aboard a ship like those on the staff and eventually ending up in Sydney. There he trained as a priest, became the first New Caledonian to be ordained and went on to work as a clergyman in New Zealand.

As I took in this remarkable account, I realised that I had witnessed something very special: after 100 years in storage the staff from New Caledonia had once again produced a story of the clan.

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