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A shrine to pencils

Today is National Pencil Day.

This wonderful day is observed each year on 30 March because, apparently, Hymen Lipman registered the first patent for attaching a rubber – or eraser to our American friends – to the end of a pencil on this day in 1858.

The holiday is a US tradition, but we thought we would use it this year as an excuse to tell you about the pencils we found while decanting our Galleries.

Last year, our African Worlds Gallery closed as we started the exciting process of turning the space into our new World Gallery. To do this, we needed to decant the Gallery and move all the objects back into storage.

  • A shrine to pencils, A shrine during the decant of the African Worlds Gallery.
    A shrine during the decant of the African Worlds Gallery.

As we took down our shrines, we realised that there were a few more objects inside them than had been there originally.

It seems that visitors had been popping pencils and other items through the small holes at the bottom of the cases.

  • A shrine to pencils, A small, pencil-sized hole in the case.
    A small, pencil-sized hole in the case.

While we decanted the cases, our team took an inventory of the number of extra items that had been ‘added’ to the shrine. We present this here.

Haitian Vodou shrine:

1 pencil

Brazilian Candomble shrine:

14 pencils

1 hairclip

1 crayon wrapper

And the winner by a mile…

Benin Mammi Wata shrine:

58 pencils

1 biro

1 twig

1 plastic lolly stick

As you can see, that is a total number of 73 pencils added to our shrines. 

Our team enjoyed these 'offerings' and made sure they were recycled and put to good use. 

  • A shrine to pencils, So many pencils.
    So many pencils.

How to empty a Gallery

Our Collections and Documentation team take us behind the scenes during the decant of our Galleries. 

Hello, my name is Sarah and I’m one of the two Collections Management and Documentation Trainees at the Horniman. Thomas, the other trainee, and I started working at the Horniman in July 2016.

Usually, we are based at the Horniman’s Study Collections Centre where many of the fascinating objects in the Museum’s collection are kept. We work in the Collections Management and Documentation departments to care for these objects and make them accessible for current and future generations of Museum visitors.

Thomas and I have spent some of the last six months working directly on one of the Museum’s major projects, the Anthropology Redisplay. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) the project re-evaluates the incredible objects in the extensive Anthropology collection in preparation for a new permanent exhibition opening in 2018.

  • How to empty a gallery, The Centenary Gallery during the decant process
    The Centenary Gallery during the decant process

In readiness for the new exhibition two of the Museum’s previous exhibition spaces - African Worlds and the Centenary Gallery - have closed and will be refurbished over the course of the next year. Along with other colleagues from the Collections Management team, Thomas and I spent eight weeks decanting the numerous objects in these galleries, packing them up to travel back to the Study Collections Centre.  

As trainees, decanting these gallery spaces and moving over one thousand objects has been an amazing experience as well as a very good opportunity to test our skills. 

With many different types of objects across two galleries, we were able to try out various methods for packing. We often spend lots of time trialling and experimenting with packaging to ensure it provides adequate protection to each object, therefore preventing any potential damage that could occur while in transit.

Certain methods of packing are more suitable for some objects than others, many objects we worked with during the decant required bespoke packaging to be specially made for them.

One of the most challenging objects Thomas and I worked on was a Naga headdress from north-east India. The headdress was delicate and had a number of large feathers which could be detached.

  • How to empty a gallery, Sarah and Thomas look at the Naga headdress
    Sarah and Thomas look at the Naga headdress

Advised by project conservator Natalie we removed the feathers and packed them separately from the rest of the headdress.

  • How to empty a gallery, Thomas separates the feathers of the Naga headdress ready for packing
    Thomas separates the feathers of the Naga headdress ready for packing

Some other really exciting objects we worked on during the decant where the Museum’s Mummies. Moving them was a real challenge and quite different from the Naga headdress we had previously worked on. Being so large and yet extremely fragile meant that many hands were needed in order to transfer the Mummies from the display case and into a packing crate. It took a team of seven to move each one safely.

We finished the decant in November so Thomas and I are now based back at the Study Collection Centre working to find space for many of the objects that will be staying in storage.

Every day is different and poses new challenges for us to solve. We’ll be continuing to write about our experience as trainees at the Horniman over the next year and a half so keep an eye out for updates on our progress.

Find out more about the Anthropology Redisplay and World Gallery

Holly's top five objects

One of our Volunteers, Holly, picks her top five favourite objects from the African Worlds and Centenary Galleries.

‘Exciting changes are afoot at the Horniman. The African Worlds and Centenary galleries are going to be transformed into an exciting new World Gallery and Studio Space. I can’t wait to see the new displays and the thousands of extra objects that will go into them in 2018. Until then, here are my personal favourite objects from the African Worlds and Centenary Galleries:

Lion

The expression on this lion's face never fails to make me smile. It looks quizzical and humorously attentive with its protruding eyes, arched tail and large ears. Its tight grip on its prey, mouth pinched closed, makes me think it must be especially satisfied with what it has caught.

Nkisi

With its lolling tongue, large teeth and disconcerting lack of eyes, this double headed dog is an imposing creature, and that’s before you start counting the nails covering its body.

Nkisi were used to contain and summon spiritual forces during rituals designed to control, change or correct the world around you. They were used for sealing oaths, alleviating illness, protecting against sorcery and punishment of crimes. Each of the nails in this nkisi represents an instance this object was activated. Imagine what type of problem or request each nail represents!

The Benin Plaques

These commemorative plaques depict Benin’s Obas (rulers) and social elite. I love how the figures were skilfully cast in such a high relief, making them stand out far from the patterned backgrounds.

Removed from Benin’s royal palace as part of a punitive expedition by the British in 1897 and sold to museums around the world, the plaques challenged contemporary views of African culture when they were first brought to Europe. Today they remain challenging objects, instead reminding us how different museum collection practices used to be.

Hei Tiki

With its demanding eyes, tilted head, poised limbs and protruding tongue the hei tiki is an iconic symbol of New Zealand. You don't need to go to a museum or marae (Maori greeting area) to see pendants like these. Lots of people wear pounamu (greenstone) in a variety of designs, although most pendants are smaller than these fine examples.

In Maori culture greenstone is a taonga (treasure). Traditionally, greenstone could only be received as a gift and it would increase in mana (prestige) as it was passed from generation to generation.

Merman

With hollow eye sockets, reaching claws, sinewy tendons, emaciated torso and forbidding spikes along its spine, it’s certainly not the beautiful mythical creature I imagine when I think of mermaids.

Mesmerizingly grotesque, the merman is a good example of the craftsmanship required to make a convincing fake. While you logically know it’s not real, it's hard not to be captivated. I wouldn’t even be surprised if some sceptical viewers in the 19th century wanted to believe it was real. After all it would be a fascinating creature to discover… but big and scary enough that you probably won't want to meet it in real life.'

Exploring Baron Samedi

In preparation for our Queer Late event on 12 May, we have been exploring our collections, searching for objects that have connections to queer culture. Here we look at the dandy figure of Baron Samedi.


Have you ever noticed the Vodou shrine in our African Worlds gallery? We often get asked about the objects inside the shrine. What do the objects represent? What is the connection to Vodou faith? Why is the head of the baby from the Dinosaurs TV show in the shrine?



In the shrine you can see four objects placed here for ‘Baron Samedi’ – a Loa (or spirit) of Haitian Vodou faith associated with death and resurrection.


Baron Samedi is the leader of the Barons. He is often shown as a bisexual dandy or occasionally as being transgendered. He wears a top-hat and frock coat along with a women's skirts and shoes. Much of the time he is drinking rum and smoking a large cigar. He has been described as having ‘lascivious movements’ that cross gender boundaries. This is not unusual in Haitian Vodou, as the faith is very open to people of all sexual orientations.



These two flags are made from different-coloured beads and sequins and represent Baron Samedi. The left flag shows a crucifix sitting on top of a coffin with a skull and cross bones in the centre. On one side is a bottle and on the other, a candle. The second flag shows some of the other symbols Baron Samedi is often associated with, such as the playing cards shapes (heart, spade, diamond, and club) and anthropomorphised faces.



Beliefs, mythology and customs brought to Haiti from Africa mixed and fused with Catholic imagery to form the distinctive characteristics of Haitian Vodou we can see on these two crosses made for Baron Samedi. Also, more recent Vodou altars use imagery from the West including Barbie dolls and figures from TV culture to honour the spirits being represented – which might explain the baby dinosaur’s head.


You can see the Vodou shrine in our African Worlds gallery during our Queer Late event.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The British Library has put together a new exhibition on the power of the word – written, spoken and sung – in West Africa, and the Horniman has contributed by lending items from both the Anthropology and Musical Instruments collections.

The exhibition opened to coincide with Black History month earlier this year, and is exploring a range of fascinating stories from the region’s 17 nations. Focusing on West African history, life and culture over the last three centuries, it covers from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to the cultural dynamism of West Africa today.

Using a range of collections they have looked at text, story and writing and how words can be used to build and change societies, to challenge and resist, and sustain life and dignity. The exhibition highlights the rich manuscript heritage of West Africa and the coming of printing, as well as oral genres, past and modern.

The Horniman has loaned a talking drum and lamellaphone from our Musical Instruments collection and a Bwa plank mask, Gelede mask and divination board from our Anthropology collection to help bring the printed and written works to life.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is on at the British Library until Tue 16 Feb 2016

Protective charms and scary curses

We had some visitors to the stores today; the son and grandson of Rev. Lionel Weeks who is one of my favourite collectors. He was a Baptist missionary in the Democratic Republic of Congo and particularly interested in local magic, or ju-ju as he called it.

A charm protecting you against lightning 

We have 5 whole boxes of magic from him, including charms to protect you from lightning, to make people forget debts that are owed, and to help with fertility. We even have a pretty odd looking ‘witch stick’.

Remind your friends to pay you back!

This charm helps you with fertility

It’s certainly the weirdest wand I have ever seen.

What an odd witch stick...

As we stood there poking about, it dawned on me that we were in fact surrounded by magic from all over the world, and not all of it friendly. I knew that two aisles down to the left sat a small Congolese Nkisi with the power to run about at night and give you a nasty disease should you offend it.

A Congolese Nkisi

 

Rev. West’s son, Arthur, was standing right in front of a shelf where I’d recently stumbled across a Sierra Leonean staff covered in human jawbones and a few rows down was an Ecuadorian shrunken head, or Tsansta, which is so dangerous it was recently described as being akin to a hand-grenade in the wrong hands.

A Sierra Leonean staff

As Rev. West’s Grandson, Richard, inspected a large Congolese knife, all I could think of was the Tibetan T'un-rva ram’s horn that is filled with magical substances and can be hurled at an enemy with disastrous effect.

A witch bottle

I began to freak out a little bit. But then I remembered that three aisles to the right, on the bottom shelf, in a small cardboard box and wrapped in many layers of acid free tissue paper, sat a tiny witch bottle. According to the label, its careful use can cause a witch with bad intentions to wee uncontrollably until she repents. It made me feel much, much better.

So magic comes in bad or good, and isn't that what Halloween is all about?

Africarnival: last chance to Experience African Summer.

This Sunday we are hosting our exhilarating Africarnival which marks the end of our African Summer.

  • Africa Dance! performers, Dancers performing at Africa Dance!, earlier in our African Summer
    Dancers performing at Africa Dance!, earlier in our African Summer

Performers at our African Dance event earlier in the summer


Our season so far has featured artists, musicians, dancers and objects from across Africa and its diaspora. On Sunday, our Africarnival will be a colourful celebration with circus performers, workshops, dancing and an exuberant carnival parade.

The carnival parade features Mandinga Arts who have been working with a number of community partners and artists to create extraordinary costumes, masks and puppets inspired by the African collections, here at the Horniman.

  • Yaaba Funk © Fabienne Pennewaert, Yabba Funk− © Fabienne Pennewaert
    Yabba Funk

Yabba Funk, who will be performing at Africarnival

Led by British and Colombian artists Charles Beauchamp and Julieta Rubio, Mandinga Arts creates extraordinary outdoor performance costumes, floats and processions drawing on European, Latin American and African traditions.

The parade on Sunday has come about through collaborations with six community groups. Mandinga Arts selected six artists who worked alongside the company’s Artistic Directors to collaboratively realise and create a large-scale articulated puppet drawing inspiration from the Horniman Museum.

Some of the communtiy-made masks

We are sad to see the end of African Summer, but excited for Africarnival so come along on Sunday 30 August 12pm – 6pm.

9 days to African Summer

Next Sunday we launch our African Summer, a series of lively events running throughout July and August exploring the rich cultures of Africa and its influences around the world.

  • Ogoni Masks, A group of Ogoni Masks
    A group of Ogoni Masks

A selection of Ogoni Masks from Nigeria

Our website is enjoying some African object editions, see if you can spot all 12.

  • Snuff Bottle, A South African beaded bottle
    A South African beaded bottle

Snuff Bottle – this South African bottle uses many different coloured beads to create the patterned design. The line of bright turquoise beads at the top act as a useful handle – practical and pretty – you can discover more about South African beading at our Explore Africa event.

  • Online African Objects, A Benin casting of three women
    A Benin casting of three women

Bronze figure – 3 female figures stand around a large bowl, stirring something, it could be beer. This bronze comes from Benin on the West African coast. Our African Summer Hear it Live event will feature the playing of a 21st century West African harp, bringing West African music to the Horniman and we have a performance of West African music on our Bandstand in August.

  • Online African Objects, Moroccan Tbila
    Moroccan Tbila

Tbila – These Moroccan Tbila are usually played with your hands, and the differently sized bowls allow the player to make a variety of different tones and intonations. Drums are found across Africa in a variety shapes and sizes, you can join us to hear live Ghanaian drumming.

  • Online African Objects, An African pipe
    An African pipe

Pipe – this wooden pipe has a tin decoration around the bowl, it comes with a handy metal pick for cleaning the inside of the pipe as well.

These are just a few of the objects we’ve uploaded onto our webpages, have a browse and be sure to experience our African Summer.

Goodbye Africa, see you in 2018

Johanna, who curates our Africa anthropology collections (and is a passionate football fan) gives us a glimpse at Africa, football and our collections.

Yesterday saw Africa's last hopes for World Cup glory with the defeat of both Nigeria and Algeria in two characteristically nail-biting games. A terrible shame in my view. Both games taken to the wire as exciting and creative football lost out to defensive play and predictable set-pieces.

But then again, I am biased. Goodbye Africa, see you in 2018.

Normally, I would not advocate causing intentional harm, but nothing made me happier than reading about Nana Kwaku Bonsam, the Ghanaian witch doctor responsible for Christiano Ronaldo’s knee injury.

In an interview on the Kumasi-based Angel FM, he described how he had spent months manufacturing a spirit called Kahwiri Kapam to work on Portugal's demise. It looks like it worked, though sadly not to Ghana's benefit. At least Ronaldo will be less pleased with himself now his team has been sent home, along with our own collection of not-quite-up-to-the-mark heroes.

Football is everywhere in Africa.

I spent the weeks leading up to the World Cup in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where taxis are adorned with hand-painted signs promoting the drivers' Premier League team, usually Chelsea and, for their sins, Manchester United.

Children play football as soon as they can walk and, when they are older, save up to purchase tickets to watch games in small, packed rooms, with tiny old TVs powered by generators.

I crammed in to watch Brazil comprehensively beat Panama in a friendly, with Chelsea's Willian's final goal met with raucous cheering.

Sierra Leone's own team, the Leone Stars, failed to qualify so many Freetowners chose to support England, sharing our frustration as the hopefuls faffed about on the pitch in their fetching white kits to no avail.

Our collection includes objects that highlight Africa's love of football:

This beautiful football from Uganda is made from locally-sourced materials. Its outer surface consists of carefully woven banana leaf fibers which are tough enough to withstand even Lionel Messi style shots at goal.

Another Ugandan football made from twisted banana leaves. This one is even tougher than the above. I wouldn’t want to take this one on the head!

African wax cloth designers make new patterns to commemorate important events. This example from comes from Mali and commemorates the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

Mali played their first World Cup qualifying match in 2000, but have as yet failed to get through. Fingers crossed for 2018!

 

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.

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