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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

Nares Hornimani

Artist in residence Joshua Sofaer describes some of the work he has been doing at the Horniman.

‘For the last quarter of 2016, I have been lucky enough to be artist in residence at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

I have been exploring the Horniman collections as inspiration to create a series of false noses. There are many places to look.

The most obvious is perhaps the Anthropology collection: dance, devil, carnival, and ‘ugly’ masks. Equally, I could turn to the Natural History collection: the spoonbill’s beak, the paleomastodon’s nascent trunk, the nine-banded armadillo’s curled protective shell. Less obvious, but no less inspirational, is the collection of instruments: an orchestral horn false nose, a concertina false nose, of course the nose flute already exists.

I collect false noses. I have hundreds of them. Most are human noses, but I also have witches noses, clown noses, animal noses, and other oddities. I even have a plug nose and a socket nose.

In 2013, I showed a series of 452 self-portraits wearing my false noses at the Wellcome Collection in London.

The thing about this collection is that there is a rapidly decreasing pool of noses to collect. As cosplay becomes more popular and affordable, people are dressing-up more ‘authentically’. The false nose, alas, has probably seen its day.

In an effort to try and add to my own collection, I have started making false noses myself. I have made painted noses, papier maché noses, brass noses, clay noses, cardboard noses, crochet noses, and gold noses. I have recently started a digital Nose Museum on Instagram.

Bang slap in the middle of our faces, the nose is often overlooked. There are odes to beautiful eyes, sonnets on the perfect shape of lips, hair practically has a strand of literature to itself. The nose, however, is often cut off. The nose has a rich narrative potential for the absurd, the comic, the mysterious and at the same time, the entirely knowable. We all have a nose after all. As Dr Seuss reminds us, ‘They grow on every kind of head’.

My personal opinion is that all people can be divided into two categories, those who collect, and those who do not. As a collector myself I am interested in people who collect. Frederick John Horniman (1835-1906) was a collector in the Victorian tradition and on an epic scale. It is, of course, his collection that forms the bedrock of the Horniman collection.

In what used to be the main reception of the Museum, but is now the staff and goods entrance, perched on a pedestal, is a bronze bust of Horniman.

  • Nares Hornimani, The bust of Frederick Horniman, Joshua Sofaer
    The bust of Frederick Horniman, Joshua Sofaer

Nobody seems to know much about it. My hunch is that it was created at the same time as the building, which opened to the public in 1901. It fits too perfectly into its nook to be a later addition. One option is that it is the work of sculptor Frederick William Pomeroy (1856-1924). Pomeroy made a bronze bust of Horniman’s daughter-in-law in 1898, and also a memorial tablet for the Museum. I’m still in pursuit of some solid evidence that confirms or contradicts this theory. (If you know something, get in touch!)

  • Nares Hornimani, A close up of Horniman's nose, Joshua Sofaer
    A close up of Horniman's nose, Joshua Sofaer

In tribute to the man that endowed this fantastic Museum, I want to create a Horniman false nose. And what could be a more fitting material for a tribute, than gold?

After discussing my plans with the conservation team, writing method statements, and making patch tests, I was given the go ahead to make a cast of the nose and moustache area of the bronze bust.

  • Nares Hornimani, Ready for your trim sir?, Joshua Sofaer
    Ready for your trim sir?, Joshua Sofaer

Despite having used the alginate and plaster bandage technique literally hundreds of times to successfully cast faces (most recently on the life mask of another Victorian and Edwardian collector, Henry Wellcome) the process failed. Perhaps I had been over cautious about what materials to use, not wanting to affect the patina of the bronze, but still, I thought it would work. The alginate can sometimes ‘go off’ but the batch seemed fine to me. Anyway, for whatever reason, possibly the cold temperature of the bronze, it wouldn’t release without tearing.

  • Nares Hornimani, A first attempt, Joshua Sofaer
    A first attempt, Joshua Sofaer

I don’t mind admitting that I was pretty embarrassed. After all the efforts to secure the permission and cordon off the area, I felt a bit incompetent. Luckily for me Lindsey Bruce, Exhibitions Officer, and my main point of contact at the Museum, was unperturbed. “We will make it happen,” was her refrain.

It was back to the 4D model shop in Whitechapel to see what other casting agents I could safely use. Armed with a pack of Gedeo Siligum, a silicone based moulding paste, I returned to the Museum to run a test on a bronze scrap. It seemed fine, and Julia Gresson from the conservation team, gave me the go ahead for a second attempt.

Poor Frederick looks a bit miserable having his nose cast.

  • Nares Hornimani, Horniman having his nose cast, Joshua Sofaer
    Horniman having his nose cast, Joshua Sofaer

This time, success! A very good cast that also picked up some dirt, which must have gathered up his nose over the years. Once the cast was off, Julia gave him a good clean.

  • Nares Hornimani, A good cast, Joshua Sofaer
    A good cast, Joshua Sofaer

Taking the mould back to my studio, the next step is to make a wax template. Yes, I know this looks like a school project gone wrong, and yes, that yellow stuff really is Play-Doh. Play-Doh is a great way to build up the sides of a wax mould. It’s cheap, washes off easily, and can form a tight seal.

  • Nares Hornimani, Play-Doh, Joshua Sofaer
    Play-Doh, Joshua Sofaer

After a couple of hours leaving the wax to cool and harden, I stripped back the Play-Doh, and removed the mould. The Horniman nose and moustache wax template stands proudly before me.

  • Nares Hornimani, Horniman's nose template, Joshua Sofaer
    Horniman's nose template, Joshua Sofaer

Now that I had at least one good wax copy, I made a plastic polymer version from the same mould as an insurance.

  • Nares Hornimani, Plastic polymer versions of the nose, Joshua Sofaer
    Plastic polymer versions of the nose, Joshua Sofaer

The next step was to take the template to a metal workshop to have it copper electroformed. Electroforming is a process that builds up a metal surface through electrodeposition. Because wax is not conductive, the area to be electroformed has to be treated chemically with a conductive layer, something like a metal paint. The technical term for the template is ‘mandrel’. The mandrel is then put into an electrolytic bath with a copper solution in it and the copper crystals slowly form around the conductive pattern.

  • Nares Hornimani, The electrolytic bath, Joshua Sofaer
    The electrolytic bath, Joshua Sofaer

A couple of days later I returned to the metal workshop to collect the mandrel. The wax is now covered with a beautiful layer of copper.

  • Nares Hornimani, The copper nose, Joshua Sofaer
    The copper nose, Joshua Sofaer

To get rid of the wax, I simply popped the thing into the oven (130 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes) and let the wax melt out through a wire grid into an aluminium take-away carton.

  • Nares Hornimani, Melting the wax, Joshua Sofaer
    Melting the wax, Joshua Sofaer

Back in the studio, I cut out the shape I wanted, following the natural line of the moustache, punched out the nostrils, and drilled some holes for the thread ties.

  • Nares Hornimani, Cutting out the final shape, Joshua Sofaer
    Cutting out the final shape, Joshua Sofaer

This is the final shape.

  • Nares Hornimani, The final copper nose, Joshua Sofaer
    The final copper nose, Joshua Sofaer

Then it’s back to the metal workshop for the golden jacket. The copper nose-moustache-combo has to be polished and thoroughly cleaned. The first bath is just washing-up liquid and water; the second running water; the third acid, in which you can see the dirt fizz away!

  • Nares Hornimani, The washing-up liquid and water bath, Joshua Sofaer
    The washing-up liquid and water bath, Joshua Sofaer

  • Nares Hornimani, The acid bath, Joshua Sofaer
    The acid bath, Joshua Sofaer

Then Mr Horniman’s nose is plunged into a bath of gold. In fact, it is just gold dust in a solution, and the process of gold plating is similar to that of electroforming, only much quicker. I tried to distract the technician, asking questions for as long as possible, so that an extra thick layer of gold would make its way onto the surface (only joking). In reality, it’s only a few microns deep. If you rough handle gold plate, you will see what’s underneath.

  • Nares Hornimani, Coating the nose, Joshua Sofaer
    Coating the nose, Joshua Sofaer

And there we have it. One gold Horniman nose and moustache.

  • Nares Hornimani, Gold Horniman nose, Joshua Sofaer
    Gold Horniman nose, Joshua Sofaer

However, I’m not sure it’s quite finished yet. I want to give this nose some kind of totem. One that makes it an object worthy of the taxonomic principles that form Horniman’s collection and which that collection helped to create.

There are several species to which Horniman lent his name. This happened when entomologists were invited to survey Horniman’s collections. Although Horniman did go on big world travels later in his life and brought crate loads of stuff back to the UK, most of his early collections were purchased through intermediaries. Someone goes off to Africa and collects a bunch of specimens, brings them back to London, and Horniman buys them at auction, for example. He would then welcome experts to look at what he had amassed. Specimens include a moth, Eusemia hornimani, (now Heraclia hornimani), a true bug, Tesserotoma hornimani, and the ‘Horniman beetle’, Ceratorhina hornimani (now Cyprolais hornimani), from Cameroon, described by naturalist and explorer Henry Walter Bates in 1877.

  • Nares Hornimani, Species to which Horniman gave his name, Joshua Sofaer
    Species to which Horniman gave his name, Joshua Sofaer

Perhaps the most beautiful species named after Horniman is the ‘Horniman Swallowtail’, Papilio hornimani, known only from the northern forests of Tanzania and the southern hills of Kenya. As Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural explained to me, it was identified by Victorian entomologist W L Distant in 1879, when he was looking through Horniman’s vast collection of butterflies.

  • Nares Hornimani, This is the original specimen that Distant 'discovered', Joshua Sofaer
    This is the original specimen that Distant 'discovered', Joshua Sofaer

As an aside, if you’ve ever wondered how all those Victorian insects were pinned at just the right height, Jo showed me the entomologist’s ‘Pinning Stage’, a metal block that is used to set the specimens and their labels at a consistent height on the mounting pin. You pin the specimen, pick which height you want, and push the pin into the stage. By using the same hole each time, the specimens will always be at the same height.

  • Nares Hornimani, Pinning stage, Joshua Sofaer
    Pinning stage, Joshua Sofaer

Here is the defining Papilio hornimani on its original pin, with two labels beneath the butterfly.

  • Nares Hornimani, Papilio hornimani, Joshua Sofaer
    Papilio hornimani, Joshua Sofaer

It is almost always the open wings of the butterfly that we see pinned up, because they are traditionally seen as the most pretty, the reverse side, which is, I suppose, more commonly seen in nature as the butterfly sits on vegetation, have their own muted beauty. The Papilio hornimani is made up of soft dusty browns, greys and creams.

  • Nares Hornimani, Papilio hornimani, Joshua Sofaer
    Papilio hornimani, Joshua Sofaer

As you might expect, over the years, the Horniman Museum has acquired many examples of its lepidopterous namesake.

  • Nares Hornimani, Papilio hornimani, Joshua Sofaer
    Papilio hornimani, Joshua Sofaer

Where does all this fit into Horniman’s gold nose? Well, I’m thinking of giving him a Swallowtail nose ring, in the spirit of anthropology. I have drawn out the shape and will soon laser cut a piece of 0.5mm steel, which I will then have plated in gold, to match the nose.

  • Nares Hornimani, Drawing of a Swallowtail, Joshua Sofaer
    Drawing of a Swallowtail, Joshua Sofaer

Horniman fell in love with Japan (as in fact, have I) and so I have ordered a length of ‘kiki himo’ (literally 'gathered threads'), 100% silk braid made by craftsmen in Uji, Kyoto, which is being sent over from Japan, as the string to tie on the nose.

Soon I will be able to reveal Nares hornimani. Watch this space.’

Back to books!

One of our Volunteers, Chiara, tells us about her experience in the Horniman Library.

‘I’ve been working as a Librarian in a public library for ten years, back in Italy.

When I moved to London, I lost contact with what had meant so much to me: dealing with the public (especially kids, since I was mostly working in the library’s children section) handling books everyday (the smell of paper...and dust! How wonderful!) and being in daily touch with local communities. At the beginning of my time in London, I felt a little bit lost.

So when I had the opportunity to join the taster session for Volunteers at the Horniman, I was very excited. Somehow I felt I could be again part of something special.

  • Back to Books!, Discovering books in the Horniman Library
    Discovering books in the Horniman Library

I volunteered with Engage for some months and this reminded me of the brilliant curiosity of children. I also took part in the Half Term activities and I could breathe again the happy atmosphere of families playing and learning together. But there was still something missing for me.

Anytime I could, I started sneaking into the Library to help Helen, the librarian, mending the children’s books. When a volunteering role for a library project arose, I couldn’t resist applying. Then the magic happened, I was working again in a library in the reclassification project!

Now, anytime I go to the shelf, pick a book, browse through it and discuss with Helen the most suitable place for visitors to find it, I feel the ‘librarian thrill’ again.

When I handle the ancient books of the special collection, touching them very gently to respect their age and fragility, I feel again as if I was in one of the ancient libraries I used to attend in Rome.

  • Back to Books!, Examining books in the Horniman Library
    Examining books in the Horniman Library

I feel a little bit homesick, but also home again, because if home is where your heart is...well, my heart has always been beating for books.

I have had experience of various different volunteering roles at the Horniman, having also spent some weeks in administration. It has been amazing to experience different and sometimes surprising opportunities, but in the end I’m so very glad that this way took me back to books.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman.

Life after death: about ethical taxidermy

Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy’ is currently on display in our Natural History Gallery. Here, ethical taxidermist and artist, Jazmine Miles-Long, tells us about the process of taxidermy.

  • About ethical taxidermy, Jazmine Miles-Long painting a taxidermy stoat ,  Ali Graham
    Jazmine Miles-Long painting a taxidermy stoat ,  Ali Graham

How do you create taxidermy?

Taxidermy involves a lot of processes and skills. The first thing that must be done is to collect all of the details about the specimen – how, when and where it died. There are many laws to protect wildlife in the UK that taxidermists must adhere to. So it is important to check if the species you are working with needs specific legal paperwork.

Then comes the skinning, which I think many presume will be very messy but it’s not that bad. Underneath the skin is a membrane that acts like a second skin keeping the body together in one piece. Working carefully between these layers means the skin can be simply peeled away. If all goes well not much blood is actually present. If I am working on a mammal, the skin must be pickled and tanned in a similar process to leather. Whereas with birds, all of the fat must be cleaned away from the feather tracts where the quills poke through on the inside of the skin.

Then the form replacing the muscular structure of the animal has to be created using measurements taken from the actual animal's body to recreate the same shape and size. Taxidermists use a variety of materials to make this form, I use carved balsa wood for birds and a bind-up for the mammals. A bind-up is made by wrapping wood-wool (fine, soft wood-shavings, typically used as a packing material) tightly around wire using cotton thread to hold the structure together. In both birds and mammals the skull is cleaned and used within the head. Some of the wing and leg bones are kept attached to the bird skin with all the flesh cleaned away.

The skin is then mounted onto the form, the facial expression is sculpted under the skin often with clay and the eyes are made from glass or acrylic. Once the piece has dried, any skin not covered by fur or feathers loses its colour turning a dark yellow or grey. Such as around the eyes, within ears, on pads of the feet of mammals and legs and bills of birds. Finally the last stage is to paint these areas using acrylic paints. 

See a video of this process below. Please be aware that this video shows scenes of animals being skinned and flesh being removed from bones.

How long will an artwork take to complete from start to finish?

It depends on the size and type of the animal. For instance larger mammals take longer as there is simply more body to build and skin to sew, also a longer time is needed to pickle a larger skin and for the piece to then dry once finished. On the other hand a smaller specimen such as a tiny bird, needs a far more delicate approach working slowly so not to rip the skin. I would work on a larger mammal over the period of a month while the skin pickles and dries. And although I can complete a small bird in one day, I prefer to break up the stages over a few days so I can take my time and get the piece right. Alongside making the taxidermy I create the cases and groundwork to accompany them and often will be working on several pieces at once.

Do you have to know a lot about zoology and natural history?

To be a good taxidermist you must have a keen love of animals and the natural world to understand the way they live and move. I did not study Zoology or Natural History but have always been fascinated by nature and learnt a lot through physically making taxidermy. I have discovered so much about the individuality of species through working closely with the animals in a way I’m not sure I could have from a distance.

How did you get into Taxidermy as a career?

When I finished university in 2007 I wanted to work in museum conservation and so volunteered at the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. While I was there my focus turned to the taxidermy and I decided to give it go with the help of the museum's Curator. After that I wanted to be a taxidermist and spent the years that followed practicing and learning about the craft. I now work with the Booth Museum often and am grateful that they helped point me in the direction I have taken. Museums are amazing places that can truly inspire.

'Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy' is on display from 22 October 2016 to 1 May 2017.

Inspired by Anna Atkins

Today is Ada Lovelace day when we celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Our Librarian, Helen Williamson, is here to tell us about her work with our community partners creating beautiful cyanotypes inspired by Anna Atkins.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Shaftesbury Clinic, Springfield Hospital.
    Cyanotype made by Shaftesbury Clinic, Springfield Hospital.

‘We have written about Anna Atkins before on Ada Lovelace day but it’s a great opportunity to talk about her again, the beautiful book we hold in the library and the wonderful process of making cyanotypes.

The cyanotype was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842. He was a family friend of Atkins and a regular visitor at the family home in Kent. Atkins was a keen artist, as well as an enthusiastic botanist, and recognised that Herschel’s new invention, which required only a few chemicals, water and sunlight, offered an opportunity to approach botanical illustration in a different way.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Aisling from the Horniman Youth Panel.
    Cyanotype made by Aisling from the Horniman Youth Panel.

In 1843, she started work producing the cyanotypes that would make up Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. It is considered to be the first ever photographically illustrated book and we are very lucky to have a copy in our library which was previously owned by the museum’s founder, Frederick Horniman.

To make a cyanotype, objects are placed on a sheet of chemically treated paper and then exposed to sunlight. The length of exposure depends upon how bright a day it is. Once exposed, the paper is washed in water and dried, with the colour fully developing when dry.

The process of creating cyanotypes is almost unchanged since Anna Atkins was making her book, and it creates remarkably stable prints. Most early photographic prints have deteriorated completely by now or need to be kept in strict, environmentally-controlled storage. Cyanotypes, on the other hand, have endured amazingly well. The colours in our copy of her Photographs of British Algae are beautifully vivid and the paper is robust enough for handling and display.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by David Quan from Redstart Arts.
    Cyanotype made by David Quan from Redstart Arts.

Over the summer the library and the learning team ran an engagement project with a number of our community partners who were challenged to make cyanotypes of their own, inspired by Anna Atkins and using the botanical world around them. This is some of the beautiful work they produced.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Eliot Bank Museum Club.
    Cyanotype made by Eliot Bank Museum Club.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Esther and Maya from the Horniman Youth Panel.
    Cyanotype made by Esther and Maya from the Horniman Youth Panel.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by L.G, Arts Network.
    Cyanotype made by L.G, Arts Network.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by the Stroke Association.
    Cyanotype made by the Stroke Association.

A book of all of the cyanotypes made during this project is available to view in the library, alongside other material about Anna Atkins.

Visit one of our Library Open Days on the first Sunday of every month, or book an appointment.

Community Learning hits the Bullseye

Our Community Learning Volunteer, Jingsi Wang, tells us about her summer placement at the Horniman.

‘If you visited the Horniman this summer, you might have seen someone carrying a magnetic board and asking families to take part in a survey – that was me.

My student work placement at the Horniman was spent with the Community Learning Department helping to complete an evaluation for the summer activity sessions.

There were five different activity sessions in the 2016 summer programme: Horniman Explorers, A World of Stories, Big Wednesdays, Horniman Wildlife and Art and Craft.

How did I do the evaluation?

To evaluate the session, I collected the opinions and feedback from families taking part. Our focus was on the learning outcomes of each session – whether people gained a closer connection with the Horniman’s collections and whether they learnt about different cultures and the wider world.

To see if these learning objections were achieved, we came up with two evaluation methods: Bullseye and the Inspiration Wall.

Bullseye

Bullseye was the main method of evaluation. It was a large piece of paper with a black-and-white bullseye pattern stuck onto a magnetic board. The disc was divided into six equal sections and each section represented one question or statement from our learning objectives.

Visitors used magnets as their ‘darts’ on the disc. On a scale of one to five – one is the top and five is the lowest – the closer they put the magnets to the centre, the more they enjoyed themselves.

Inspiration Wall

Some learning objections can’t be examined by scoring, for instance, there’s one which is ‘encouraging curiosity and self-led discovery’. This is where the Inspiration Wall played its part. The Inspiration Wall is a flipchart board with an open-ended question on the top. People were invited to write their answers on the paper.

Outcomes

We tried to ensure that each session was evaluated equally. Now the summer has come to an end, all the statistics will be analysed to help us understand the strengths and limitations of the learning outcomes.

People at the Horniman are really nice and helpful – both visitors and everyone in the office and I was happy to experience every session of the whole summer programme during this evaluation. I learnt a lot during the process, such as the importance of adjusting and always having a Plan B. The best part of this student placement is that I was given the opportunity to put theory into practice and get a deeper understanding of how it feels to work in a museum.

I have had various volunteering experiences before but this is my first time doing something so specific, focused and consistent in a museum. This summer has shown me the whole process of the initiating, growing and completing the evaluation of the summer programme at the Horniman, from the very beginning until the end – a challenging yet worthwhile task.

I always say that I could not think of any better way to spend my summer than doing my student placement here at the Horniman. This summer may have come to an end, but it is really just another beginning!’

Find out more about how you can volunteer at the Horniman

Making History: Horniman Youth Panel and Patrick Hough

The Horniman Youth Panel set out to explore how Egyptian culture and history is represented in Hollywood Movies.

We learned to think critically about the film props in these movies while having a chance to experiment with script writing, directing voice acting and basic filmmaking techniques with the video artist Patrick Hough.

The workshop began with a brief introduction to Patrick’s artistic practice, looking at early photography on Hollywood film sets in Morocco, to newer video works that use film props and green screen backdrops. We then briefly looked at a range of short clips from films depicting Egypt, ranging from the fantastical to the historically accurate and discussed the visual elements from the sets, costumes and props, lighting while comparing and contrasting the different ways Egypt has been shown on film.

Later on, we worked with real physical film props loaned from a London prop house that are used in Egyptian movies. We explored their different material qualities – comparing them to the amazing Ancient Egyptian objects in our Hands on Base. We also discussed the varying degrees of accuracy these objects have in portraying cultures.

Finally, we broke up into two groups to develop a short script together. We were given a chance to create our own short film scene that gave a voice to the film prop and placed it in a theatrical context.

Participants directed the voice acting, choose the camera angles, light the scene and create direction notes for the editor.

Here are the final results – we hope you like them!

Find out how you can get involved with our Youth Panel

The charming case of Alfred William Rowlett

Robin Strub, our Anthropology Volunteer, has been looking into the Horniman's collection of charms.

Have you ever wondered how the Horniman got its objects?

Who brought them here, and why? 

I’m here to help answer some of those questions! I volunteer in Anthropology’s collection of English charms and amulets, which has a lot of pieces from a man named Alfred William Rowlett. 

He came from the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots and, between 1904 and 1933, he sold the Horniman dozens of items that he had found as part of his town’s rural culture.

What do you think of when you look at the objects in the Horniman’s cases?  What do you imagine of the people who collected them?

Do you think of a Victorian, professorial man with a tweed jacket and pipe?

How about a Victorian dustman with a bin and broom? 

  • AW Rowlett by CF Tebbutt, From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978
    From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978

This picture is of Rowlett, who worked as a Dustman for the local government.  Bert Goodwin, a historian and local of St Neots, remembers Rowlett, and wrote about him for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s 2011-12 winter edition, including this picture of Rowlett and his dustbin making his rounds. 

When looking up Rowlett in the 1881 Census I found he was in work as a labourer by the time he was 13. He went on to become a businessman, as well as a Dustman, with an antiques shop, and worked with the Horniman in a professional capacity.  He even had his own official stationery that he used to write letters and invoices to the Horniman!  Here is how his letterhead looked:

  • Rowlett's, letterhead
    letterhead

We don’t know how Rowlett started working with the Horniman but as a local, he had specialist knowledge and access to his community. This was undoubtedly part of the benefit of the Horniman doing business with him. In a letter dated 6 May 1907, Rowlett noted that ‘my business is to find out and get all the necessary information I can get’ on objects destined for the Museum. 

His research is still important for the Horniman, as the things we know about the objects he sourced came via his connections. The information would otherwise have been lost without his detailed descriptors. 

Here is what he wrote about a ‘Spinning Jenny’ (object number 7.199) as an example, with a transcription beneath.

  • Spinning Jenny, Object description
    Object description

Spinning Jenny.

used at Easton Socon, Beds for Raffling oranges sweets & home made cakes at Holiday times & festivals with an original charm against the children in getting to high a number so as to benefit the owner of Spinning Jenny

used by Mrs Newton at home and village feasts in & Round Bedfordshire Cambs & Hunts

1856 half penny a spin

This is how the Spinning Jenny works:

You can see a piece of orange flint tied to the device - that’s the charm.

We know what that flint was for thanks to Rowlett, as well as precise details about how the Spinning Jenny is used. (I thought the owner would’ve been caught out by cheating, but my Curator figured out that if you keep the stone against your palm and hold out the Spinning Jenny, nobody can see that you have it in your hand!)

Rowlett would also make handwritten labels for artefacts that were entering the collection, and many of his labels are still stored with the objects. This is an example for number 9.41 in our collection, a wood pigeon’s foot that was used to ward off cramp.

  • Wood Pigeon, foot label
    foot label

A lot of the charms that Rowlett brought us are things from the natural world that people associated with various curative powers.

It may seem strange today, but the idea was that wood pigeons never get foot cramps. If I carry a wood pigeon’s foot, maybe that will protect me too. If you have ever heard of someone carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, it’s not too far a leap from practices today.

Rowlett’s community of St Neots still remembers him as someone to go to for these kinds of all-natural remedies for health problems.

Local historian Rosa Young transcribed several adverts from a 1900 issue of a local paper for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s, which included an old advert that Rowlett had put in the paper for his own special patent medicine. It cured everything (naturally) but Rowlett’s neighbours did come to him seeking his medical expertise.

Bert Goodwin, the local historian who photographed Rowlett, recounts that when he was a child he had a wart on his knee cured by Rowlett,

He cut a small twig from a bush which he called ‘Joseph’s Thorn’,  which he shaped into a spatula, and then made his mark on the wart X.  “There,” he said, “it will be gone by the next full moon.”  Strangely enough, I forgot about it, but when I next looked it had gone.

Because of Rowlett’s work at St Neots, the local historical society put up a Blue Plaque for him.

  • Rowlett's blue plaque, Thanks to Eatons Community Association
    Thanks to Eatons Community Association

Like the wood pigeon’s foot above, many of the objects that Rowlett brought to the Horniman were considered to have health benefits. The charms I’m studying were used by real people who believed in them, and used them to solve a variety of different problems. Ironically, Rowlett – with his Joseph’s Thorn for curing warts – thought that some of the charms’ owners were ‘eccentric’!

I don’t know about you, but I have lucky charms. Millions of people all over the world believe in the power of objects and in 2018, the Horniman will open a new gallery where you will be able to find charms from all around the world, including those collected by Rowlett!

If you’d like to see what Rowlett brought to the Horniman, and 2018 is too long to wait, you can find all of Rowlett’s objects online

Behind the scenes and brilliant bees

Behind the scenes and brilliant bees! One of our Engage volunteers, Shelagh, tells us her top five favourite things about being a Horniman volunteer. 

'I've been an Engage volunteer since April 2012, and besides working in the Nature Base and on the Object Handling Trolley, I have helped out at the Mud Kitchen with the Stroke Group, the craft workshops, and making bug hotels and bird treats with children.

I missed being a volunteer for nearly a year from Autumn 2013 due to cancer treatment and coming back has been an important part of my recovery.

The top five things I’ve learned from volunteering with Engage are:

1. Wonderful BEES!
The live bees are a unique catalyst for conversation and learning with visitors and amongst the volunteers. You can see the queen laying eggs, pollen-laden workers coming in and unloading their 'pancakes' of pollen and stacking them into cells, 'waggle-dancing', workers taking a disc of wax from between their own segments and moulding it on to the comb. When people are gazing in on this miniature world and all its goings-on, they (and we) are in a really opened-up and curious state, and the conversations can go in so many directions: the life of bees and our relationship to them, food, hierarchies, the environment etc. I often wonder what other catalysts for this kind of opened-up conversation we could create.

2. The Horniman is a fantastic community resource.
This needs a whole blog to itself! Not only are the museum and gardens a brilliant green space in SE London, but the Horniman proactively reaches out to the local community in learning and entertainment and attracts a wide diversity of visitors. Over the years my family and I have been frequent visitors to the Horniman for drumming and dance classes, 'Late' events, live music, watercolour and writing workshops and just to hang out in the cafe.

3. The Horniman is good to its volunteers.
When I was looking for voluntary work in spring 2012, I tried several organisations and the Horniman stood out a mile for being organised, friendly, communicative and offering good training before and after starting the work. As volunteers, we are also encouraged to contribute our ideas to enhance visitors' experiences of new exhibitions. The backstage and social events also help to create camaraderie amongst the volunteers.

4. Behind the scenes at the museum.
I was amazed to learn that only a tiny amount of the museum's objects are on display at any one time, and was fascinated by the visit to the collection at the Central Store early on in my time as a volunteer. The Engage Backstage events are a great way to learn more about the collections, their care and origins. Visitors often ask us questions about where the objects come from - in many cases, no one knows where, when or who collected the object. We have also had the chance to see new exhibitions being installed e.g. Plantastic.

5. Back to the bees.
Following my own curiosity about the bees has led me to find out more about them - who knew that they not only communicate information about food sources to each other through the 'waggle dance' but also by vibrating the combs, or that the temperature the larvae are reared at can influence what sex they turn out to be, or that the colony is not organised as a hierarchy with queen or "top bee" in charge? Biologists now believe that the colony can be seen as a "super-organism" i.e. the whole colony is equivalent to a single animal.'

Find out more about becoming an Engage Volunteer.

Five Things I’ve Learned Through Volunteering

For Volunteers Week this year, one of our Engage Volunteers, Catherine Miller, tells us her highlights of being an Engage Volunteer and why she keeps coming back to the Horniman: 

It’s been four months since I joined the small group huddled outside the staff entrance to the Horniman, waiting to be let in from the February cold to do our first Engage training session. Since then, I’ve manned the handling trolley, handed out colourful cloaks for Pitchy Patchy and gazed at bees on most Saturdays. It’s not exactly the usual way to spend a weekend - so why do I give up my time? Well, every week on Engage is different, and I’ve learned a lot about the Horniman, its weird and wonderful exhibits and volunteering in general. Here are my top five lessons:

1. Volunteers come from all walks of life. It’s fantastic to work alongside people from all over the world (India, Italy and New Zealand to name but a few) and all sorts of day-jobs. Everyone brings their own unique perspective and it’s also fascinating to find out how and why people got involved in the museum. For some, it’s a chance to sample a heritage career, and for others, it’s a rewarding hobby. Working as part of the Engage team is a great chance to meet new and diverse people.

2. Learning comes in many forms. As a teacher, I know how easy it is to get wrapped up in ‘levels of progress’ and exam results, but at the Horniman we see all sorts of people learning in many different ways - from feeling a snake skin for the first time to watching a jellyfish dance around its tank. There’s a moment when a visitor’s eyes light up and you know they’re intrigued by something. That spark makes our work worth it.

3. Each family is unique. During the week I work with teenagers, so interacting with younger children and families has been a fun experience for me. Something that has surprised me is how individual even the smallest visitors can be. Some are shy and wide-eyed, clinging on to their adult’s leg until someone demonstrates that it’s perfectly safe to touch the ostrich egg... others are brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm... and others just want to run around! Then there are the super stylish toddlers in catwalk-ready tutus and dinosaur onesies. Not that I’m jealous…

4. Taxidermy is a talking point - and surprisingly relevant even in today’s world. There’s something quite powerful in being able to view a once-living animal, not just in a virtual space or as a photo but in three dimensions in front of you. Being able to touch an example is even better, hence the delighted reactions to our Chicken Turtle. Taxidermied animals have also sparked off some interesting conversations about life and death with younger visitors, for whom the concept of preserving a body can raise many questions.

5. Bees are endlessly fascinating. I've learned lots of bits and bobs about all the objects on the handling trolley and some of the museum's other exhibits, but I have to say the bees are one of my favourite things. I can stand and stare at the Horniman’s hive for hours, watching the workers bustle to and fro or trying to spot the elusive queen. It was amazing to see the change in their behaviour from winter to spring as the group woke up from their slumber and began to collect pollen in earnest. I’ve been inspired to find out more about them and even read a fantastic novel, Laline Paull’s ‘The Bees’. I’ll never look at a common honeybee the same way!

Volunteering at the Horniman has given me such a valuable insight into the ‘behind-the-scenes’ workings of a museum, and allowed me to meet a wide range of interesting people, from staff to visitors to my fellow volunteers.

I hope to learn more as my volunteering journey continues!

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