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How a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection can help modern science

Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.

I'm Katie, and I'm three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.

The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.

  • Herbarium Volume, Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
    Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
 

The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant's scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database. 

Once it is all in one place, it then becomes possible to spot some trends within the herbarium data - for example, who the main collectors were, which amateur societies or organisations they were linked to, what they collected, where and why. This information then enables us to begin to understand the herbarium within its historical context and uncover the interesting stories surrounding Victorian plant collecting. Through documenting the herbarium we will also be able to make it an important resource for botanical researchers today. 

  • Mimsy Database, An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy
    An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy

So why would a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection be relevant to modern science? Well, due to the work of these plant-collecting Victorians we know what grew where and when in the period they were collecting. For example, this herbarium sheet includes the name of the specimen - Potentilla reptans - and where it was collected - Thame in Oxfordshire - and when - July 1843. This information can be used to compare the known locations of Potentilla reptans today with where it was collected in the past, using examples held in this herbarium and others held elsewhere.

  • Potentilla reptans, Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott
    Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott

In doing so, it is possible to track the spread or decline of individual species - its distribution - through time. Species such as Potentilla reptans, also known as Creeping Cinquefoil, viewed by many gardeners as a slightly annoying weed, may not be such a cause for concern, but species that are rare and declining due to habitat loss, climate change or disease, or species which may have become invasive through their ability to thrive due to recent climatic changes, can be tracked by comparing data from historic herbaria with their contemporary counterparts. We only have to think about how much the British landscape has changed from the places familiar to someone like John Constable or Charlotte Bronte in the first half of the 1800s, compared to what is there now,  to understand how plant populations and diversity have changed over time. 

Not only is the herbarium useful in ecological terms, it is also interesting for us to see how plants have been named over time. Luckily, the name Potentilla reptans is still used today as the scientific name for Creeping Cinquefoil, but in other species, this may have changed many times between the mid-1800s and 2017. A single plant species may, at different points in time, have been attributed many different names. Potentilla reptans itself has around 17 synonymous names which are no longer in use or may previously have been used to describe a plant that was actually Potentilla reptans, but that botanists thought a different species. 

All in all, working with the herbarium has been great fun so far. It is interesting, as a museum studies student, to see the differences between collections care then and now - mercuric chloride, a form of mercury, may have made a super pest repellent in 1843 but now we go for less toxic methods - and after a while you do feel a bit of a connection between yourself and the plant collectors. Perhaps it is the nature of decoding the idiosyncrasies of someone's handwriting, but it is easy to feel as though you know the collectors through their work, which is, as you can see from the pictures, often not only scientifically valuable but beautiful.

In my next blog post, I hope to talk a little more about some of these collectors, as well as give an update on how the documentation is going.

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

Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer

Christmas is drawing near and we are thinking about the sounds of the festive season. Nothing says Christmas music quite like sleigh bells. We have some wonderful sleigh bells in our Musical Instrument collection that once belonged to the musician Joan Stonehewer.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, The sleigh bells belonging to Joan Stonehewer, now in the Horniman Musical Instrument collection. Object number M5-1987.
    The sleigh bells belonging to Joan Stonehewer, now in the Horniman Musical Instrument collection. Object number M5-1987.

Joan made her living as a ‘concert artiste’ by playing the saw and other novelty instruments including the sleigh bells. Her variety theatre performances were of a type that was very popular from the turn of the twentieth century up to WWII.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Joan Stonehewer is seen on this postcard at the height of her popularity with her sleigh bells, saw and cello bow and a zither. The inscription in black ink reads, 'with love from Joan'. The saw was specially made for her in c.1930 by Jedson, England. The sleigh bells, made at about the same time, are probably from France.
    Joan Stonehewer is seen on this postcard at the height of her popularity with her sleigh bells, saw and cello bow and a zither. The inscription in black ink reads, 'with love from Joan'. The saw was specially made for her in c.1930 by Jedson, England. The sleigh bells, made at about the same time, are probably from France.

Joan appeared at the Royal Variety Hall and the BBC, performed at dinners, receptions and cabarets and her repertoire included songs such as the "Waltz" by Victor Herbert.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, With Europe teetering on the brink of war, this New Year's Eve 1938 dinner party programme evokes the ambience of a passing era. Held at the Chiltern Court Restaurant NW1, Joan Stonehewer provided the entertainment together with Mahomed Ali. Lending an air of daring exoticism to the evening, he was billed as a Magician, Hypnotist, Pickpocket and the World's Fastest Act. Both Artistes highlight the fact that they have performed before Royalty. The French names for the various dishes camouflage their essential Englishness.
    With Europe teetering on the brink of war, this New Year's Eve 1938 dinner party programme evokes the ambience of a passing era. Held at the Chiltern Court Restaurant NW1, Joan Stonehewer provided the entertainment together with Mahomed Ali. Lending an air of daring exoticism to the evening, he was billed as a Magician, Hypnotist, Pickpocket and the World's Fastest Act. Both Artistes highlight the fact that they have performed before Royalty. The French names for the various dishes camouflage their essential Englishness.

Joan was an extremely successful self-publicist. She had many professional business cards that she would give out to drum up her own publicity and was determined to succeed in her career.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Four of Joan Stonehewer's business cards. She lived at the given address in Wimbledon from 1939 until 1956 when she moved next door. Clearly enjoying the company of children, she had two of her own for whom she wrote stories. These were later published and read, at her suggestion, on BBC radio. On the back of one of the cards she advertises to perform at children's parties.
    Four of Joan Stonehewer's business cards. She lived at the given address in Wimbledon from 1939 until 1956 when she moved next door. Clearly enjoying the company of children, she had two of her own for whom she wrote stories. These were later published and read, at her suggestion, on BBC radio. On the back of one of the cards she advertises to perform at children's parties.

She made it very clear that she would not stop working when she got married – which was quite an extraordinary thing to do in the 1940s – when she had her wedding photos taken holding her musical saw.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, On her wedding day, Joan Stonehewer and her husband, Henry Townsend, are surrounded by friends and relatives. She married during WWII which explains the number of men in uniform. The presence and prominence of the musical saw conveys her determination to continue in her chosen career: an aim she realised fully.
    On her wedding day, Joan Stonehewer and her husband, Henry Townsend, are surrounded by friends and relatives. She married during WWII which explains the number of men in uniform. The presence and prominence of the musical saw conveys her determination to continue in her chosen career: an aim she realised fully.

After her wedding and in the years to come, variety theatre started to become less popular. As television became more readily available and tastes changed, work was harder to come by.

In the Horniman archives, we have letters Joan received from the BBC showing that she had contacted them about future work – an offer which was politely declined.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, A letter from the BBC responding to Joan's request about future work. The letter also mentions her children's stories she sent in, which were read out on BBC radio.
    A letter from the BBC responding to Joan's request about future work. The letter also mentions her children's stories she sent in, which were read out on BBC radio.

Joan retired from the stage in the early 1960s but she still appeared in a list of The Concert Artistes’ Association in 1968, the year before died.

Much of what we know about Joan was found in documents given to the Museum with the sleigh bells in 1987 by her son, Francis Townsend. It is wonderful to know the story behind the instrument and to learn more about this talented and engaging musician.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Listen to Joan Stonehewer play the musical saw in our Music Gallery
    Listen to Joan Stonehewer play the musical saw in our Music Gallery

Visit our Music Gallery to hear a recording of Joan playing her musical saw.

What we did on our holidays…Helping Heritage Survive

Helen Merrett, our Collections Officer, writes about our work on a Regional Restoration Camp in Kosovo.

For a second year, myself and Alex (our Conservation Officer) took a few weeks away from the Horniman to volunteer with Heritage Without Borders (HwB) working in partnership with Cultural Heritage Without Borders (CHwB), on one of their award winning Regional Restoration Camps.

HwB is a charity organisation based at UCL and CHwB is an independent non-governmental organisation. Both are dedicated to rescuing and preserving cultural heritage affected by conflict, neglect or human and natural disaster.

For the last three-years CHwB have run a Regional Restoration Camp in Mitrovica, a town in Kosovo divided by the Ibar River. It is still an area of recent contention and the camps aim to bring communities together, as well as preserving cultural heritage.


Alex demonstrating using a microscope to investigate damage and how best to treat an object

Based in the Museum of the City of Mitrovica, the camp provides lectures on the theory of preventative conservation, collections management, remedial conservation and interpretation, as well as a lot of hands on practical work - including working with the museum’s own collections. The participants ranged from university students to local museum professionals and international heritage workers, largely from the Balkan region.


Two participants cleaning a leather miner’s bag from the museum’s collection

Alex was our fantastic Team Leader and made sure there was a brilliant range of content for the course, and also had to organise sourcing local supplies to make sure that there was real value in what we were demonstrating. The course is very practical, with sessions on marking artefacts, basic conservation cleaning and repairs, sewing covers for costumes, packing artefacts for storage and transport, and the ever popular egg packing challenge! In the mornings we would start with lectures to inform on all these subjects, and Alex led a number of sessions on ethics in conservation, pest monitoring, object drawing and material experimentation where the students got to try out a selection of conservation tools on some sacrificial materials which had had a few 'little accidents'.


Alex showing participants how to make Paraloid for marking objects

My role was focused on the importance of documenting collections – to truly understand what you have, how best to work with it and preserve it for future generations. I also discussed the ethical side of collecting, documenting and storing collections, taking in to consideration legal and sector guidelines, but also a variety of cultural factors. Along with this I was able to teach and assist with a variety of packing and handling techniques, practical documentation tasks and preventative conservation.

Give a Dog a Bone

As we continue to improve the storage of our natural history collections, we have been able to reunite yet another specimen with its missing elements. Today we are working on a dog skeleton.

A perfect fit! This portion of cranium and mandible belong together.

In this case we were able to unite this skeleton with its cranium.

Working through the disarticulated skeleton.

Volunter Lizzy lining up the dog's vertebrae.

All together, the specimen is now housed together in one box.

Knowing the specimen’s journey to the Horniman Museum was via Kings’ and Chelsea College, curator Paolo and volunteer Lizzy were able to reunite this dog with its cranium. Excellent detective work!

This dog is one of many happily reunited specimens. We previously featured a porpoise whose flipper was reunited on our in-the-horniman tumblr page. Be sure to follow the tumblr blog to find out more about our activities behind the scenes.

Displaying a doll’s house

The Horniman Study Collection Centre (SCC) is always a hive of activity and this month has been no different. Our industrious curatorial team are busily highlighting objects for potential redisplay in the near future. Our job at the SCC is to make sure they are packed for transportation, properly documented (including being marked with their unique number, photographed and measured) and ready to go to the museum for conservation and mounting prior to display.

One such object (and I say ‘object’ loosely) is a lovely dolls house which was last on display in the 1980s. Our curators have been researching the doll’s house and it is a fascinating mix of periods and styles, including some unusual parts dating to the 1850s.

On first inspection the doll’s house contents numbered about 150 pieces but on further investigation this wasn’t the case. In order for us to track every part of the house, we needed to ensure that every individual part had a separate number so that we can record the location of all of the tiny pieces. This is particularly important with display objects, as quite often all of the parts may not be on display at the same time.

 

On completion of the documentation, we now know that the doll’s house has over 400 parts, all of which have an individual record and photograph on Mimsy (our database).

Our next job was to make sure it was packed well. Many of the tiny parts are incredibly fragile, just imagine a tiny set of wine glasses and decanter. Therefore good packing, particularly as we know it will have to be transported to the museum, is essential. For the particularly fragile parts, we cut out individual homes for them in plastazote:

  

Hopefully in the near future the doll’s house will be on display in all its glory where you can discover all the wonderful objects for yourselves at the Museum.

If you are interested in our work behind the scenes, check out our tour of the Horniman store

 

Seeing Double

Documentation Assistant Rachel updates us on what the Collections People Stories team are getting up to in the stores.

Having reviewed over 27,000 objects from the Anthropology collection to date, the teams are currently pausing to carry out another important task: removing duplicate object records from our database.

Why do we have duplicates? Over the long history of the Horniman, some of our objects have become detached from their identifying numbers, labels, or other documentation. These have been assigned temporary numbers so that we can still keep track of everything that we have. Thanks to sterling detective work by our curators and the review teams, we are now able to identify some of these objects and reconcile them with our original accession records.

The teams are currently trawling through the database, copying all of the information from the temporary records into the ‘real’ record for each object and then deleting the redundant duplicates. This tidying work is important: the aim is that eventually each object will have only one record containing all of its information, so that we know exactly how many items we have in the collection, and where they all are. Duplicated information can cause confusion for both staff and visitors, and just makes our database look untidy!

The process may sound somewhat laborious (and it is!), but it is also quite exciting: a number of the objects with temporary numbers are from our founding collection, acquired over the years by Frederick Horniman and first catalogued between 1897 and 1899. It is very satisfying to restore the true identities of our oldest objects. The earliest number so far reconciled is object number 18, a beautiful Japanese clay figure of two shishi (lions) fighting.

Other important objects reconciled with their original numbers are these two Belu heads from Burma.

They are number 649 in our accession register, and they are important not just for being part of Mr Horniman’s collection, but they were also collected by him on a journey he made to Burma in the late 1890s after he retired from the tea trade.

So far we have reconciled the records for over 500 objects, including spoons, skillets, swords, charms, containers and chess pieces. There is a long way to go, and it will take years (if ever!) to achieve a duplicate-free database, but we are making a good start.

Keep up with the team from the stores on Twitter @HornimanReviews, or follow their Tumblr blog for more fascinating finds from the stores.

Volunteer Rocks

We’ve previously blogged about preparations to uncover our fossil collection in a new display, but selecting the specimens that will go on show has only been made possible by the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Steve Smith has been volunteering at our Study Collections Centre for over three years, working on over a hundred thousand fossils in an extraordinary hidden collection.

In 2011, I attended a visit to the Horniman Museum and Gardens organised by the Open University to see the fossil collection on display in the balcony and the mineral and rock collection in a side room. We were met by Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, who introduced us to the Geology collection. I had recently retired from lecturing in Electronics and had only a scant memory of the geology degree I did many years ago, but the visit re-vamped my earlier interest, so I asked Paolo, quite innocently, whether there might be a need for a volunteer to document any of the fossil specimens not on display. He told me that the museum catalogue was incomplete for a separate fossil collection held in store. Maybe there was a chance for me.

The museum initiation process was extensive. Before starting, there were many training programmes to be done including an introduction to the main collections and displays, health & safety, and correct specimen handling. I was particularly interested in the introduction to the musical instrument display, having been a professional drummer years before. But my work was not to be at the museum; I would be situated at the offsite Study Collections Centre (SCC) instead.

Paolo showed me the fossil collection I would be working on, which houses a jaw-dropping 175,000 specimens in over 600 drawers, trays and boxes. All of this in two tiny dehumidified basement rooms. This was to be my work area, once a week, for quite some time.

  • The Horniman Geology Store, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan
  • The Horniman Geology Store, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

This massive collection of fossils was acquired by the museum on 1 February 1989 from the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. The original collector, Walter H. Bennett was a mining geologist who collected fossils from world-wide locations, but mostly from the UK. Many fossils are in an excellent condition showing much fascinating detail and may be comparable to some in the national collections.

The notes given in the existing database for this collection were inadequate; often naming just the group of animals the specimen came from, together with some place names and the geological age. In some cases there was no information at all.

We made a working copy of the database in a spreadsheet so that I could easily add to or correct any wrong entries. Working through the collection, I found many items with only a collection location and so had to assess the animal group (phylum) and, if possible, order or family so we knew which species were represented.

At first, the task was daunting, but each new drawer opened up a new set of ancient life-forms with their own characteristics. Some drawers have over 50 items in tiny snap bags to be prised open so the label can be read. This tested my patience.

There are pieces of black shale with stringy marks on them resembling razor-edged wire called graptolites.

As well as trilobites, both whole and in fragments.

There were also ammonites and shell fish of every description.

One drawer is full of samples from the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone with insects, fish and ancient lobster impressions.

Another drawer has fossils from the Cambrian Age Burgess Shale, giving an insight into the very beginnings of more complex animal life-forms on Earth.

The aim of this work is to complete the documentation as far as possible, so this large fossil collection appears correctly on the museum database and is available, with photographs, for anyone doing research or merely having an interest in fossils and their evolution.

Collections such as this have been important in helping us understand the evolution of animals on Earth and the changing environmental conditions in which they died out or survived. They enable us to link rocks from various world-wide outcrops to their former locations before ancient continents broke up and drifted apart, and provide evidence for past mass extinctions. For example, we know know one such event, the Permo-Trias, left only 4% remaining from the previous animal populations: all current life has descended from that 4%!

New discoveries each year further extend our knowledge of earth’s remarkable history. And who knows, while pushing the frontiers of knowledge ever forward, I may even get to blast away on some drums in the collection. Maybe form a new band – playing rock, of course!

Adventures in the Costume Stores

Jack Davy is part of the Horniman's Collections People Stories team, working to carry out a review of our vast and varied Anthropology collections. Here, he explains the importance of photographing objects and uncovers some gems from the stores.

Over the last few months, as part of the Collections People Stories project, I have been working one day a week at the Horniman stores on the collections of European and Asian costume.

The Horniman has an enormous, diverse and fascinating collection of clothing and textiles from all over the world. Many of these objects are inherently fragile and therefore can only be put on display for short periods of time.

Thankfully, modern technology allows for much greater interaction between the public and these delicate objects, many of which are accompanied by stories of travel, adventure and ingenuity.

  • Albanian tunic, 18.2.53/24
    18.2.53/24

This is where I come in.

My role involved taking photographs of costume that can be used to provide a record of the object at a particular point in time. This is useful for a number of reasons:

  • Slovakian apron, 1.8.65/1
    1.8.65/1

  • It enables the museum’s curators to send images to experts (many living in far-flung places), who can provide detailed feedback on the costumes. Then these objects can be incorporated into wider narratives of human society that underpin the study and display of anthropology at the museum.
  • These photos will help the museum’s conservation team in the future to compare the photographs to the objects checking for any deterioration or damage over time- a constant concern with these kind of fragile objects.
  • It enables the general public, whether expert or not, to view and interact with these collections remotely.

  • Chinese silk jacket, nn525
    nn525

Both the European and Asian costume collections at the Horniman are remarkably strong, including a diverse array of clothing worn at important festivals and feast days.

  • Gujarati dress, nn3577
    nn3577

If you are interested in learning more, why not explore the Horniman's collections online to discover thousands of objects already reviewed, and let us know what you think. You can also get in touch with the project team on Twitter.

Modelling the Natural History Gallery

Things are moving along in our Natural History Gallery, which has been closed this week as we make way for the new displays coming in 2015. As we saw in our last post, most of the objects from the entrance to the gallery have been taken off display, and this week, some of the older, empty showcases have been removed.

Visitors to the Gallery in the near future will find they have a much clearer view of the Horniman Walrus than they are used to.

But much of the preparation that goes on to prepare for the new display happens behind the scenes, and our Exhibitions and Natural History teams have been hard at work making plans.

This begins with sketches, which our graphic designer turns into more detailed computer models using the high-quality photographs from our object database.

But 2D can only get you so far; sometimes the only way to see what will fit where is to create your own 3D model.

There are still many decisions to make about which specimens are best suited to telling the story of this new display, and where they can be displayed.

Fans of our Edward Hart bird cases will be pleased to know that many of them will be returning to display, with some new examples from the stores joining them.

The detailed measurements our Documentation team record for each object means they can be recreated exactly to scale in a 2D or 3D mock-up, so that we are able to tell exactly where they will or won't fit.

And can you guess which this plasticine model is representing?

The Natural History Gallery is re-opening this weekend, so you can see the recent changes for yourself. The next closure will happen in January, as we prepare the showcases for the specimens coming in.

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