[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Previous Next
of 11 items

Birds: myth, lore & legend

As Halloween approaches, we explore the myths and legends surrounding some of the birds in our Natural History collection.

Humans have always seen birds as having mysterious and magical powers. Maybe because their colours, songs and the way they fly can be so beautiful and intriguing.

We've been speaking to Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor, authors of Birds: myth, lore & legend to look at three of the most magical birds, and the different qualities and beliefs humans have associated with them.


  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Raven on display in the Natural History Gallery
    Raven on display in the Natural History Gallery

For many people in Britain, their first encounters with ravens are at the Tower of London. It is said that if ravens ever fly away from the Tower the crown will fall. Folklore says that wild ravens have always lived at the Tower, and fed on the bodies of those executed as enemies of the Crown.

Ravens pop up in mythology and legend all over the world. The god Odin, from Norse mythology, was accompanied by a pair of ravens called Huginn and Muninn. The birds, representing reflection/thought and memory, flew over the world each morning and on their return would settle on the god’s shoulders and whisper to him all that they had seen. Thanks to this Odin became renowned as the wisest of the gods. Norse sailors exploring the northern seas also used ravens but as navigators, sending them out from ships in search of land.

In the Bible, Noah first sends out a raven to look for dry land. It is when the raven does not return that he sends out a dove.

In North American folklore, the raven is seen as both creator and amoral prankster, and as such are often a central figure in Native American and Inuit creation stories.


  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Magpie from our Handling Collection
    Magpie from our Handling Collection

In Britain, the magpie is the bearer of both good and bad luck – depending on how many are seen. Many are familiar with this old rhymes, differing according to region:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a wedding, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for Heaven, nine for Hell,

And ten for the Devil’s own sell [self].

In ancient Rome, the magpie was associated with magic and fortune telling, while in Scandinavia some witches rode magpies or turned into them. In Germany, the bird was considered a bird of the underworld and in Scotland it was said that magpies had a drop of the devil’s blood on their tongues.

Outside of Europe, the magpie has a much more positive image. In Native American legends, the magpie was considered a friend of hunter-gatherer tribes. In Korea, the magpie is thought to bring good news and in China it is a symbol of happiness, foretelling and good fortune.


  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Snowy owl on display in our Natural History Collection
    Snowy owl on display in our Natural History Collection

Across the world, few birds are as culturally symbolic – and contradictory – as owls. The sights and sound of an owl was linked to death in ancient Egypt and desolation in the Bible. In ancient Rome, owls were said to have predicted the passing of several Caesars. Fear and dread of the birds is similarly deep-rooted in Native American, African and several Asian cultures.

Yet in ancient Greece, subverting this trend, the Little Owl represented or accompanied Athene, the goddess of wisdom. The owl is also presented as a wise character in popular fiction, like Hedwig in Harry Potter or Archimedes in The Once and Future King, even when they are actually less smart, like Owl in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Owls are often associated with magic. An owl can fly without sounds, find its prey in near total darkness and rotate its head almost a full circle. Human attempts to harness this otherworldliness in magic is widespread. In Japan, owl images were used to guard against famine and epidemics, while in central Asia, owl-feather amulets were worn to ward off evil spirits. For some Native American tribes, wearing owl feathers signified bravery and brought good fortune. European owls were often the familiars of witches and wizards, such as Merlin's companion in the Arthurian legends and Harry Potter.

You can visit the raven and owls in our Natural History Gallery.

You can see our magpie in the Hands on Base.

How to make felt animals

One of our Volunteers, Genevieve, has been inspired by the Horniman collections to make her own animals. Her tiny harvest mouse has stolen our hearts. Find out how she went about making them look realistic. 

'Being part of the engage volunteer team, I have been able to encourage children to look more carefully at animals though the handling collection. I’ve also helped them learn by asking them questions and encouraging them to feel and experience the animal. I have seen the wonder and excitement at being able to touch the soft fur of a wild rabbit and the hard sharp teeth of a lion amongst other treasures.

I have also been learning myself about the animals in the Natural History Gallery and the Nature Base. From day one of my Volunteering, I fell in love with the live harvest mice in the Nature Base and rushed home to try and make one of my own.

  • Felt harvest mouse, The inspiration for this felt creation is the harvest mouse in the Horniman Nature Base
    The inspiration for this felt creation is the harvest mouse in the Horniman Nature Base

I learnt about their prehensile tails which curl around the straw or grass they live in. They make spherical nests which they weave out of dry grass. The lucky Horniman mice have a fantastic home with a couple of tennis balls to hide in, which you can see in their glass case.

I made my own mouse using a wire, felting wool and even some bits of an old brush for whiskers. I wanted him to look like the taxidermy examples in the Museum so I mounted him on some pieces of wheat!

  • Felt harvest mouse, By attaching the felt mouse to straw it makes it look like it is in its natural habitat
    By attaching the felt mouse to straw it makes it look like it is in its natural habitat

One of my favourite animals is the gecko. This is a picture of a family pet, a leopard geko, which I tried to copy.

  • leopard gecko, The pet family leopard gecko
    The pet family leopard gecko

I started with a frame made out of wire to get the general shape of the animal. Then, I wrapped it up with string to make a “bind” just as a taxidermist does. Wool is then wrapped around to build up the body then the process of needle felting helps to add details and definition to the limbs. The needle felting needle has tiny notches along it to help tangle and mesh the wool fibres together.

  • How to make felt animals, A wire 'skeleton' lies at the heart of the animal and is covered in felt
    A wire 'skeleton' lies at the heart of the animal and is covered in felt

I used glass beads as eyes. I tried to get all the spot patterns to match the photograph of the real gecko. I also used the exhibits in the gallery to check to see that I had the gecko leg shapes correct and found out about a gecko which can fly!

  • Felt geko, The finished felt geko
    The finished felt geko

  • Felt polar bear, Another felt creation - a polar bear
    Another felt creation - a polar bear

I have just been given a full fleece of Jacob’s sheep wool and will try to copy some of the skills of the nomadic people by wet felting the wool to make some slippers for winter! You can see some Inuit socks on the Horniman website which are made by wet felting. This fabric is still made into objects such as hats, clothing, tents, bags and rugs.'

  • Felt elephant, A felt elephant with a lovely long trunk
    A felt elephant with a lovely long trunk

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.

A Trip to the Taxidermist

Every now and then some of our handling collection objects need a bit of a spruce up. Maria from our Learning team has blogged about taking a few of our taxidermy specimens for some specialist treatment.

One of the things that makes the Horniman so special and enduringly popular with visitors, is that it is one of the few museums where you can actually touch museum objects.

If you’ve ever wondered the exact ratio of bushy to soft in a fox’s tail, (and frankly who hasn’t?) the Horniman is where you can come and find out. We are famous for our Natural History collection and the Nature Base and Hands on Base allow our visitors an opportunity to explore through touch, some of our taxidermy specimens, like those seen behind glass in the gallery.

With hundreds of hands stroking our foxes and badgers, smoothing the plumage of a mallard or two and exploring the knobbly notches of our caiman’s skin, it is little wonder that from time to time we have to spruce up and repair our current specimens, and sometimes even source replacements. While the Horniman has an excellent conservation team on hand, our taxidermy is repaired by a specialist taxidermist offsite.

It was on just such a mission that I found myself and a colleague driving over Battersea Bridge, in the company of not just an A-Z, but with a badger, tawny owl and chicken skeleton in the back. 

Derek Frampton, our taxidermist, can do everything from re-fitting a squirrel’s tail, to ethically sourcing and stuffing a replacement fox for the Handling Collection. He has also been known to spruce up the feathers of an owl, and to make models based on museum specimens and historical records, to recreate extinct species.

Come along to our Sunday Discovery For All sessions to explore some of our taxidermy for yourself, or meet select specimens in the Nature Base.

Communicating through Objects

Every year over 450 people suffer a stroke in Lewisham. The Stroke Association supports stroke survivors to attend weekly support groups where they can develop and practice communication skills and build their confidence. In the past few months, the Stroke Association has partnered with the museum to develop a series of workshops exploring issues relevant to the life of stroke survivors. Our sessions have taken place in the Hands on Base and complemented by a visit to the galleries.

In one particular session we explored the use of sound in non-verbal communication, looking at musical instruments that serve a similar purpose across the world and listening at some recordings, such as click languages from Africa and whistled languagefrom Europe. The group then visited the Music Gallery to draw cross-cultural comparisons.   

  • The Stroke Association group explores musical instruments, These talking drums are used in some part of West Africa to communicate across several miles.
    These talking drums are used in some part of West Africa to communicate across several miles.

Anne Jones, group member at the Stroke Association, has shared some thoughts with us:

I was saying it (the lilting) sounded Irish or Scottish, I did my Scottish accent for the group. When we were children we would go to Scotland on holiday with English accents and by the end of the holiday we would have Scottish accents!

  • Anne holding a large conch trumpet from India, These instruments are used in India as a communication tool.
    These instruments are used in India as a communication tool.

We looked at the music, we looked at instruments and the Horniman staff explained what they were. Then we looked at the music gallery.

We looked at the bagpipes, they were my favourite thing in the gallery.

Learn more about our work with groups like the Stroke Association on our Community Learning pages.

On the Trolley

If you've visited our Natural History Gallery or Nature Base, you might have met one or two of our Engage volunteers. This team are a fantastic addition to the Museum, encouraging visitors to explore a little more and always ready to share their knowledge.

One of the key roles for our Engage volunteers is setting up and staffing the Engage trolley, which displays objects from the Horniman's handling collection in the Gallery.

Choosing objects for the handling trolley is always a difficult task so we asked our Engage volunteers to pick their favourites. We've had many fascinating and intriguing objects on the trolley for visitors to explore over the years and now and until the end of July, visitors will be able to handle and learn about our volunteers favourite objects.

Rhys chose the whale vertebrae.

The whale vertebrae is a huge, very tactile piece and really gives a sense of scale as to how big an animal a really whale is, especially when compared to the snake vertebrae on the handling trolley. The younger visitors love to guess which animal it is from, guesses have ranged from giraffe, elephant, hippopotamus and even a woodlouse! But everyone is impressed when they find out where it really comes from. I love that something so large and seemingly obvious can also have an air of mystery about it. It looks so ancient and no one is absolutely sure which species of whale it comes from, all we know is that it was once part of an ocean-dwelling giant!

Maher chose a sperm whale’s eardrum.

I chose the Sperm Whale’s eardrum as it is such a unique object. I often ask visitors to guess what it is and many come up with the most random of guesses. Once revealed that it is a Whale’s eardrum, it often leads to surprise and discussions about Whales, such their diets, where they live, how they can dive without coming up for air for over an hour and why sound is so important to them. I also explain to the younger visitors about echolocation, which many find fascinating. Also, along with the Whale’s vertebrae, it gives many an idea of the size of a whale.

Richard chose a snake skeleton.

The snake skeleton is a favourite of mine among the handling objects, as even quite young children have a good chance of identifying it. I particularly like using it in conjunction with the whale vertebra to show the difference in scale between the two species.

Andrea chose the hedgehog.

My favourite is the hedgehog. I enjoy demonstrating to the children how to handle it gently as this gives them an idea on how to be more safe. They also have the opportunity to touch an animal that is not very often seen during the day as hedgehogs tend to come at night. Like the other objects on the trolley, I love to ask open ended questions, explain to the public where it’s habitat is, what it’s food source is and who the predators are. I have immense pleasure when I see how much the children are in awe of the hedgehog and I also find it extremely cute.

Visit the engage trolley in the Natural History Gallery most days from 11am – 3pm to see these objects for yourselves. There will be new objects appearing on the trolley in time for the school summer holidays, so watch this space!

Ethnomusicality with SELAN

Last year, South East London Arts Network (SELAN) member Phil Baird completed one of our community worker training days with fellow artist Carlo Keshishian. As a result, they devised a project for other SELAN members to take part in.

Here they report on the project and what it was like for the group working closely with the Horniman and our collections.


I enjoyed co-facilitating art and music workshops at the wondrous Horniman Museum, upon being summoned by fellow artist and friend Phil Baird.

Initially we had imagined basing the sessions at the Horniman's aquarium due to Phil and I's shared interest in the mysteries of ocean life and deep sea creatures. By the time our workshops came to fruition, however, it had all metamorphosed into another area we are both very much in tune with (pardon the pun), music and improvisation.


We entered the hands on base and quickly got the idea to set a rhythm going and made an amazing piece of improvised piece of music. One participant discovered an amazing gift for solo didgeridoo.

We began working with small pieces of paper and ink pens to draw the rhythms of different instruments such as the Irish Bodhran or African Djembe drum. Everyone created a way of capturing the sound on paper.

Carlo took on a Dr/Shaman role giving individual music treatments literal and metaphorical, each person laying down a track towards a group soundscape recording.

Everyone enjoyed these workshops so much, Phil managed to secure funding from Drake Music Connect and Collaborate to take the project further.  The group recorded the sounds of instruments in the handling collection to create a composition, and then created an animation to go with it.

The brilliant end result is entitled 'Ethnomusicality':

Thanks to everyone at SELAN – you are always a pleasure to work with!

Cleaning the Hands on Base

Christine from the Learning Team has sent us an update explaining how the handling collection here at the Horniman is kept clean and free of dust. 

Have you ever vacuumed a duck?

The Horniman's handling collection has over 3700 objects all kept in the Hands on Base. Many of these objects are used weekly for school and community sessions and they all need to be cleaned.

The learning team and volunteers must carefully take down all the objects from the tops of the cabinets in the Hands on Base and set about cleaning them. It is quite a challenge as the objects can range from old and new, come from all over the world and are made of many different materials.

To clean the objects we use a special conservation vacuum cleaner with low suction which is very useful for cleaning taxidermy ducks and other birds as well as the fox.

The big clean also gives us a chance to check the objects for any sign of pest damage and to see if any need repair. We aim to do this twice a year and are very grateful for help from volunteers and the facilities team which makes the job much easier.

Want to know more about the handling collection? The Hands on Base is open every Sunday until the 23 March 2014 from 2-3:30pm for Discovery for All.

Lewisham Young Carers Visit

The Lewisham Young Carers service is based just down the road from the museum in Forest Hill. They support young people who live in a family where someone is affected by a long-term illness or disability.

Over Easter holiday we had the 8-11 year olds and 12-16 year olds groups visit for workshops at the Museum.

As an introduction to the museum, members of the group selected an object from the Handling Collection that they felt represented themselves and then wrote a label for it. This activity is always a lovely way to find out things about each other and for individuals to think about what the things they are important to them.

On the final two days, we looked at some charms from the Lovett Collection.  The Horniman has hundred of Lovett charms from all around the world, and they are a great way of exploring our upcoming Collections People Stories theme, Health and Healing.

Using magnifying glasses we looked closely at the charms and tried to figure out what was on them and helped each other figure out what some things might mean.

This Greek silver amulet case doesn’t have much information about it but as a group we decided the figure must be St George. If you open it up, there is a dried plant – perhaps a herb or a remedy?

Scott selected one to look at that was a small horse-shoe charm with 1917 written on the back, and the word LOOS on the front. Victor got into looking at a blue glass ‘evil-eye’ charm and the small bubbles formed inside the glass when it was made. Chantelle selected a tiny charm with the number 13 on it – which she considers lucky.

We had some brilliant conversations about the charms – can you make your own luck? Do wishes come true? Should you be scared to break a lucky ritual that you have always done? What does religion have to do with luck? How can something become lucky? Which way up should you put a horse-shoe and why?

As a group we also discussed our own lucky charms that we carry around. Click on the images below to see some up close.

  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Scott's Charms
    Scott's Charms
  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Naomi's charm
    Naomi's charm
  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Qianna's charm
    Qianna's charm
  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Chantelle's charms
    Chantelle's charms

Thanks to all the young carers for making this a fantastic and fascinating event!

Emily's favourite object

We asked Emily, who works in our Learning Department, about her favourite object in the Horniman - a Brazil nut seed pod.

“What is your favourite object?”

This Brazil nut pod in the Hands on Base is my favourite object because it just baffles people. I wouldn't normally start a conversation by saying what this object is, I would ask people to tell me what they think and try to encourage them to work it out.

What's really interesting about it is that it has been carved back and someone has drilled holes in it so that you can see the Brazil nuts inside. It doesn't look exactly as it would look on the tree and people have all sorts of ideas as to what they think it might be.

‘What have people thought it was?’

It's really tactile, lots of people think it's a toy, they don't know what is necessarily inside.  Some people have tried to get the seeds out. My question would be, how did someone get them in? Lots of people think it's a musical instrument like a shaker.

I'm not 100% sure whether it was made to demonstrate that this is a seed pod or whether it was made for decoration.

It usually it takes people quite a while to guess.

‘Why have you chosen it? ’

The thing I personally like about it is that it has some really interesting stories and links that I can make in teaching sessions. This Brazil nut pod grows on a tree in Brazil; it only exists because the tree is pollinated by a very particular insect which also depends on orchids.

Now, the orchids that live in the area are being destroyed and although the Brazil nut trees have been protected by law, all of the eco-system around the Brazil nut tree isn't protected.  A lot of the areas around the Brazil nut trees are being cut down, the orchids are being cut down.

This means the insect pollinator doesn't have the orchids and can't pollinate the trees. So the trees, despite being protected, are dying.

It's a really interesting story and a message to us to think holistically about our environments and the interactions between them.

Previous Next
of 11 items