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A Calm Visit to the Horniman

Want to find a quite and peaceful spot in our Museum? Engage Volunteer, Anahita Harding, has just the ticket. Here, she tells us her favourite calm spots and the best times to visit them. 

'Sometimes the Museum can feel quite busy and hectic but for those in the know, there are some places that are a bit quieter where you can get find some peace.

The Gardens are a lovely place to go when a quiet spot is needed but on a rainy day this isn’t always ideal. If you ever need a quiet spot to think and be calm, here are some indoor spaces I like to go to during my breaks.

Nature Base

If you want to see the harvest mice, come to the Nature Base in the morning, as this is the best time to see them running and climbing! The harvest mice are crepuscular, which means that they are most active in the mornings and in the evenings.

The quietest time tends to be in the morning when the Museum has just opened but the Nature Base can get busy during other times of the day.

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, The harvest mice in the Nature Base are best seen in the morning.
    The harvest mice in the Nature Base are best seen in the morning.

The Natural History Gallery balcony

The Natural History Gallery balcony has a variety of cases with interesting specimens in them. There is also a nice space here to read stories and books. A grand clock is near the staircase, and it gently chimes every fifteen minutes. It is called the Apostle Clock and was made during the 19th century in Germany.

Usually, the balcony is very quiet and is a nice space to learn while watching everyone in the gallery below. There is also a good view of the walrus!

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, The apostle clock is on the Natural History Gallery balcony
    The apostle clock is on the Natural History Gallery balcony

The Aquarium

Have you seen the jellyfish in the Aquarium? As you enter the Aquarium you will see a space lit up with a calming blue light, and jellyfish gently moving through their tank. It is lovely to watch them move. Above, you will see a large turtle hanging from the ceiling, can you find it? This is one of my favourite spots, and I hope you enjoy it too.'

  • A calm visit to the Horniman, Watching the jellyfish can be very calming
    Watching the jellyfish can be very calming

The Museum is at it's quietest after 2.30pm on weekdays during term time. 

Share your favourite peaceful spots from the Museum and Gardens with us using #horniman.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman

Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive

If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees, if in terms of 100 years, teach the people. Confucius

My name is Sandra Bogdanova and I have been a volunteer at the Horniman Museum and Gardens since March 2016. As January marks the start of a new year I am extremely happy to share the most memorable trip of our Engage Volunteer Team in December 2016.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, Horniman Museum and Gardens Engage Volunteer Team, Sandra Bogdanova
    Horniman Museum and Gardens Engage Volunteer Team, Sandra Bogdanova

We went to visit The Hive at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew to understand why plants matter and how The Hive tells the story of the crucial role played by bees. I come from Lithuania, where since time immemorial we have had a bee god called Bubilas and a goddess, Austėja. Growing up surrounded with great respect and mythology about bees made me especially happy about this trip.

Our relationship with the honey bee goes back thousands of years, to the dawn of human history. According to the Collins Beekeeper's Bible, bees represent vital principles and embody the soul. The bee also symbolises the soul that flies away from the body in the Siberian, central Asian and South American traditions. The bee to this day remains the symbol of immortality and eternity, diligence, wealth and kindness.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, Bumblebees at Kew. There are over 270 different types of bees. It is estimated that 90 percent of these bee species are solitary, like bumblebees, but honeybees are communal and live in hives, Sandra Bogdanova
    Bumblebees at Kew. There are over 270 different types of bees. It is estimated that 90 percent of these bee species are solitary, like bumblebees, but honeybees are communal and live in hives, Sandra Bogdanova

There are around 680 volunteers at Kew and 60 of them are volunteer tour guides. They have been given the Queen’s Award for their guiding and have undertaken over 1,600 tours since 1992 when the program started! Volunteer guide Leslie took us on a bee focused tour and he was incredibly patient and knowledgeable. Leslie talked to us about pollination and the two types from flowering plants and coniferous trees. He also told us how insects and birds see a different spectrum of colour to humans, so they notice plants differently to us. It also helps them to see which ones they have visited for pollen.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, Cross-pollination between the Kew and Horniman volunteers, Sandra Bogdanova
    Cross-pollination between the Kew and Horniman volunteers, Sandra Bogdanova

Kew Gardens is over 320 acres. The Broad Walk and The Hive are the two latest areas to be developed with more than 27,000 flowering plants, most relevant to our group because of their relation to bees. We started our tour in the Melon Yard, and then continued to the Alpine Nursery and Scientific Research Nursery. When we came to the wildflower meadow that surrounds The Hive, we got to know that it is made up of 30 different species all of which support honeybees. The meadow is part of the installation too.

Ever since 1851 and The Great Exhibition there have been Expos planned around the world to share knowledge. In 2015, there was an Expo in Milan focused on the theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for life. This spectacular 17m-tall sculpture formed the centerpiece of the multi-award-winning UK pavilion.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, The Hive was designed to look as though it could be a swarm of bees from afar, Sandra Bogdanova
    The Hive was designed to look as though it could be a swarm of bees from afar, Sandra Bogdanova

It all began when, in search of inspiration, the artist behind The Hive Wolfgang Buttress went to see Martin Bencsik at Nottingham Trent University, who undertakes research into how bees communicate. This planted a seed in Wolfgang’s mind for an installation that celebrated the bee, while immersing the visitor in a sensory experience.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, Horniman Volunteer Coordinator Kate Cooling listening to the vibrations of the Hive, Sandra Bogdanova
    Horniman Volunteer Coordinator Kate Cooling listening to the vibrations of the Hive, Sandra Bogdanova

Bee’s wings beat in a specific pattern (oscillation) which makes the note of C minor and this note is played in The Hive. The floor has hexagonal plates, which echo a real hive and and these vibrate too. There are lights on the walls of The Hive which are lit by the electricity generated from the vibrations.

  • Volunteer cross-pollination with The Hive, These hives at Kew give vibration to the Hive and can be felt on the base of the installation. For the Milan Expo in 2015, they had to run wires underneath the channel to transport the vibrations from the hives in England. The hives at Kew are only a few hundred meters away, so much easier, Sandra Bogdanova
    These hives at Kew give vibration to the Hive and can be felt on the base of the installation. For the Milan Expo in 2015, they had to run wires underneath the channel to transport the vibrations from the hives in England. The hives at Kew are only a few hundred meters away, so much easier, Sandra Bogdanova

The Hive will be at Kew until December 2017.

It goes without saying that it was creative and inspiring, yet unforgettable. As for myself, lately I got enrolled to a beekeeping course with Wimbledon Beekeeping Association and can not put down Steve Benbow‘s book The Urban Beekeeper. A Year of Bees in the City.  I invite you all to visit our Nature Base at the Horniman Museum and Gardens for a closer look at the world of bees.

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.

If the shirt fits…

The Engage Volunteers’ distinctive polo shirt is a familiar sight at the Horniman. But how does it feel to wear one for the first time? New Volunteer Rory shares his experience.

'A bright flash of turquoise caught my eye. Not the exotic paradise tanager bird on display in the Natural History Gallery, but me as I walked past a mirror. That was when it hit home – I was now an Engage Volunteer.

  • If the shirt fits..., A Horniman Engage Volunteer shows objects from the Handling Collection to visitors,  Sophia Spring
    A Horniman Engage Volunteer shows objects from the Handling Collection to visitors,  Sophia Spring

Yes, I’d read all about volunteering on the Horniman’s website. And I’d been to a taster session. But now I had the shirt on, people were going to ask me things. And expect me to know the answers. Gulp.

Purely on a practical level, there’s a lot to learn as a volunteer. Where does this lift go? Do visitors need a ticket for the Aquarium? Where can people leave their buggies?

Then there is learning the names of all the people who make the Museum tick: Security Guards, Visitor Assistants, the Finance and Learning teams – the list goes on.

What concerned me most was the trickier questions I could face. How old is this? Is that real? Are you sure it’sCaribbean, not African?

But I needn’t have worried. A thorough orientation answered all my questions and introduced me to everyone I needed to know.

Then my fellow Volunteers explained exactly what I’d be doing and how to handle the more unusual questions that could come my way.

For most other things there are information sheets. These explain anything from the facts about the objects on the hands-on trolley to how to spot the elusive queen in the Nature Base beehive.

  • If the shirt fits..., Engage Volunteer helping visitors spot the queen bee in the Nature Base beehive ,  Sophia Spring
    Engage Volunteer helping visitors spot the queen bee in the Nature Base beehive ,  Sophia Spring

So what was it like to wear the volunteer shirt? When I first put it on I felt conspicuous. A turquoise target. But it didn’t take long for that to change.

As I spent the day chatting about the harvest mice in the Nature Base, explaining the finer points of a sperm whale’s eardrum and getting to know my fellow Volunteers better, I realised two things: it isn’t hard to help people get more from their visit to the Museum; and, far from singling me out, my shirt identified me as part of a team.

Before I knew it, my first day was over. By now I felt comfortable enough in my new shirt to walk home wearing it without a second thought.

Outside, I passed a boy who’d been in the Museum earlier. ‘Mum!’ his excited voice behind me said, ‘Did you see that man’s shirt? I want one!’

I carried on with even more of a spring in my step. Because now I knew that if my shirt made me a target of anything, it was admiration.

Want to know what happens when you wear a volunteer shirt? Find out more about volunteering.'

A day in the life of… the Horniman Volunteering Team

The 5 November is International Volunteer Managers Day and to mark it, our Volunteer Managers are here to tell you a little bit about what they do.

The Horniman currently has over 140 volunteers and students who bring huge amounts of enthusiasm, experience and unique perspectives to their roles.

The Volunteer Team help us achieve many amazing things whilst making new friends, learning new skills and having fun along the way. The team is really diverse and includes people of all ages, backgrounds and interests. They volunteer all over the Museum from the Gardens to the curatorial departments to supporting visitors within the galleries.

It is the job of our Volunteer Managers to make sure that the Volunteer team is happy and safe, feels valued and respected and is fully supported to complete and enjoy their roles. Let's introduce you to our Managers...

Rhiannon

Hello, my name is Rhiannon and I am the Volunteering Manager. I have been at the Horniman for nearly two years and loved every minute of it! I have the wonderful job of working with colleagues across the Museum to identify new ways to involve volunteers, support them to work with volunteers, and shout out about all their wonderful achievements. This year alone we have celebrated many awards won by the team to recognise their hard work and commitment, they know who they are, but as far as we are concerned the entire team are winners in our eyes.

  • Rhiannon, Rhiannon dressed up at the Horniman Carnival this summer.
    Rhiannon dressed up at the Horniman Carnival this summer.

Kate

Hi, I’m Kate. I’ve been the Volunteering and Engagement Coordinator here for ten months. I was an Engage Volunteer myself between 2012 and 2014 whilst I was teaching and now manage the Engage programme – it’s amazing to see the other side of volunteering at the Horniman. I also support departmental volunteers, manage our student placement programme and facilitate trips and training for the team. I also do my best to spread the word about the incredible skills and knowledge of our volunteer team through regular blog posts on the website.

  • Kate, Kate, back right, on a trip with the Volunteer Team.
    Kate, back right, on a trip with the Volunteer Team.

Beth

I’m Beth, the Youth Engagement and Volunteering Coordinator. One of the main things I do is run the Youth Panel who meet every Thursday to plan events, give consultations and eat an enormous amount of pizza. My average day is pretty varied but usually involves a strong coffee, chatting to teenagers who need some support, lots of meetings, coming up with creative plans to get young people involved with the Museum, and finding ways to make the museum a useful, brilliant place for young people to be. We’re working on ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ at the moment – an amazing live music event for young people, by young people.

  • Beth, Beth and Volunteer Scott pose with their LVMA award certificates.
    Beth and Volunteer Scott pose with their LVMA award certificates.

We have many more colleagues not represented here that provide invaluable support to our volunteers and students, and our heartfelt thanks goes to them. We couldn’t do it alone.

We hope this has given you a bit of insight into what we do at the Horniman. We are always looking for more volunteers, so why not give it a go!

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

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

Volunteering with Community Engagement

What is Community Engagement and why is it important for Museums? Our volunteer Holly investigates. 

Community Engagement is an important part of the work the Horniman does to ensure it is an accessible and inclusive place for all. So when there was a space for a volunteer on the Community Engagement training day, I jumped at the chance to attend.

The day is designed to equip community group leaders with the skills required to confidently lead visits to the museum and run projects or activities linked to the collection. It was useful to hear the group leaders explain what they would need to run a successful session, as well as seeing how the Horniman is able to shape its services to accommodate the needs of community groups. This flexibility is essential; each community group has differing requirements, and fixed offerings typically won’t work for every group.

During the training day we had to think on our feet and test our creativity. In the Hands on Base we explored the large collection of objects available for visitors to handle. In the galleries we designed our own themed tour of the museum, including potential activities, for a community group visit. These activities encouraged us to identify questions and opinions about objects, make connections between objects, and create our own journey through the museum.

  • The Stroke Association group explores musical instruments, This community group are exploring talking drums in the Hands on Base.
    This community group are exploring talking drums in the Hands on Base.

As a volunteer, I learnt more about how the museum works and gained an insight into the community groups it partners with. This has increased my confidence as a volunteer, giving me new ideas on how to present the objects in the handling collection and how to engage visitors.

Since completing the training, I’ve volunteered at several Community Engagement sessions and no two sessions are alike. Participating in a costume workshop, making Carnival crowns with the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation, was a great excuse to explore my own creativity while volunteering. I quickly realised there’s countless ways to make a Carnival crown, and just as many ways to learn from other people’s creative ingenuity.

  • Volunteering with Community Engagement, Colourful Brazilian crowns made during community group activity sessions were then worn at the Horniman Carnival on 4 September.
    Colourful Brazilian crowns made during community group activity sessions were then worn at the Horniman Carnival on 4 September.

At a Redstart Arts artist-led exhibit, I got to help showcase the participating artists’ work which was inspired by the Horniman’s collection. Seeing the artworks side by side with the objects that inspired them encourages visitors to see both in a different way. It connects people with the collection, making the objects more accessible sources of inspiration - something to interact with and not only see on display. It also helps to show the many ways people experience the museum and engage with the collections.

  • Redstart, This Redstart Arts workshop saw community groups making sculptures inspired by the Horniman collection.
    This Redstart Arts workshop saw community groups making sculptures inspired by the Horniman collection.

While each session is different, there have been a few constants from my experiences with Community Engagement. I’ve met a wide range of people including the community groups, museum staff, local artists and volunteers working with the groups. It’s an enjoyable way to improve my confidence and volunteering ability, and a great insight into how museums can help change people’s lives.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman. 

Pokemon IRL – Teen Takeover Day 2016

We handed our precious Twitter account over to our Youth Panel for the day.

The 12 August 2016 was Teen Twitter Takeover, where cultural and heritage organisations across the UK handed their Twitter feeds over to teenagers using the hashtag #takeoverday.

This year, 73 museums were involved – and we were one of them.

The Youth Panel decided at one of their regular meetings that for this year's Teen Twitter Takeover they wanted to hunt for Pokémon.

The group were interested in using the platform to show how this popular game can link to the Horniman collections by finding objects throughout the museum and gardens that look like the characters in the game.

So, at 12pm we gathered with the Youth Panel and gave them two iPads set up with the Horniman Twitter account.

The group started by asking people to tweet in a name or picture of a Pokémon. They were inundated with tweets asking for Evees and Pikachus almost immediately.

The next step was to find objects IRL (in real life) that looked like these Pokémon.

Luckily, the team know the Horniman really well and knew where to go to find foxes, masks and garden plants. The teens are also very Twitter-savvy and so took to the game like a Magicarp to water. The group were great at using the hashtag to interact with other museums throughout the day.

They also managed to squeeze in some interesting facts about the objects they were taking pictures of. Our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma, was on hand to give the team more information about the animals - for example, did you know the Bittern is one of the rarest birds in the Uk and in its native Norfolk lands is also known as a Butterbump?

Our Youth Volunteering Co-ordinator, Beth Atkinson, said ‘This year’s IRL Pokehunt for #takeoverday was ace. The Youth Panel excelled themselves yet again in coming up with such a hilarious idea, running around like human Zigzagoons and making it actually happen! Well done guys!’

You can read our Storify of the Youth Panel’s tweets as well as Kids in Museums’ Storify of all the tweets from museums across the country.

Find out more about how to 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

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