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West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

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

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

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

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

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

Strictly Come Horniman

Dance is a key theme of our collections, including ballet shoes, dance masks and costumes: we do love a good dance at the Horniman.

A figure representing the god Shiva, Lord of Dance

A print titled 'The war dance by the Ojibbeway Indians'

An archive photo from Project Tobong showing a Javanese dancer

Static objects can only show so much, so we like to host live dance in our galleries and gardens, providing a unique venue and performance for our visitors and the artists we work with.

An African dance performance in our gardens

For over 5 years, we have worked with Trinity Laban, a music and dance conservatoire based in Greenwich, commissioning new performances and hosting hundreds of performers.

Georgina Pope, Head of Learning, tells us about the dance collaboration between the Horniman and Trinity Laban at our Curious Tea Party last year.

One of our most recent dance commissions was with the fabulous Mandinga Arts as part of our African Summer. African Summer had a strong dance element, launching with African Dance. The event included performances by Trinity Laban, ADAD, Tazaviza and Ballet Nimba, all giving unique performances set against our gardens, bandstand and galleries.

Mandinga Arts leading our Africarnival with a brightly coloured dance

It is relatively rare for a museum to host dance performances, but we do like to do things differently. There are many artistic and logistical considerations to make but we love the chance to host cross-arts events with a broad participatory mindset.

With such a strong dance legacy and presence it's no surprise Strictly Come Dancing recently filmed a group performance in our gardens and we opened the show on 11th October.

If you would like to see some Horniman Dance, why not waltz down to our Secret Late on Thursday 12th November which features prohibition themed swing dance and circus performances.

Some of our Twitter fans' comments on our dance events this summer:



Farewell to African Summer

Our African Summer season of events came to an end this weekend with Africarnival.

Over the summer, we've had 4 jazz picnics, around 50 groups from all around Africa performing, nearly 700 people attending Africa Late, and 73 people talking part in Africarnival's parade.

Here are a selection of tweets and photos from our visitors showing how much they enjoyed our events.

Africarnival: last chance to Experience African Summer.

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

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

Performers at our African Dance event earlier in the summer

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

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

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

Yabba Funk, who will be performing at Africarnival

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

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

Some of the communtiy-made masks

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

Exploring our Egyptian objects

Here at the Horniman, we host a collection of Ancient Egypt objects most probably excavated by Flinders Petrie, an eminent archaeologist who Emslie Horniman acquired the objects from.

A mummy case from our collection with the protective Eye of Horus at the top

Flinders Petrie was famous, well in archaeology circles, and a bit of an eccentric, having slept in a tomb during a dig and wearing pink pyjamas to startle people away from disturbing him whilst working. His meticulous attention to detail earned him a place in the academia hall of fame.

  • F Petrie, Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853â1942), Laszlo− © UCL Art Museum
    Sir William Flinders Petrie (1853â1942), Laszlo

William Matthew Flinders Petrie, UCL

Whilst still a teenager he surveyed Stonehenge, noting that he measured the stones to within 1/10th of an inch. He then applied this same forensic mind to Egypt, creating ‘Sequence Dating’, a theory that categorised Ancient Egyptian pottery into types and from these types into a chronological sequence.

  • Naqada Pottery, 4 types of Naqada pottery that are in the 'black topped' category− © Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL
    4 types of Naqada pottery that are in the 'black topped' category

 Egyptian Naqada ware that Flinders Petrie Sorted

Our Egyptian material is really beautiful, and many of the pieces are on display in our African Worlds Gallery. One of my favourites is currently not on display but is this fragmentary mummy mask:

 The moulded face is made of cartonnage, a sort of ancient papier mâché that could be shaped to make fine features of a head including, ears, eyes and lips. The mask dates from the Ptolemaic era (silent P, like Pterodactyl). The Ptolemies were a Macedonian family instated in Egypt by Alexander the Great (small chap who built a huge empire).

The Ptolemaic era is a fascinating period for Egypt, Africa and the Mediterranean. North African objects start to adopt Grecian styles and vice versa, as the movement of people around Greece, Italy, North Africa and the Levant led to a movement of ideas, art and culture.

Our African Worlds Gallery is open every day from 10:30am, and don't forget to experience African Summer at our events running until Sunday 30 August.

New Dance at African Late

This year, we've commissioned a series of dance companies to create new pieces inspired by our African collections for our African Summer events.

Following a public call out earlier this year, five companies were selected in April. They have worked over the past 3 months composing these pieces.

We also organised training for the artists to tell them more about our collections and how they can incorporate objects into their work.

Here is an insight into two of our new commissions which are going to be seen for the first time at our African Late event next week.

Vocab Dance Company

Performer and choreographer Alesandra Seutin has been running Vocab Dance Company since 2007. She combines African traditional dance with contemporary dance and Hip Hop to create distinctly Afro-European dance.

For her piece, Alesandra wants to explore a traditional Ghanaian ceremony called Dipo from the Krobo ethnic group. It's a rite of passage into womanhood that is celebrated with dance, challenges, ornaments/beads and music.

Alesandra will create a physical, sonic and visual response of this event celebrating young girls becoming women .

N’da Dance Company

Originally from Ugie, South Africa, Mbulelo Ndabeni is a dancer, choreographer and director of N'da Dance Company.

Along with Barcelona-born Estela Merlos, Mbulelo has created a stunning dance piece called vUka exploring identity and the need to fit within society with attachment and detachment shaping the piece.   

African Late

The two commissions by Vocab Dance Company and N’da Dance Company will be showcased at the African Late next Thursday, 6 August.

This night of contemporary performances will include atmospheric live music, stunning circus performances, films and by young African filmmakers, colourful stories in the galleries and more. Get your tickets now.

Makings Masks

Pupils from Erith Secondary school have been taking part in a project with the Horniman to design and make a mask.

  • African masks that provided inspiration for the students, Photo by Jessica Light
    , Photo by Jessica Light

African masks that provided inspiration for the students

Mrs R King, Head of Art at Erith School said:

"Each year the whole of Year 8 take part in an extended cross-curricular project which seeks to enhance and develop the students’ knowledge and understanding of African art and artefacts, in particular the masks collection."


The students' display

This is an exciting trip for the students who spend the whole day at the museum not only viewing the extensive collection, but the students get the chance to handle them as well. Students make sketches in the galleries and handling session and then return to the classroom to develop ideas for designing and making their own masks.

The museum gives the students a unique learning experience which is both thought provoking and informative.

Some fantastic new masks

Back at school one of their tasks is to design and create a mask using inspiration form their visit to the Horniman. Some of these are now on display in the museum’s education centre and also online as part of our schools flickr page.

The school are already planning a repeat visit for next term.

Africa Dance!

This Sunday (5 July) we will be hosting a vibrant day of dance, music and storytelling, incorporating a broad range of styles and cultures from the African Diaspora. With the weather behaving so well, the performances will take place in our gardens, featuring new, colourful plants.

Rehearsals in our sunken garden

With so many exciting performances planned, we’ve briefly summarised just three of them to give you a cheeky preview.

Tavaziva Dance

Tavaziva are one of the UK’s leading African-contemporary touring dance companies, their work often portrays challenging and current topics rooted in African cultures. On Sunday, they will open African Dance! With When King Gogo met the Chameleon.

Tavaziva Dance 

Inspired by traditional African tales, this spell-binding high energy, engaging adventure follows the adventures of numerous characters and the quest to marry the princess.

Ballet Nimba

Ballet Nimba is based on the "African Ballet" tradition which was born in Guinea to tell the stories of the Griots, travelling musicians and the region's oral historians. Their performance Dance of Joy incorporates a blend of mesmerizing flute, outstanding percussive beats, soaring vocals, and, of course, dynamic dancers.

  • Ballet Nimba, Roy Campbell-Moore
    , Roy Campbell-Moore

Ballet Nimba


Weaving together music, dance and storytelling this piece will depict a narrative tracing a child’s life. The piece will explore the objects from the collection in their natural habitats, their use in the everyday life of Africans and their importance to African history across the world.



To see the full programme of events click here and we’ll see you on Sunday.

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