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Object in Focus: Arrow Vase

Edward Weech, Librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society tells us about the long running relationship between them and the Horniman. Recently they received the arrow vase as part of the Object in Focus loans programme.

The Royal Asiatic Society was founded in 1823 and exists to promote scholarly research and public interest in the histories and cultures of Asia. Over the years, it built up a collection of books, manuscripts, art works, photographs, and archives, mainly donated by its members, documenting a diverse array of Asian cultures and traditions. The Society’s collections testify to the many ways in which British people have engaged with and been inspired by Asian cultures over the last two hundred years. Our collections are available for anyone to use, and this year we launched a Digital Library, featuring some of our most important collections, which can be viewed online.  

  • Snakes and ladders, A design for the game of Snakes and Ladders, by Trivenkatacharya (ca. 1810). RAS 051.001
    A design for the game of Snakes and Ladders, by Trivenkatacharya (ca. 1810). RAS 051.001

The Society has had a number of homes around London during its lifetime, but these days its permanent home is in Euston, North London, a short walk away from the British Library. In its early years, the Society amassed a collection of museum objects, which it retained until 1869. These included coins, weapons, clothing, stuffed birds and animals, insects, and minerals and plants. The Society even had a mummy, which was eventually given to King’s College Museum. After that, and despite resolving not to accept any more “curiosities”, the Society continued to acquire obscure objects, including a human hand, three elephant’s tails, a piece of beef preserved in vegetable tar, and an enormous hairball.[1]

  • Mummy , The Egyptian mummy formerly belonging to the RAS, which was given to Kings College, London. RAS 032.002
    The Egyptian mummy formerly belonging to the RAS, which was given to Kings College, London. RAS 032.002

An article about the Society’s “Museum” was published in The Penny Magazine (21 August 1841). The article describes the museum collections, displayed across four or five rooms. The passage and hallway were full of stone inscriptions and “Oriental idol-figures”, with the staircase lined with all manner of weapons – spears, lances, bows, arrows, axes, rifles, pistols, and so on. The treasures displayed in the Society’s meeting room included precious manuscripts, as well as artworks, models of tools and machinery used in India,  bookcases, a celestial globe, and a “double sea-cocoa-nut”. By the standards of a modern museum, it would certainly seem like a confusing mixture.  

Indeed, the Society faced a problem familiar to curators everywhere: they didn’t have enough space to store their objects properly, let alone display them. The Society already had a history of lending to other institutions – some objects loaned to an exhibition at the Crystal Palace were destroyed in a fire in 1866 (more were lost in a fire at the India Museum in 1885). When the Society moved premises in 1869, most of its objects were transferred to the India Office, later going to the India Museum, South Kensington, and eventually to the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1924, the V&A offered to purchase the jade cup of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, on loan from the Society, for £100, with the condition that other items on loan there were donated. However, the V&A didn’t want the Society’s entire museum collection, and unwanted objects were sold to other museums or auctioned off.

Some of these items were purchased in 1925 by the Horniman Museum and Gardens, including a Chinese manuscript which Dr Fiona Kerlogue, Former Deputy Keeper of Anthropology, contacted us about a few years ago, in the hope of learning more about its history. While we weren’t able to provide much new information, the renewed contact helped to inspire further collaborations between our two institutions.

The highlight of this has been two loans as part of the Arts Council England programme, Object in Focus. The first was the loan of a statue of the Daoist deity Zhenwu in late 2016, followed by the current loan of a Ming Dynasty Arrow Vase. This would have been used in the ancient Chinese game of touhu, in which the aim was for players to throw arrows into a wine vessel. Perhaps originating as a drinking game, it dates back at least to the Warring States period (5th-3rd century BC), when it was described in the Li Ji (Book of Rites). Its popularity endured for the next 2000 years, with a particular vogue in the early part of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644).

  • Arrow vase, General view of arrow vase , Horniman Museum and Gardens
    General view of arrow vase , Horniman Museum and Gardens

According to the Li Ji, the Arrow Vase would be filled with small beans, to help stop the wooden arrows from bouncing out. Mats were placed to indicate where the players should throw from, two and a half arrows’ length away from the vase. Players took it in turns to throw a set of arrows, and an elaborate system of counters was used to keep track of how many throws each player had made, and how many were successful. There were several rounds. At the end the “superintendent of archery” would tally up who was the winner. The contest was accompanied by a group of musicians playing a tune called “The Fox’s Head” on stringed instruments.

  • Arrow vase print, Arrow vase print from interpretation panel
    Arrow vase print from interpretation panel

By the 12th century the game had spread to Korea, where it is still played today, though with a rather less elaborate vase.

Although the Royal Asiatic Society has a long history of lending its treasures to other organisations, it very rarely borrows things to exhibit, and so the support of the Horniman has provided a very exciting opportunity to do something different. The Object in Focus programme also means rarely-seen objects are exposed to a new audience.

While the Horniman is much larger than the Royal Asiatic Society, there are parallels between our two institutions. We both have extensive collections about Asian history and cultures; both our histories testify to the ways British people have sought to learn about the wider world; and both of us, in our own ways, are slightly “quirky” places. The RAS is thrilled to be able to work with the Horniman to bring material culture to the attention of our audiences. Personally, having grown up in south-east London and having visited the Horniman many times as a child, it’s also a real pleasure to re-connect with a place that helped inspire my own interest in natural history and the rich variety of human culture. (Like many children, my favourite objects were two of the Horniman’s most famous: the museum’s walrus and its totem pole).

  • walrus, General view of walrus , Horniman Museum and Gardens
    General view of walrus , Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Arrow Vase is on display in the Society’s Reading Room until 2 April 2019, and it can be viewed during our Library opening hours (Tuesday and Friday 10am-5pm, and Thursday 2pm-5pm). It may also be viewed outside our opening hours, by appointment.

We were very grateful to Dr Rose Kerr (former Keeper of the East Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert Museum) for giving us a wonderful lecture about the history of the Arrow Vase game, which took place in the Society’s Lecture Theatre on Tuesday 18 September. The Society has an active lecture programme which may be of interest to those of you who attend the Horniman’s events; full details are available on our website.

[1] C.F. Beckingham, “A history of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1823-1973”, The Royal Asiatic Society, its history and treasures (Leiden: Brill, 1979), 45.

A Merman in New York

Helen Merrett, our Collections Coordinator and Loans Registrar, tells us about our now international merman and what it takes to get him from A to B.

Our famous Merman is on his travels again, having just made his debut in the new World Gallery Curiosities section of the Perspectives Wall. This time he’s gone international. The Merman has not travelled abroad since he was transferred to the Horniman in 1982 from the Wellcome Collection.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic was a hugely popular exhibition at the British Library when it opened in October 2017, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The exhibition featured star objects from JK Rowling’s personal archive, including original drafts and drawings by JK Rowling and illustrator Jim Kay, both on display for the first time. 

The exhibition has now toured on to the New York Historical Society Museum and Library to celebrate the 20th anniversary in the USA. 

Merpeople are an important part of the exhibition story. There is focus on the authorial process and the development of Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, showing that published versions can often be different from the original draft concepts - merpeople were originally going to feature earlier then the fifth book.

When the merpeople appear in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, rather than the classical mystical image of beautiful enchanting creatures, they have grey skin, yellow eyes and broken teeth, similar to the style of the Horniman Ningyo Merman.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, The gorgeous Horniman merman
    The gorgeous Horniman merman

Because the Merman has been so popular (this is his eighth time out on loan since 2011), he now travels with a mount made by our Exhibitions Team that works for different displays. For all objects going out on loan our Exhibition Technicians work with a Conservator to determine the best shape to give support to the object.

The Merman has a very unusual balance point, and is also very fragile. It is very important we sent him with a mount we know gives the right support, and this also makes the install at the borrowing venue much more straightforward. We discussed this with New York Historical Society to ensure our mount worked with the exhibition design, so accurate measuring was crucial. 

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, The merman on his special mount
    The merman on his special mount

All objects are assessed by a Conservator before they go out on loan. The Merman required a small repair and clean to ensure he was stable for travel abroad.

Then he had the all-important photoshoot so we could capture his condition before he left the Horniman. Our Conservation Officer Charlotte put together a very detailed condition report so that we can see if there are any changes whilst he is travelling and installed elsewhere.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, A merman photoshoot
    A merman photoshoot

Packing is another important part of any object going out on loan. A special tray and box had previously been made by Charlotte in our Conservation Team for travelling in the UK, but this needed some slight tweaks to give extra support to the merman for travelling across to America.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, On the left, his old packaging, on the right, his swanky new travel arrangements
    On the left, his old packaging, on the right, his swanky new travel arrangements

I was lucky enough to escort the Merman on his travels again, ensuring that he arrived safely, and was unpacked and installed at the New York Historical Society. Naturally, the Merman was an instant hit amongst staff and the other couriers there to install the exhibition.

Everyone wanted to know the history of the Merman and a few pictures were requested of the star. He has been displayed with a beautiful book from the American Museum of Natural History and a manuscript from the British Library, showing historic illustrations of mystical creatures including mermaids. It was fantastic working with the British Library and New York Historical Society on this exciting exhibition, and that the merman has become part of the story of where magic and myth began.

  • The Horniman Merman on his travels, Helen installing the merman in New York
    Helen installing the merman in New York

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the New York Historical Society from 5 October 2018 until 27 January 2019.

The merman will be back in the World Gallery in February 2019.

Object in Focus: Narsīgā at the Museum of Farnham

Emma Sutcliffe, Assistant Curator at the Museum of Farnham, tells us how an Object in Focus loan from the Horniman contributed to their latest exhibition - Resonance.

In 2016, the Collections Access Officer from the Horniman Museum and Gardens contacted us at the Museum of Farnham to ask if we were interested in borrowing an object through the Object in Focus loan programme.  There were lots of different objects to choose from, but my colleague Liz, the Museum Curator, thought that an Indian Narsĩgā (narsiṅga) or trumpet would be the best choice because it linked well to an exhibition we were planning all about sound and technology.  We agreed with the Horniman that the narsiṅga would be loaned from 3 October 2017 until 20 January 2018.  In the meantime, we began work on the exhibition, which we called 'Resonance'.

  • Narsinga, Narsiga (narsinga), of copper and brass made by Parveen Vig in Amritsar, Punjab, around 2006.  This S-shaped horn is played in various parts of North India, notably in places of worship such as Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras.
    Narsiga (narsinga), of copper and brass made by Parveen Vig in Amritsar, Punjab, around 2006. This S-shaped horn is played in various parts of North India, notably in places of worship such as Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras.

Resonance focuses on sound and technology and the exhibition includes objects that link to this theme, such as a 1950s television, gramophone players, and a child’s flute as well as photographs of various clubs and societies in Farnham. Most of these items come from the Museum collection, however, I also wanted to be able to show modern technology to conclude the story. In order to do this, I had to ask my very obliging husband to loan some more up to date items, including an iPod Nano, an iPhone, and CDs.

  • IMG_0206, The Museum of Farnham in Surrey is situated in a Grade I listed Georgian Townhouse. , Museum of Farnham
    The Museum of Farnham in Surrey is situated in a Grade I listed Georgian Townhouse. , Museum of Farnham

I also worked with the Farnham Sound Vault, a volunteer initiative, to set up a new online radio and podcast for Farnham. The volunteers helped us by recording sounds local to Farnham, such as the stream in Gostrey Meadow and a busker outside the local Waitrose. These sounds were used as part of a touchscreen that I put together for the exhibition. It also includes snippets from the Museum’s local history archive and sounds of the musical instruments in the exhibition, including a recording of the narsiṅga which was also loaned to us by the Horniman.

  • Museum of Farnham Exhibition, An exhibition room at the Museum of Farnham showing the narsinga on display , Museum of Farnham
    An exhibition room at the Museum of Farnham showing the narsinga on display , Museum of Farnham

As part of the Resonance programme there were various other events at the Museum of Farnham, including an evening talk given by Margaret Birley, Keeper of Musical Instruments at the Horniman. Margaret spoke about collecting instruments in India for the Horniman – including the narsiṅga. It was fascinating to hear about the regional differences in music in India from Margaret who had travelled across India collecting musical instruments.

It has been fantastic to take part in the Horniman’s Object in Focus loan programme and we feel really privileged to have loaned the narsiṅga, which is a beautiful object.

  • IMG_2772, An exhibition room at the Museum of Farnham showing part of the Resonance display, Museum of Farnham
    An exhibition room at the Museum of Farnham showing part of the Resonance display, Museum of Farnham

Object in Focus: Romanian Eggs at Bruton Museum

Jackie Brooks, Curator at the Bruton Museum, tells us how they hope an Object in Focus loan will welcome a new member of the community.

As part of the 'Object in Focus' loans scheme, Bruton Museum has borrowed a collection of Romanian decorated eggs. We are a small Somerset town museum dedicated to local history and although at first sight the eggs have no relationship to us they have begun to reach out and make connections.

Recently a big issue seller has appeared in town, and he happens to be a refugee from Romania. His parents left him on the streets of Bucharest when he was 14 leaving him to fend for himself. When Roxanna Gibescu came to give a talk about the egg decorating tradition we learnt that all the patterns on the eggs are symbolic. Abundance, family, and wealth are all represented in the symbols that adorn the eggs and we hope our Big Issue seller will find these things soon. 

Upstairs in our store was a wooden box with 5 trays of eggs collected in the Victorian era. The Horniman loan has prompted us to display them and they now sit alongside the loan in all their glorious variety.

  • Bruton Museum's collection of eggs, Jackie Brooks− © Bruton Museum
    , Jackie Brooks

The case with the eggs in is placed at the entrance to the museum and is always greeted with a 'wow'. We love having them here.


Object in Focus: Shogi at Southend Central Museum

Iona Farrell of the Southend Central Museum tells us how an Object in Focus loan helped inspire an exciting new exhibition. 

I’m Iona Farrell and I volunteer with Southend Central Museum and the Beecroft Art Gallery, which are based in Southend, a seaside town in Essex.

At Southend Central Museum we have been lucky enough to have an exquisite Japanese shogi board on loan from the Horniman. This is part of the Object in Focus series and will be on display until the 18th of October.

Shogi, for those who don’t know, and I must admit I was pretty clueless before the loan, is similar to chess. This is an exciting game of tactics and once pieces are captured a player can replay them as their own, which some say is like soldiers switching sides in battle.

This shogi set has carved pieces painted with Japanese characters that have been carefully positioned to mimic the start of a game - so visitors can use their imagination to guess how the game would play out.

The loan has taken pride of place in the museum, so visitors are captivated by this intriguing object as they enter. Southend Museum displays local and natural history collections alongside a rotating exhibitions programme, and it has been brilliant having such a special artefact amongst the displays.

This object in focus inspired us to look within the Museum's own collection to draw out the history of games and create an exciting new exhibition – Toys and Games.

  • Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum, Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum
    Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum

A fellow volunteer and I were lucky enough to curate this exhibition and we decided to transform the space into a fun place for both young and old to delight in the stories of toys. There are lots of recognisable classics, with train sets and board games alongside some more unusual treasures such as toy theatres and magic sets.

Visitors can trace the chronology of toys as they accompany us in early life from simple building blocks through to complex engineering sets as we age and develop. The museum has also hosted a special Fun and Games event for children where they discovered the history of toys and played Victorian parlour games.

Whilst researching for the exhibition we were surprised that many games have ancient origins. Senet, which is believed to be the first board game ever, was played in Ancient Egypt over six thousand years ago. Shogi, in its earliest form, dates back to the 10th century and the Horniman’s set is thought to date from the early 19th century.

  • Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum, Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum
    Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum

One of the oldest pieces in the exhibition is a 19th century set of wooden building blocks. Like the shogi set it is formed of carved pieces, but these are used for the rather more simple activity of building towers. In the 19th century, the idea of linking play with learning accelerated but it hadn’t been until the late 18th century that toys like this were even created specifically for children.

We hope people will continue to enjoy discovering all about this shogi set and have as much fun as I did learning all about the history of toys.


Object in Focus: Swedish Straw Goats at Haslemere Museum

Lindsay Moreton, Collections Manager at Haslemere Museum, tells us how the loan of five Swedish straw goats from the Horniman has helped their latest exhibition.

As part of our exhibition, ‘The Rustic Renaissance: Haslemere’s Arts and Crafts Heritage’ (on show until 2nd September 2017) Haslemere Museum has borrowed five Swedish straw goats through the Horniman Museum’s Object in Focus project. The exhibition tells the story of how a group of artists and artisans created an artistic enclave in Haslemere in the early 1900s. The exhibition features folk art objects from the European Peasant Art Collection, which were originally collected to inspire local craftspeople and to try to preserve declining traditional handicraft skills after the Industrial Revolution.

  • Swedish Straw Goats on display at Haslemere Museum, Swedish Straw Goats on display at Haslemere Museum
    Swedish Straw Goats on display at Haslemere Museum

We were thrilled that the straw goats or ‘julbock’ were available for loan to coincide with our exhibition as they are the perfect example of a traditional folk art from Sweden. Many objects in our ‘Peasant Art’ Collection originate from the country too. Our visitors have loved seeing these charming objects and a local Swedish resident who lives opposite the Museum has displayed her own straw goat in her window in honour of their arrival! 

The Object in Focus project is a great way for regional museums like us to borrow interesting artefacts from the Horniman and the whole process has been smoothly managed by Sarah and the team at the Museum. We will be sad to see the friendly goats go when we return them in September!


The Badger at Burgh House

Hello, I’m Becky Lodge the Curator at Burgh House, an historic house with a local history museum, based in Hampstead.

We borrowed the Object in Focus taxidermy badger from the Horniman last year and the staff all became very fond of her. We have no natural history specimens in our own collection, and the badger is super cute.

The badger featured in an exhibition of picture postcards of Hampstead called Hello from Hampstead! Discovering a History through Postcards.

Hampstead is a suburb of London that has been a popular visitor destination for centuries, especially for its vast and famous Heath. Not only is the Heath an incredible place to explore, it is host to a wonderful variety of plants and animals.

The badger helped us to show this, complementing our postcards beautifully.

Working with Sarah and the conservators from the Horniman on the loan was a really enjoyable experience. The whole process was so well managed, it was a delight for our small team. Thanks, Horniman Museum and Gardens!

Find out more about our Object in Focus loans project.

Discover more from Burgh House on their website or connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.

Cleaning a Persian Dhal

Conservator Charlotte talks to us today about cleaning a steel Persian Dhal to discover its intricately detailed decoration. 

This steel Persian Dhal (shield) is one of a number of objects to go on loan to Bucks County Museum as part of their “Art of Islam” Exhibition.

At some point in its history this shield had been covered in shellac lacquer that had, over time, discoloured and trapped dirt against the surface. The lacquer had also been applied over tarnished metal and both these issues were obscuring the fine engravings and gilt layer across the surface of the shield.  

  • Persian Dhal shield, The front of shield before treatment.
    The front of shield before treatment.

  • Persian Dhal shield, The back of the shield before treatment â the detaching cotton textile can be seen at the top left of the shield.
    The back of the shield before treatment â the detaching cotton textile can be seen at the top left of the shield.

We removed the old lacquer layer with solvents. This process had the added benefit of removing some of the corrosion product across the surface of the metal. We then applied museum-grade abrasion paste to remove the thicker areas of corrosion.

  • Persian Dhal shield, The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
    The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.

To protect the metal, we hot waxed the shield with microcrystalline wax. This technique involves carefully heating the metal and applying wax to the surface, which is then left to cool. Using a lint-free cloth we then rigorously buffed the metal to remove excess wax and create an even shine. 

The cotton textile on the back of the shield was detaching from the metal and had to be secured back down. To do this, we aheared small tabs of Japanese tissue between the textile and the metal to act as an “anchor” and to allow for easier treatment reversibility.

We then inserted thermoplastic adhesive, applied as a “dry film”, between the Japanese tissue and the metal and then heat activated to bond the two materials together. A “wet” adhesive was then applied on top of the tissue, with the textile pressed down on to the adhesive and clamped in place, while the adhesive dried. This technique was repeated around the edge of the shield until the textile was secured in place.

  • Persian Dhal shield, The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
    The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.

  • Persian Dhal shield, The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
    The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.

  • Persian Dhal shield, The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
    The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.

  • Persian Dhal shield, The back of the shield after treatment. The cotton textile is now secure against the metal.
    The back of the shield after treatment. The cotton textile is now secure against the metal.

The resulting clean and corrosion removal allows us to see more intricate detail and securing the textile on the back of the shield should hopefully prevent any further damage to this material.

The Art of Islam

Objects from the Horniman's collection are on display now in a new major exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury.

The exhibition, running from March 26 until September 24 2016, is part of the Art of Islam Festival and reflects Islamic culture and its links with Western Europe, 

Treasures on display will include carpets, paintings, furniture, metalwork, jewellery and splendid calligraphy from across the Middle East.

Among the objects from the Horniman's collection are this ewer, seal and baby cover.


This Bidri ware ewer is from India and dates from the late 19th century, when it was sold to Frederick Horniman.


This seal, dating from 1776, is engraved in Persian with a floral border. It belonged to James Peter Auriol of the Bengal civil service, who was secretary to the government of Warren Hastings in India in the late 18th century.

This cover from Sumatra is placed on the forehead of a baby (along with another cover for the baby's body) when visitors come to see it during the first forty days of life.

In addition to the Horniman's collection, exhibits will also be borrowed from the British Museum, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and from the private collection of Razwan and Sarya Baig.

The Horniman and Pepys

The Horniman has loaned three musical instruments to a major new exhibition celebrating the life and times of Samuel Pepys at the National Maritime Museum.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution has brought together a wealth of paintings, manuscripts and artefacts to explore the period from the execution of King Charles I in 1649 to the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

They are exploring a formative era which saw the repositioning of the monarchy and the consolidation of Britain’s place as a maritime, economic and political force on the world stage. It coincides with the 400th anniversary of the Queen’s House, one of London’s most important buildings sitting at the heart of Stuart Greenwich and now the Royal Museums Greenwich.

The exhibition uses the voice and experiences of Pepys, one of the most colourful and appealing personalities of the age. Pepys is well known as a passionate diarist and prolific correspondent, but the exhibition also looks at his character as a master naval administrator, a well-connected socialite, gossip, and lover of music, theatre and fine living.

Music is very important to his story as one of his abiding passions – he played, composed and was an amateur teacher. He is known to have played the played the flageolet, guitar and lute – the three artefacts we have loaned to the exhibition. The Horniman’s instruments play an important role illustrating the types of instruments from this period he may have played.

Samuel Pepys: Plague, Fire, Revolution is on at the National Maritime Museum until the 28th March 2016.

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