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From Butterflies to Sawfish

Mami, talks about her experience volunteering, highlighting objects from our Handling Collection and some of our displays.

  • Mami holding turtle shell, Mami holding turtle shell, Mami
    Mami holding turtle shell, Mami

Hello, my name is Mami and I moved to the UK from Japan last year. I am a housewife, and my family members are my husband and a shiba-inu dog. I have been volunteering with the Horniman since May 2019. I am really excited to be working for the Horniman, because touching objects is very fascinating. So, I’m pleased to work and learn about the objects and English simultaneously!

I really recommend that you stop by at our touch tables when you are exploring the Horniman. I found it surprising because I had never seen a table like this in Japan. I had never seen a table like this before I came here or touched any museum objects before.

We have several objects: a sawfish, a turtle shell, a sperm whale tooth, a piece of seal skin and a fish skeleton. Today, I’d like to introduce a couple of these handling objects to you and my favourite parts of the Museum.

Sawfish (Anoxupristis caspidata)

  • Mami with sawfish, Mami holding sawfish, Mami
    Mami holding sawfish, Mami

Sawfish, Anoxupristis caspidata, are a type of ray that are closely related to sharks! They live I in shallow coastal waters like bays and estuaries in tropical and subtropical countries. Sawfish like to eat small fish and animals without a spine. They attack groups of fishes, cutting them into smaller pieces with their saws, making them easier to eat. Surprisingly, they can find food with their rostrum (nose extension) which contain sensory organs! They also use the rostrum as a club to stun the prey or to pin it to the floor before eating it. The rostrum is used as a defensive weapon against strong enemies, using it as a club to stun the prey or pin it to the floor before eating it.

All five species of sawfish are now listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is because of loss of habitat, plastic and being caught in fishing nets left behind by humans in the sea. They are also facing threats due to plastic pollution caused by us.

Turtle Shell

You are also able to touch the shell of a green turtle. Its scientific name is Chelonia mydas. The shell is hard, like a suit of armour and so tough even a shark’s teeth can’t bite through it! Its shell enables it to swim fast, but unlike many other turtles, the sea turtle can’t pull its head and legs inside its shell to hide from its enemies. Green turtles spend their entire lives at sea and only adult female turtles come ashore when it’s time to lay their eggs.

Sea turtles often drown when caught in fishing gear, nets and long lines. Further to this, they often eat plastic bags because the bags are mistaken for foods such as jellyfish. The plastics remain in their organs and they become to be unable to eat. In the Natural History Gallery, you can see a Green Turtle, currently on loan from The Natural History Museum, London. Its surrounding display highlights the effects facing sea turtles today.

  • Green Turtle, Green Turtle, Natural History Museum, London
    Green Turtle, Natural History Museum, London

As I Live and Breathe, Claire Morgan

  • As I Live and Breathe, As I live and Breathe, 2019, Claire Morgan, Sarah Duncan
    As I live and Breathe, 2019, Claire Morgan, Sarah Duncan

In addition to these objects, you can see the stunning works, As I Live and Breathe, created by award-winning, internationally-exhibited visual artist, Claire Morgan. A gorgeous installation of spheres, which are made from colourful waste polyethene hang from the ceiling in Gallery Square. Inside the Natural History Gallery her series of works continues, combining plastics and nature in a touching display of taxidermy. See her body of work until May 2020 and read more about the exhibition and Claire in About the Art.

Butterfly House

  • Mami pointing at owl butterfly, Mami with owl butterfly, Mami
    Mami with owl butterfly, Mami

Lastly, I would like to introduce another attractive display which ismy favourite place in the Horniman, the Butterfly House.You can meet a lot of beautiful butterflies, caterpillars and pupae! They are very friendly, and sometimes they will land on you (but please don’t touch them, sorry and the plants as well). The specially planted tropical garden is kept hot and humid for the butterflies, you may even feel like you are staying at in a tropical area. I missed Japan when volunteering here, as it is similar to Japans early summer season. Some of the butterflies come from South East and East Asia, including Japan. I would be pleased to show you them if you stopped by.

When I decided to volunteer for the Horniman, it was not only to improve my English, but I also wanted to get involved in a local community. Engaging in voluntary work is best practice for me and I extremely appreciate working here. Since I started working here, my life in England has grown to be more satisfying than before. At first I was really nervous but now I really enjoy volunteering, because I can work with friendly and lovely co-workers. Whenever I am struggling they always help me. Having lunch with them is the happiest time for me, and one of my favourite times of the day.

As a volunteer, I will really be pleased if I am able to speak English better and speak perfectly when you are visiting, and this motivation always stimulates me to study not only language but also the fascinating objects. Volunteering is becoming an essential part of my life, and assists in expanding my world in this country. I am gradually building my confidence and enhancing my skills throughout the voluntary work, thanks to my inspirational co-workers and all of the great visitors.

Thank you for reading my blog, and we hope you come and experience our touch tables and fascinating objects. If you are interested in volunteering at the Horniman find out more on the website. We look forward to your visit! Thank you, Mami

Recording the Brain Collection Archives

Photography Student, Fern Denyer shares her experience volunteering at the Study Collection Centre and assisting with the recording of the Brain Collection Archives.

Recently I completed a three-month placement at the Horniman’s Study Collection Centre (SCC), where I assisted with acquisitions and archives from the Brain Collection. Acquisitions are objects acquired by the Museum from donations. I helped with objects and archives from 1953 that were collected in Sudan and Nigeria.

  • Small wooden female hand-held figure with bow, Small wooden female hand-held figure with bow, 2019.57, Horniman Museum and Gardens
    Small wooden female hand-held figure with bow, 2019.57, Horniman Museum and Gardens

Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, Deputy Keeper of Anthropology, and Carly Randall, Archivist, organised my 12-week student placement which included accessioning, a way of recording new additions to collections and scanning an archive of 35mm photographic slides. I also assisted Sarah Duncan, the Horniman’s Photographer, with photographing and retouching the objects. Later in the programme I gained a unique insight into how Museum acquisitions are managed and the procedures involved at an Acquisitions and Disposals Committee Meeting.

The Brain Collection archive is made up of hundreds of photographic slides, each of which needed to be scanned and uploaded onto the Collections Database: a system called MIMSY.

I described and recorded each scan carefully, giving each one its own unique collection number. With guidance from Johanna, I also gave each slide a rough estimation of what had been shot and its location.

As well as archive material, there were lots of objects in the collection that needed to be labelled. Working with Rosamund West, Documentation Officer, I learned how to handle objects appropriately and record their measurements.

Rosamund also showed me how to label the objects using both ink and other materials. I used ink and varnish to mark the objects with collection numbers (it required a very steady hand!).

As a photography student, it was insightful to see how the Photographer Sarah worked in the studio. Sarah was encouraging and allowed me to shoot some images in the collection.

Getting hands-on experience with museum photography really helped to improve my confidence. I really enjoyed working in the studio and seeing what decisions Sarah made to get the best possible photographs of the objects. She showed me the process of editing images post-production and a layering image technique which ensures the entire object is in focus.

During this volunteering opportunity, I saw different aspects of how a collection is prepared and how museum stores are organised. I also gained knowledge about how an archive is appropriately managed.

Overall I have really appreciated my student placement experience and learned so many skills. I saw the progression of the Brain Collection as a project and assisted at each stage. I now also feel much more confident photographing in a studio setting.

New year, new resolutions

It’s a brand new year and usually, that means we say goodbye to our old ways and give ourselves new goals to aspire to. Setting New Year’s resolutions is a tradition around the world, so what resolutions have you made? To give you some ideas, we have rounded up some resolutions to help you get your year off to a great start. 

Be more active


You may not want to sweat out in the gym and purchase that expensive gym membership. So how about a run, walk or even a stroll in our Gardens?

Apart from the health benefits from exercise, a walk in our Gardens is free and, no matter the season, there are always new blooms of life flourishing across our 16 acres of land. Have a play in the interactive sound garden, walk your dogs or discover quiet corners for contemplation.

There are also proven mental health benefits to spending time in nature, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety. So discover what our gardeners and curators have developed outdoors, to coincide with the Museum’s collections.

Read a few more books

Did you know that every 1st Sunday of the month our library opens its doors to the public without any need for an appointment? The collection contains books covering anthropology to illustrated monographs and now has over 30,000 volumes.

The library is also staffed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and open to researchers on these days by appointment (please email enquiry@horniman.ac.uk).

Or, if you want to read more with your children, you can find books on our Natural History Gallery Balcony and a reading corner on our World Gallery Balcony.

Spend more time with family and friends

The Horniman offers many free activities, whether you are visiting alone, with a friend or with family.

From photographic displays on our World Gallery Balcony to our permanent collections there is always something to see and to think about.

In the Hands on Base, you can get closer to artefacts and objects. Whether you are interested in Mexican masks or want to learn more about endangered animals, who knows what you will discover in our free object-handling sessions.

Culture has a positive impact on wellness, so making some time for yourself in places like the Horniman, really can help you feel better.

View our Whats On calendar to see current and upcoming events and exhibitions.

Give something back to your community

  • Youth Panel , Balistic
    , Balistic

Volunteering gives an opportunity to give back to your local community, which has social benefits for groups like the over 40s.

Keep an eye on our website for ways to get involved or follow us on LinkedIn to hear about new opportunities.

If you’re aged between 14 and 19 and are interested in making a difference at the Horniman, why don’t you join the Horniman Youth Panel?

The Horniman during the Second World War

Anthropology Volunteer, Lynne Darwood, has been looking into our archives and others for information about the Horniman during World War II.

The declaration of war took place on 3 September 1939, but preparations for conflict with Germany started before this.

The Times newspaper ran an article on the 25 August 1939 under the heading ‘Precautions in Crisis.’ This article set out rules for the screening of lights, darkening of windows and the meaning of various air raid warnings signals. The piece advised that several London museums had been closed to enable the package and removal for safeguarding of works considered to be national treasures.

  • Bomb damage to Lewisham, Lewisham Road showing damage from Flying Bombs, Imperial War Museum © IWM (CH 15109)
    Lewisham Road showing damage from Flying Bombs, Imperial War Museum © IWM (CH 15109)

The Horniman was closed on the outbreak of the war and the South London Advertiser of 19 January 1940 informed its readers that “several valuable museum pieces” from the Horniman had been “removed into safety areas several months ago”.  However, the expected aerial bombardment of London did not occur and when the Victoria and Albert Museum re-opened on 11 January 1940, there was a call for other museums to follow suit.

The Horniman re-opened on 4 March 1940 with two sections of the Museum being ‘available for inspection between 10am and 6pm each day’ except Sunday. The building was restructured to house an air-raid shelter within the Museum, with space for 100 people and visitors were limited to this number.

The Horniman continued to run during the war, acquiring new items (which were mostly gifts), such as a large collection of sea shells, made by Sir William Hamer, and a Corbeille de Mariage, which is a type of wedding basket. 

During this time, the Horniman was used for patriotic exhibitions such as ‘Russia Today‘ in December 1942, and a ‘United States Exhibition’ in August 1943, which featured photographs of American industries and buildings, including the huge circular granaries built for the storage of wartime harvests, as well as native costumes and maps of the States. The latter exhibition drew many visitors, including large numbers of American servicemen.

Fundraisers were held, including an art exhibition in conjunction with the Royal Air Force ‘Wings for victory week’ in March 1943, which included an auction of art works by local Civil Defence artists in what was the Lecture Theatre, which is now The Studio.

The Gardens were also called into service as the site of a barrage balloon and spotlight. The balloon was tethered to the ground by metal cables and was intended to keep enemy planes from flying too low on bombing raids. A local resident, recorded in the Forest Hill School Oral History Project No. 2, ‘South East London in the Second World War’ describes the balloons as being like ‘great big elephants’.

  • RAF Barrage Balloons with WAAF Operating Crews CC.0 via Wiki Commons, RAF Barrage Balloons with WAAF Operating Crews, CC.0 via Wiki Commons
    RAF Barrage Balloons with WAAF Operating Crews, CC.0 via Wiki Commons

The South London newspapers reported flying bombs raids from June 1944 onwards.

These bombs had a limited range, so they had to be fired from the French and Dutch coasts. The bases were gradually overrun by the Allies following the D Day landings and the last attacks took place in October 1944. The heaviest period of bombing was referred to by the newspapers as ‘the Battle of South London’ and lasted from June to September 1944.

Lewisham was the third worst hit borough in London. It was hit by 115 flying bombs causing 275 casualties. 1,070 more were treated in hospital and 373 treated at First Aid Posts. A total of 1,129 houses were destroyed, 1,553 rendered uninhabitable, 5,305 seriously damaged and 55,335 suffered minor damage.

The Horniman was closed in August 1944 following damage caused by a flying bomb. The damage was not considered serious but the Council Architect reported in June 1945 that for the Museum building to re-open, the minimum work would entail:

  • new main entrance doors;
  • re-glazing and the repairing of lights in the Entrance Hall, Vestibule, Curator’s Room, Lecture Hall, Library and Library Stairs;
  • repairs to the doors in the lecture Hall and Library, Mummy and Aquarium corridors; the removal of all defective plaster on ceilings; and
  • flaking distemper on walls and ceilings.

In April 1945 the Education Officer, E.G. Savage, had started pressing for the re-opening of the Horniman as a matter of some urgency.

He stressed the importance of the Museum as an educational resource, and reminded the authorities of the extensive use of the Horniman by school children before its closure. The Education Officer estimated that following re-opening the Museum would be able to cater for at least 1,000 children a week.

Local people were also keen to see the Horniman open again.

In August 1946 an official who came to inspect the Horniman, was advised that applications were being received daily from the general public asking when the Museum would be available.

However, extensive damage countrywide, caused by the war, meant there were shortages of both materials and labour. Re-imbursement for the cost of the work could be claimed from the War Damages Commission, but consent for work to be carried out needed to be obtained from the Ministry of Health under the Defence (General) Requirements and licenses for timber obtained.

The work was due to start but had to be put off because priority was being given to de-bricking schools, and the work was only finally allowed to proceed after promises were made not to go to the local Employment exchange for labour.

  • The Horniman is closed due to bomb damage, Notice that the Horniman has been reopened following bomb damage
    Notice that the Horniman has been reopened following bomb damage

The Horniman re-opened on 25 September 1946 with the minimum possible repairs which made it safe for people to enter the building. The zoological and biological specimens had been repaired and reclassified. The Aquarium was ready for new specimens to be collected, but the ethnological section was in a bad way with the staff being advised to just clean up the section and open it with a large notice stating that it was under re-arrangement. The West Hall (no longer there) did not re-open until April 1947.

In the Press Notice for the re-opening, the London County Council described the Horniman as a landmark of South London whose “many friends will be glad to know of its reopening” and “a magnet for generations of schoolboys.”

Preserving History

Danielle Andrew Lynch has been volunteering in our Archives to see if being an Archivist is the career for her.

  • Invitation, An invitation from Mr F.J Horniman to the public to visit the Horniman Free Museum, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook. The invitation indicates that the Museum will remain open until 9pm on Tuesday 26 December 1893., Horniman Museum and Gardens
    An invitation from Mr F.J Horniman to the public to visit the Horniman Free Museum, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook. The invitation indicates that the Museum will remain open until 9pm on Tuesday 26 December 1893., Horniman Museum and Gardens

In my final year of university I decided to become an Archivist.

I’ve always had an interest in history, and being able work with history every day seemed like a fantastic career choice.

To me, history is typically seen as something we learn about at school or university, and it is often considered a hobby. But after visiting several archival repositories and interacting with other heritage professionals, it made me realise just how important the preservation and conservation of history is.

Without the reminders of the events of the past in the form of physical objects, it is difficult to recognise how things have changed in the present, and how they will continue to change in the future. As a result, this experience has furthered my ambition to become an Archivist.

Following my graduation, I began researching how one goes about getting into archiving. Having discovered that cataloguing is one of the main facets of the profession, I applied to several institutions. Alongside working at the Emery Walker Trust in Hammersmith, I began volunteering at the Horniman Museum and Gardens as a Cataloguing Volunteer based at their Study Collections Centre from June until September 2017.

My initial project was to catalogue individual descriptions of press cuttings within the Horniman Museum Press Cuttings Scrapbook (dated 1884-1901). The process of cataloguing can be lengthy, but it is essential for keeping an accurate record of the objects held in heritage institutions, as well as making information accessible for researchers.

  • Article from archives, Article titled Portrait Gallery of the Munificencies, Mr. Horniman, of Hornimans Museum dated February 1891, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook, Horniman Museum and Gardens
    Article titled Portrait Gallery of the Munificencies, Mr. Horniman, of Hornimans Museum dated February 1891, from the Horniman Museum Archives Press Cuttings Scrapbook, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The press cuttings detailed a lot of the history of the early collections within the Horniman, and I thought it was brilliant that they kept records of this information. Working with the scrapbook not only gave me an introduction to cataloguing, but I also learned about the handling and preservation of heritage objects. The scrapbook, for example, was kept in a temperature controlled environment to ensure that it remained intact in between uses. Also, it needed to rest on a cushion whenever it was being used.

In September, I switched to a different project: The Adam Carse Cataloguing Project. The objective was to catalogue the correspondence, research notes and image archive of Adam Carse, an author and musician, who donated his collection of 350 musical instruments to the Horniman in 1947.

This project helped me to develop not only cataloguing skills, but also my ability to research publications, as well as relevant individuals and institutions, in order to create comprehensive research materials for future researchers. Additionally, whilst working on this project, I had the great opportunity to digitise some of the documents that I came across in the Adam Carse collection.

  • Diagrams, Hand drawn diagrams of four different types of recorder from the Musikhistoriska Museum in Stockholm from the research notes of Adam Carse, circa 1945 , Horniman Museum and Gardens
    Hand drawn diagrams of four different types of recorder from the Musikhistoriska Museum in Stockholm from the research notes of Adam Carse, circa 1945 , Horniman Museum and Gardens

Working as a volunteer at the Horniman has been a great introduction in working in a museum archive. I have had the fantastic opportunity to work with some really interesting materials, as well as being able gain invaluable experience in cataloguing which will feature as a part of my future career.

Exploring Colour with Jaz

Our Gardens volunteer and Horniman Youth Panel member Jaz has let us know what he enjoys the most about our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed and he hopes you'll enjoy it too.

In July 2017 I started my Bronze Arts Award when I volunteered with Chocolate Films taking photographs of museum visitors during filming for the Wall of Voices in our new World Gallery.

Recently, I visited the Colour exhibition with the Horniman Youth Panel. I played the games, tried on the camouflage costumes, and sat in the Mood Room with my shoes off. I am sharing my favourite areas of the exhibition which made me feel calm. 

  • Jaz03, The colours in the room make me feel calm and excited, Jaz
    The colours in the room make me feel calm and excited, Jaz

  • Jaz02, I like doing this as it makes me feel calm and I like water, Jaz
    I like doing this as it makes me feel calm and I like water, Jaz

  • Jaz01, This is my favourite colour, Jaz
    This is my favourite colour, Jaz

  • Jaz04, I am standing between the coloured arches because it looks nice, Jaz
    I am standing between the coloured arches because it looks nice, Jaz

  • Jaz05, The red colour gave me blurry eyes, Jaz
    The red colour gave me blurry eyes, Jaz

  • Jaz06, The green colour reminds me of being in the garden, Jaz
    The green colour reminds me of being in the garden, Jaz

By showing what I like about the exhibition, I hope other people will want to visit – it’s both exciting and calming. Even though it’s mainly for children, the exhibition still makes a 23-year-old like myself feel calm. 

Refugee Week is turning 20

Refugee Week is turning 20 and at the Horniman we're celebrating

Every year on the 20 June, people around the world celebrate World Refugee Day with a whole week of events meant to recognise the positive contributions of refugees and asylum seekers to our societies.

In the UK, Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK and encourages a better understanding between communities. 

At the Horniman, we have a long tradition of working with refugee groups, schools, and our visitors to raise awareness about the problems facing refugees and this year is no different. On the 20 June, to mark the celebration World Refugee Day our volunteers will encourage general visitors to join the national Make Simple Acts campaign to help change the way we see refugees, and ourselves.

Throughout the week school groups in our education centre we will also be shown "Exile in Colour", an exhibition of drawings and paintings produced by adults and children during therapeutic art sessions at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers and Barry House, a local hostel for asylum seekers and refugees, and "Where Do I Come From?", a patchwork tapestry created by visitors during our annual Crossing Borders event in March, a full day of workshops and art and craft activities delivered by local refugee organisations.

Jellyfish husbandry and coral fragging

For volunteers week we spoke to our former Aquarium volunteer, Sophie, about how her experience has helped her forge her own career.

My name is Sophie Palmer and I am a former volunteer at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. I spent a number of years volunteering once a week in the Aquarium working with Jamie Craggs the Aquarium Curator. When I started, Project Coral had not been set up but the Aquarium still housed an impressive coral display.

On my first day, Jamie and James Robson, the former Deputy Curator, walked me through the various stages of jellyfish husbandry, which would become one of my duties over the next few years. I was also taught how to maintain various tanks and displays and specific feeding practices.

In the early days of my volunteering, I was shown husbandry techniques of various animals including tree and dart frogs, giant clams, flamboyant cuttlefish, corals, and of course jellyfish. These practices required a variety of skills, such as maintaining habitats, observing animal behaviour, experimenting with different diets, reading research papers, counting eggs, and fragging (making cuttings of) coral for further growth and research.

It was an exciting time to be working at the Aquarium. Project Coral was set up and as it started to build momentum and gain recognition, the Aquarium acquired sophisticated equipment to maintain the corals, and I was learning more about water chemistry and how the new equipment worked.

Jem, one of the aquarists, showed me how to maintain the live food that was fed to the animals at the Aquarium. These included different types of algae, Artemia, and Mysis.

Michelle Davis, the new Deputy Curator, started to involve me in jellyfish husbandry in more depth and suggested I attend a weekend workshop run at The Deep in Hull. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about breeding and maintaining jellyfish as well as networking with other jellyfish enthusiasts.

In 2017, two new aquarists started at the aquarium - Chris, who has a strong background in pathology, and Chloe, who is now revamping the flamboyant cuttlefish breeding programme. Having Chris and Chloe there in the last few months of my time volunteering proved invaluable as I was able to shadow two extremely knowledgeable aquarists.

I loved my time volunteering at the Aquarium. It helped me onto the path of a fantastic new career - I now work at an aquarium and seal sanctuary in Northern Ireland - and the team there are really enthusiastic and happy to teach. There is no lack of passion at this Aquarium and it makes all the hard work you put in worth the effort.

"It's lovely to be back at the Horniman"

One of our volunteers, Bobby Ogogo, winner of the Volunteer of the Year award at the Museums + Heritage Awards 2016, talks to our Volunteering Manager, Rhiannon, about why he recently returned to volunteer on the Engage programme.

Hi Bobby, you last volunteered with us in the summer of 2016, what can you remember from then?

We had a leaving picnic on a nice summer’s day. I enjoyed the picnic, and saying goodbye to the old volunteers, like Demelza and Roy. I enjoyed working with my previous support worker Livingstone. I ate sandwiches, crisps and cake. I remember we were supposed to bring music, but we didn’t as it might have been too noisy.

I said to my mum, I want to come back to the Horniman. I remember the happy times.

You went on to study Music and Art at South Thames College, what inspired that choice?

I really love music and painting, especially animals and monsters. I did once paint a ferret.

  • Bobby Volunteer, Top: Bobby (right) on the Touch Desk with his fellow volunteers. Below: Bobby's ferret
    Top: Bobby (right) on the Touch Desk with his fellow volunteers. Below: Bobby's ferret

Have you enjoyed being back at the Horniman?

It’s lovely to be back at the Horniman, I’m getting on with the new volunteers and my new support worker. I’ve enjoyed meeting the new volunteers, they’re all very nice.

I am enjoying the musical instruments. The caxixi and shekere are my favourite because I can shake them and make people jump. I shake the instruments very gently, not loud, and I tell visitors where the instruments are from.

I enjoy exploring objects in the music gallery, and my favourites are the piano and drum kit. I hope these are put on the Touch Table soon.

  • Bobby Volunteer 2, Left: Bobby shaking a shekere on the Touch Table, Right: Bobby playing a drum
    Left: Bobby shaking a shekere on the Touch Table, Right: Bobby playing a drum

Do you have something to say to our visitors?

I would like to say hello and ask you to come and see the objects.

Harassed parent to museum student: my volunteering journey with the Horniman

Engage Volunteer, lawyer, mother, and now MA student, Gemma tells us about how volunteering with the Horniman has taken her back to university.

Ever since we moved into the area, about 10 years ago now, I’ve always loved the Horniman – the walrus, the music gallery and, as a sleep-deprived new parent, Busy Bees and the coffee in the café. I started volunteering largely because - with my youngest son starting school - it was getting harder for me to think of legitimate reasons to hang around the place. Joining the Engage volunteer team soon solved that.

The Engage team runs object handling on the engage trolley and welcomes visitors to the Butterfly House and Animal Walk. Very quickly, I went from being the harassed parent with the dinosaur-obsessed child on the one side of the engage trolley to being the well-informed volunteer on the other. Little did I know when I first signed up that Engage was just the start of my journey into the museum world.

  • IMG_3376, Gemma at London Volunteers in Museums Awards ceremony 2017 at City Hall. From left: fellow Family Learning Volunteer Marisa, Community Learning Assistant Ewen, and Gemma
    Gemma at London Volunteers in Museums Awards ceremony 2017 at City Hall. From left: fellow Family Learning Volunteer Marisa, Community Learning Assistant Ewen, and Gemma

Within a couple of months of starting with Engage, I also began volunteering with the Family team – putting my experience with nursery rhymes and the under 5s to good use by helping with the Busy Bees session each Tuesday.

The more I dug into what went on at the Horniman, the more I uncovered and the more I wanted to be involved. I helped the Community team with the Crossing Borders event for refugees. I helped design new object boxes and a banner for the new gallery. I tagged along with the Education team while they presented school sessions on evolution and I chatted to Kate, Sophie, and Rhiannon in turn about what was involved in managing the volunteers.

Still, I felt I’d only scratched the surface. There was much more to know, so I began to look into courses and other volunteering opportunities. Time and again, there was the Horniman.

I did a free, short online course with Futurelearn and the University of Leicester, and there was the Horniman acting as an example of how to make the best use of museum objects. I did some reading about “Museums in Britain”. There was the Horniman as one of the prime examples of Victorian museums for the general public.

Eventually, I secured a place to study Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture on an MA at Westminster. Unfortunately, juggling the course, my day job as a lawyer and my childcare responsibilities, has meant that I’ve had to cut back on my “hanging around at the Horniman” time, but even though I can’t come in as often as I used to, the Horniman is always there.

It’s there in the books I study from, through links with my fellow students and we are all well known for raising the museum as our go-to example of best practice in seminars. On my first course this term, I’ve got a museum visit - it’s to the Horniman. Thank you to the Horniman Museum for being an inspiration, an example, and an education.

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