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

Previous Next
of 40 items

Building the Extremes Garden

Wes, our  Head of Horticulture, lets us know what went in to creating our new outdoor showcasing exploring plants with some amazing adaptations to extremely arid environments.

The big challenge to build our Extremes Garden was to find suitable plants to display, as they are not the type that can be picked up in your local garden centre, and we needed something especially striking as a centre piece.

Fortunately my old mate David Cooke, manager of Kew Gardens' Temperate House helped us out, and loaned a Giant African Cycad, Encephalartos altenstenii.

Cycads are amazing plants that survived when the dinosaurs inhabited the planet; they actually predate the evolution of flowering plants and produce cones rather than flowers as reproductive structures.

Glasshouse manager Kate Pritchard from Oxford Botanic Gardens also kindly loaned us two lovely Organ Pipe Cactus that have also made a big visual impact on the garden.

Other plants came from Southfields specialist cacti nursery; gold medal winners at Chelsea this year. The amazing Architectural Plants Nursery in Horsham also provided us with a nice selection.

We paid a visit to a private nursery/collection owned by Cacti expert John Pilbeam (Connoisseurs' Cacti) to source the remaining smaller specimens.

After a lot of deliberation we positioned the plants. They were planted in their pots because they are only going to be on display until September (when they will need to be moved inside for the Winter) so it saved disturbing their root balls which cacti in particular don’t appreciate.

We then laid a weed-suppressing membrane around the plants and over the surface of the bed, creating a patchwork between the plants.

We then mulched with 5 bulk bags of decorative stone, to give the display its arid/desert look.

The display only really took the highly skilled Gardens team 2 days to install, and we are very pleased with the results.

The Making of a new Nature Base Display

Yesterday we announced a new Nature Base display, specially curated by young naturalist and blogger, Jake McGowan-Lowe.

After writing his own book on bone-collecting, Jake was a natural choice as a guest curator for this display, which aims to give children a close look at some of the bones they might expect to find locally.

Jake's first job was to select which specimens from our stored collections should be included in the case. His choices were all common species, many of which can be found in London's gardens, parks and public spaces. While skulls are often the most recognisable (and collectable) part of a skeleton, other common bones were included to help beginner bone-hunters recognise their shapes.

As Jake couldn't be at the Horniman for the entire process, it was then Paolo's job to take a close look at the specimens and decide how best to mount them ready for their installation in the Gallery.

The bird skulls needed to be mounted flat onto the board, while mammal skulls are better shown side-on, with the lower jaw attached separately. This offers the best view to people looking to use the bones to ID their own finds.

Stew, our Graphic designer, printed out the first draft of the display design, to help Paolo get the positioning right. You can see here some 'lorem ipsum' or placeholder text has been used to work around while Paolo waited for Jake's final draft.

Once everything was finalised, Stew could print out the final version of the display backing and technician Becs could get to work pinning the specimens in place.

Each bone was safely secured using thin wire with a covering of plastic to protect the specimens.

This is fiddly work when it comes to some of the tiny bones involved.

The whole display was put together behind the scenes, before being brought into the gallery and slotted into position.

There was just a final bit of dusting to do to get everything looking its best...

...before the glass was carefully slid back into place and secured.

If you want to see Jake's specially curated case of bones in person, be sure to visit Nature Base and look for it beneath the sign reading 'What can you find outside?'

Desert inspiration for an Extreme Garden

If you've visited our Gardens this week, you may have noticed a new display near the Animal WalkExtremes Garden showcases the amazing adaptations plants have made to survive some of the most extreme conditions on earth, with cacti and succulents from exceptionally hot environments.

Wes, Head of Horticulture at the Horniman, has shared some of his American inspiration for creating this new display.

In April this year I travelled to the Mexican peninsular of Baja California with a friend and self-confessed cacti freak. This would be Part 2 of an expedition begun in June 2013 when we travelled through the Sonoran Desert in the South Western States of the USA looking at species of cacti and succulent plants growing in their natural habitat.

  • Wes discovers some extreme plants in Mexico's Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

The Sonoran Desert also covers areas of Northern Mexico, and is home to an even broader range of desert plants that we had yet to see, so we felt we had unfinished business and headed back earlier this year.

The plan was to travel the length of the peninsular as far as the town of Loreto, looking at various locations that my travelling companion Andrew Gdaniec, Curator of the Alameda Botanic Garden in Gibraltar had researched and found locations for.

The first highlight was to find the closely guarded location of the hedgehog cactus Echinocereus lindsayi. Andrew had acquired GPS coordinates of this very rare plant, and we had to travel off-road to the foot of rocky outcrop where we spotted flowers from our jeep. In the end we only found 12 or so of these plants so were very lucky.

  • Echinocereus lindsayi in flower, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Desert landscapes can be quite varied. While most people think of rolling sand dunes, the North American deserts are quite different.

  • Boulder Canyon in the Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

  • The Sonoran Desert, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

We also saw some truly monster plants. One that dominated much of the landscape was the Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, which is only found in Baja. It is the world’s biggest cactus, growing up to 20m in height and weighing 20-25 tonnes. These are very long lived species and some of the large ones we saw were probably 500 + years old.

  • Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Succulents are plants that sometimes look like cacti, and they have similar water saving adaptations, but because of botanical differences (cacti have structures called areoles, which succulents do not) they are not classed as cacti. But they are no less impressive!

  • Succulent, Agave deserti , Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

Along with amazing plants, there is also a lot of animal life to look out for in the desert. Highlights we came across include rattle snakes, big scary looking spiders, lizards, scorpions, vultures and coyotes. Grey whales also overwinter in the lagoons off of the coast.

  • Wes meets a whale during his trip to Mexico, Photo by Wesley Shaw
    , Photo by Wesley Shaw

This trip and our earlier one proved to be inspiration for the new display that the Gardens team have just finished installing. It is designed to complement the temporary Extremes exhibition in the Museum, and is designed  to show visitors how plants can survive in extreme habitats through some amazing adaptations. We hope you like it!


Bookblitz: The Oldest Book in the Collection

So far in our Bookblitz series, we've shared some fairly old volumes from our Library collections. However, not many come close to the age of this book.

  • De Materica Medica V, The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce

De Materia Medica is a hugely influential early medical text, first written almost 2000 years ago, around 40-90AD. Our volume isn't quite that age, but is an edition of the last book (there 5 in total) printed in 1529.

  • De Materica Medica V, The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce

The text is printed in its original Greek, accompanied by a Latin translation and a newer Latin 'interpretation', probably added in the 1500s.

  • The text is printed in ancient Greek and Latin, with a newer 'interpres' in Latin, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

Our copy was rebound in the 1800s, and is accompanied by an additional 1830 commentary on all 5 books in De Materia Medica.

  • De Materica Medica V, The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce

There is lots of bookworm damage clearly visible both to the binding and throughout the pages, although the beetle larvae which caused this have long-since died.

  • Our De Materia Medica has noticeable pest damage, but is in relatively good condition for its age, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    , Photo by Vicky Pearce

Still, this elderly book is in better condition than many Victorian volumes which, while younger, were produced in greater numbers and at lower cost.

  • De Materica Medica V, The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce

De Materia Medica remained in print for 1500 years, becoming the supreme authority for European medicine for centuries. It's author, a Roman physician of Greek origin called Pedanius Dioscorides, became known as the 'father of pharmacology' for his extensive advice concerning the creations and applications of medicines.

  • De Materica Medica V, The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce
    The oldest book in the Horniman Library, Photo by Vicky Pearce

Today, digitised copies of De Materia Medica can be accessed online. It remains a prime source of information about medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures.

Online Collections in Close Up

If you’ve been looking at our online collections recently, you might have noticed a 'Zoom' button in the top right of some of the images.

We have added new, larger images to our online collections and, if you press the button, you will be able to zoom in to really see our objects up close.

Once you've opened a zoomable image, you can move closer either by using the buttons at the bottom right, or scrolling with your mouse wheel.

At the moment, about 14,400 of our 23,400 online objects should have at least one zoomable image – and we’ll keep adding more, although processing so many large pictures into the necessary format can take some time.

The pictures really show off the skill of our photographer, Dani Tagen, and how well she's taught our Collections People Stories review teams.

None of them would have claimed to be expert photographers when they started work on the objects 17 months ago. In fact, Dani gave a paper on how she’s trained the review teams at the Association for Historical and Fine Art Photography conference last year, and several other museums were so impressed they have asked her to show them how she does it.

To whet your appetite, here are some examples of the level of detail you can see in the zoomed images:

Extremely fascinating objects

Our Extremes Late event tomorrow night is all about extremes: extremely hot music, extremely rude art and extremely high acrobatics.

It's also a chance for us to present a selection of extremely interesting objects from our collections.

Expect some extremely strange, cold, romantic, ugly or even extremely disappointing objects. Here's a preview of just three.

This extremely magical object from Poland removes spells from cows whose milk is failing, a sign that the cow may be bewitched. The udder would be placed through hole for milking, thus removing the spell.

This extremely cute object is a stuffed toy from Canada. We're pretty sure that it is an owl. And, as it's made from white fur, it's also extremely fluffy.

This extremely scary object is a Halloween mask. It's made from square piece of sacking cloth with three holes for eyes and mouth, and black and brown painted facial features.

These are only three of our extreme objects. Come along tomorrow night to see more. Tickets are on sale here

Wellbeing and the Museum: Youth Theatre at the Horniman

Our Community Engagement team work with a variety of local groups to help them get the most our of our collections. Here, Rachel gives us a look at a project started this year with Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre.

Here at the Horniman, the Learning Team frequently see the positive effects engaging with the museum can have on people’s wellbeing. Our collections and programmes provide great opportunities for people to connect with others, to learn and be inspired and to have time to reflect on the beauty and complexity of the world we live in.

Last year, we met with Jeremy and Emily from GLYPT and they told us about their brilliant project ‘Whatever Makes you Happy’. This project seeks to increase good mental health and wellbeing in young people. We formed a partnership with GLYPT with the aim to work together on this and use the museum resources in a way that would greatly add to the ‘Whatever’ programme.

Together we now run a weekly drama class for 11-14 year olds where the participants have after-hours access to the museum and can use the galleries and handling collection to inspire their work.

Last term ended with a truly brilliant promenade piece performed for parents, carers and friends and we look forward to a great Summer Term ahead.

The Horniman also supports participants in its Youth Programme to take part in GLYPT as Peer Mentors. Here Heidi tells us more about what the role involves:

I have been helping teach drama to kids aged 11- 14. The session starts off with safe space where we do something creative, this helps them focus. After this, we start doing the drama. The kids used the museum’s objects to create characters for their play. We wanted them to explore their own characters and scenarios as much as possible.

I’m a Peer Mentor. I join in all of the activities with the kids, and I’m a role model to them. It’s nice to have younger people as well as the adults in the group, some kids find it easier to relate.

I was doing a Youth Work Placement at the museum and my supervisor Beth told me about it so I got involved. I am very interested in theatre, so it was great to be around people who were too.

We let the kids be themselves. It was wonderful to see them change every week, they have all grown more confident.

The final event was great, everyone got up and said their lines. Some of them were so shy when they first started - so this was really amazing!

Artist in Residence: Cheryl L'Hirondelle

For the last three weeks, Canadian singer and sound artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle has been spending time at the Horniman as an artist in residence. Her work culminates tonight in a performance at the Roxy Bar and Screen at 
128–132 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1LB.

Cheryl has visited the Horniman several times over the last few weeks, focusing on gardens and musical instrument collection. As an artist with indigenous North American (Cree/Metis) and European ancestry, she’s been keen to identify instruments crafted by Native peoples in North America.

On one visit to the museum, she sang to drums and rattles in the Music Gallery and also examined items in the special studies collection, sharing her knowledge of musical and ceremonial practices with the Keeper of Instruments, Margaret Birley.

Since the early 1980s, Cheryl has created, performed and presented work in a variety of forms, including music, storytelling, performance art, theatre, video and net.art, at venues across Canada and beyond. She often follows a practice of indigenous ‘sonic mapping’, or singing land and objects as a way of locating herself in the environment.

"From the Sami Peoples of Scandinavia to the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia to Native Peoples of North America, we have used our voices to sing and engage and ground ourselves. By adding new and old technology and sharing the experience publicly, I am doing what my ancestors have always done by adapting and using materials as tools for survival." - Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Her visit is part of a research project running at Royal Holloway, University of London, led by theatre studies professor, Helen Gilbert. The project explores contemporary indigenous performance in different parts of the world and one of its aims is to make connections with museums in Europe that hold artifacts from indigenous communities elsewhere.

Cheryl’s work with us culminates today, 2 May, in a performance/presentation inspired by her encounter with the museum titled ‘Sing Land: SongMark and other Indigenous Illuminations’. The event begins at 8pm at the Roxy Bar and Screen at 
128–132 Borough High Street, London, SE1 1LB (next to Sainsbury’s) and will end with a walk to the south end of the Millennium Bridge and the raising of a tipi made of light beams.

Joining Cheryl for the performance is special guest Cree singer and storyteller Joseph Naytowhow. All welcome. Admission free.

This event is produced by the ‘Indigeneity in the Contemporary World’ project team and funded by the European Research Council.

Inside the Horniman Merman

On display in our Centenary Gallery is an object from the Natural History collection which tends to grab people's attention: the Horniman Merman.

Thanks to careful research by our Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, we are now able to reveal some of the secrets of our mysterious merman, as well as tell the story of how 'mermaids' such as ours came to be.

The secrets of the Horniman Merman have been revealed with a combination of X-rays, CT scans and even DNA analysis.

  • A 3D model of the merman built using the CT data, Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape
    Here you can see clearly how different materials were used to build up the merman's shape

While it has long been described as a 'monkey-fish', we revealed a while ago that this was not an accurate description of our specimen. Paolo's research now goes further, looking at mermaid specimens across Europe.


Mermaids have a presence across a wide range of museum collections, and have always sparked curiosity. Our own was originally part of the Wellcome Collection, who have also been blogging about their connection to these strange specimens. There is even an exciting hint at the possibility of a new mermaid exhibition in the near future.

The merman and his kind also feature in today's Animal Magic blog post on the Guardian website.

You can also read Paolo's blog post introducing his research.

We'll be sharing more about the Horniman Merman and similar specimens on Twitter today. Follow the hashtag #mermania to join the discussion.

Sprucing up the Wildlife Garden

Our Learning team have let us know how they've been getting the Wildlife Garden ready for the new season.

Spring is in the air and summer is just around the corner so it was that time again for the Learning team to spruce up the Wildlife Garden for the upcoming term.

We run very popular minibeast safari workshops with children who visit the Wildlife Garden to hunt for bugs and find out about the sustainable ways we can help the environment.

First things first: we had to clean out our pond. It’s made from a recycled bath: using old containers like this is an easy way to make a pond in a small space and it doesn’t stop it being filled with wildlife. After removing all the weed, which can take up too much oxygen for other animals and plants, we found a family of newts hiding in the bottom!

We kept these amphibians out of the way while we worked and when we'd finished made sure they were put safely back into their home.

Our wildflower meadow was quite overgrown with goose grass, so we pulled this up and re-planted with a variety of colourful wildflower plugs specially chosen to attract bees and butterflies in the summer, including wild marjoram, oxeye daisies and yarrow.

The Minibeast hotel was already a riot of colour with Aubreia and snap-dragons, but we added more colour across the garden with primroses and pansies to provide nectar for bugs and bees. These were planted up in the minibeast mansion, old boots and buckets - the garden is now looking bright and ready for summer!

School and community groups can book to use the wildlife garden by contacting us, and keep an eye out through the summer for special event days when the Wildlife Garden is open to all to come and explore.

For further information contact the Gardens Learning and Interpretation Officer, Amy Wedderburn at awedderburn@horniman.ac.uk.

Previous Next
of 40 items