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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?'

Ethical taxidermy: where do the animals come from?

Ahead of next week's Late event, taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long blogs for us on the history of her craft and where she sources her specimens.

Taxidermy has evolved a lot since it first became popular in the early nineteenth century. Most of the specimens collected during this time (including the specimens at the Horniman) would have been collected from overseas. The animals would have be killed, their skins salted, and then shipped back to the UK to be mounted by a taxidermist. The skins may have been sent with no measurements at all and the taxidermist had probably never seen the animal in real life so this is partly the reason why most Victorian taxidermy looks a little odd.

  • Horniman Walrus, A fine example of taxidermy that isn't an accurate representation of the living animal.
    A fine example of taxidermy that isn't an accurate representation of the living animal.

Taxidermy in the modern world however is very different. Although trophy taxidermy does still exist, most taxidermists work using animals that have not been killed purely for the purpose of taxidermy. There are also laws protecting certain species which means a taxidermist must obtain legal paperwork to prove they have died naturally.

I call myself an ethical taxidermist as I only use animals that have died from a natural cause or accident. All of my specimens have been donated to me by family, friends, rescue centres or strangers that find me via my website or Twitter.

The animals I work with may have been hit by a car, flown into a window or died from old age or illness. This means I never know what animals I’m going to receive and the condition they’re going to be in. Using animals sourced in this way can often be problematic as more work has to be done, such as: fixing broken skulls and replacing lost fur and feathers. Occasionally it means I will start work on an animal but find it is no good to use and have to throw it away which I find very sad and frustrating.

Methods in taxidermy have also dramatically improved throughout the years. Many modern materials and techniques mean the results can be amazingly realistic. If you would like to learn more about taxidermy the UK’s Guild of Taxidermists hold an annual conference every March. It’s the best place to meet other taxidermists and learn techniques through talks and demonstrations.

I will be showing my method of bird taxidermy at the Horniman Museum and Gardens Taxidermy Late in the evening on Thursday 27 February, so come along and feel free to ask me as many questions as you like.

Bookblitz: Crocodile Hunting in Central America

When our librarian Helen came across this title in her Bookblitz project, it was obvious it was one of the more intriguing titles in our historic collection.

While the title might be enough to entice a reader, what makes this book even more special is the fact it tells the story of some natural history specimens from a museum across the pond.

'Crocodile Hunting in Central America' was written in 1952 by Karl P. Schmidt, then Chief Curator of Zoology at the Chicago Natural History Museum (now the Field Museum). The book reports on a trip taken to Belize in 1923 with the aim of acquiring specimens for a new exhibition.

The crocodiles for the new display would not be taxidermy, but instead reproduced from a plaster cast of the animal. Unfortunately, it's rather difficult to produce a cast of a living crocodile.

It's surprising for anyone today to hear that collecting specimens for a museum display would involve hunting wild animals, but in the 1920s this was common practice. Without modern photography and film it was the best way to show those who were unable to travel the wonder and diversity of the natural world.

Of course, this is no longer supported by museums, which now aim to source their specimens using more ethical means, and for specific scientific purposes. Still, this volume is an important part of the historical record for all museums, including the Horniman, representing a period where we did things very differently.

The book also provides a detailed record of the ingenious methods used to create the replica crocodiles.

As it was published some time after the 1923 expedition, there's even a photograph of the finished product on display in the Chicago Natural History Museum.

The Field Museum regularly share their archive photographs on Tumblr, showing how other specimens from their collection were prepared for display. We'd love to know if the archive includes some of the image from 'Crocodile Hunting in Belize'.

Also look out for a blog post later this week revealing more about how modern taxidermists acquire their specimens.

Homes for Bats and Birds

Jim, who works for The Conservation Volunteers, has been updating us on the latest work being done on London's oldest Nature Trail.

This January, the conservation volunteers put up the new Woodcrete Bird and Bat boxes purchased by the Gardens team.

These boxes are used by most conservation organisations as they are tough, durable and easy to clean. They are made of a mix of wood pulp and concrete, so are impervious to attacks from woodpeckers, crows, jays and magpies who will attempt to raid the nests for eggs and fledglings.

We have put up four bat boxes down around the Nature Trail meadow. This is a good area for bats (probably pipistrelle bats) as the pond is nearby, and this along with the meadow is a good source of insects - the bats main food.  The bats can roost in the boxes and come out to feed from dusk onwards.

Bats live in colonies, so the boxes are all put close together, unlike boxes for birds, which have separate territories.  

Four blue tit boxes have also been put up along the trail to join the other six great tit boxes that are already there. The difference between the two boxes is that the blue tit box has a smaller hole, thus excluding the larger great tits, who will oust the smaller blue tits given the chance.

All of these boxes will provide very useful nesting and roosting sites for birds and bats, and they will help to increase the overall biodiversity and educational value of the Nature Trail.  

A Christmas Curiosity: Jorbba Gisa

As the Collections People Stories team have been making their way through the Anthropology collections, they’ve made some pretty fascinating finds.

One particularly intriguing object was ‘nn11104’ (‘nn’ meaning ‘no number’).

It was originally labelled as a ‘charm’ and stored with other similar objects. What made it stand out was not just the fine craftsmanship, but the tiny handwritten labels that had been carefully attached.

Collections Assistant Rachel decided to investigate further. She headed to the internet armed with the text ‘Jorbba Gisa’, which she discovered is a Norwegian term.

By complete coincidence, another group of objects were discovered on the same day, in another part of the collection, by another member of the team.

These tiny objects were unnumbered and without any accompanying information, but it was clearly the same script on their handwritten labels.

Interest sparked, Deputy Keeper of Anthropology Fiona decided to contact an expert in Norwegian material. Leif Pareli, Curator at the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo, was able to tell immediately that our ‘Jorba Gisa’ wasn’t a charm at all, but a small model of an everyday object from the Saami culture in Norway: a type of reindeer pack saddle.

He was also able to tell us a lot more of the fascinating story of where these miniatures came from.

The ‘charms’ were made by an extraordinary Saami man called Lars Hætta. Lars found himself imprisoned in Oslo with his brother Aslak and sister-in-law Elen for their participation in the Kautokeino uprising (1852). Aslak was beheaded but Lars (because of his young age —18 at the time of the uprising) and Elen were pardoned to prison for life.

While in prison from 1854 to 1867, Lars made beautiful models of everyday objects as he knew them. These were bought by the University in Oslo and became the beginning of a collection which eventually opened as the Ethnographic Museum, now part of Kulturhistorisk Museum, in 1857.

Today Lars’ work can be found in The Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, the National Museum of Denmark, and The Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford.

Lars was pardoned in 1867, he then returned home where he died in 1896. His creations remain a wonderful depiction of the material culture of Saami people in the early 19th century.

We are very proud to say we have some of Lars' creations at the Horniman, particularly at this time of year when our 'Jorbba Gisa' can show us just how Father Christmas might be getting his reindeer to carry all our presents.

A Few Favourites from the Walrus Wall

While the Horniman Walrus is holidaying in marvellous Margate, we've been inviting visitors to leave him messages on the Walrus Wall in the Natural History Gallery.

Of course, we already knew how important our over-stuffed star is, but the heart felt messages really drive home just how much he is loved by all our visitors. We thought we'd share just a tiny selection of our favourites here.

We've seen some truly excellent artwork.

Dear Horniman Walrus

Even poetry.

Dear Horniman Walrus

And puns abound.

Dear Horniman Walrus

The Wall definitely proved that the Walrus is popular with all ages.

Dear Horniman Walrus

Dear Horniman Walrus

He even had his first (we think) marriage proposal.

Dear Horniman Walrus

Some people were understandably disappointed with his absence.

Dear Horniman Walrus

And it all got a bit surreal for a while.

Dear Horniman Walrus

Dear Horniman Walrus

But most simply wish him well on his first trip outside the Natural History Gallery since 1901.

Dear Horniman Walrus

Dear Horniman Walrus

The best part of the Walrus Wall has been the brilliant stories people have shared with us.

Dear Horniman Walrus

Don't forget to make your own visit to the Museum and get your message out to the Walrus before he returns in mid-September. If you're lucky, you may get an answer to any questions from the Walrus himself.

You can see plenty more from the Walrus Wall in our Flickr set.

Horniman Walrus in Miniature

If you're looking to enter the #wanderingwalrus competition, there's no better place to pick up your own cuddly travelling companion than the Horniman Museum shop.

The Walrus toys sold in our shop aren't modelled after just any Walrus. They've been specially created to celebrate the wonderfully unique shape of the Horniman Walrus himself.

Notice the resemblence?

When our Walrus was brought to England in the 19th Century, Victorian taxidermists had never seen a live Walrus before. They had no idea about the skin folds which should appear around the chest and neck, which resulted in our Walrus getting a little 'overstuffed' and standing rather tall.

Our Walrus cuddly toys have been deisgned to have that same upright, wrinkle-free look.

They come in two different sizes, so you have a choice between a Walrus mini-me and a mini-mini-me.

Grab yours now before they all go wandering!


Re-homing the Slow Loris

Another blog post from the Conservation Department today, as Conservator Charlotte lets us know how she went about re-homing one of the fluid-preserved specimens from the Natural History Collection.

Part of our work in Collections Conservation and Care is to preserve the museums fluid specimen collection. 

This slow loris needed a better home; its original jar was much too small for it. Our curator Paolo wanted the loris in a larger jar with its arms spread further out so that we could get a better view of its face.

The specimen had to be rehydrated in a solution of detergent and water - at a warm temperature - to allow me to manipulate its arms. The loris’s limbs were gently massaged while resting in this warmed solution and gradually its arms opened up.

The loris was then placed in a vacuum pump to remove air bubbles...

As the specimen was a small dense mammal I decided to re-fix it in formalin. Formalin is a chemical that reacts with the proteins in the body, 'cross-linking' them, which stops the specimens from decomposing.

I gently tied the loris to a glass backing plate so that it could be presented better in the jar and gradually 'stepped' the specimen up in alcohol. Fluid specimens are kept in a preserving solution of 80% alcohol in water but they have to be stepped up to this percentage. If the specimen goes from a weak solution of alcohol to a strong solution of alcohol its cells can swell and this damages the tissue.

We felt that the jar for the slow loris was too heavy to be transported with the specimen and the fluid inside, so we decided to complete the treatment at our museum store. Our loris was wrapped in polyfelt soaked in the high alcohol solution. For transportation a container was created using two photographers development trays sealed together with cling film. This container was then placed in a crate for added protection. The loris’s new glass jar was transported separately.

At the store we finally repositioned the slow loris in his new jar and topped it up with 80% IMS in water.

Our slow loris is now housed in a large ground glass jar in fresh alcohol. It has more space, fresh alcohol and it is much more visible – all in all, a much happier specimen!

Read more about the work of our Conservation team in our Conservation Case Studies.

Bioblitz Round Five: Fish Reviewed

We have reviewed the final vertebrate collection, the fish. Ollie Crimmen from the Natural History Museum helped us out. Ollie has worked in the fish section at the NHM for over 40 years and is a Senior Curator there. To find out more about his work and to hear some of his fantastic tales (e.g. his childhood visits to the NHM and working with Damien Hirst) head over to the NHM's website.

Most of the fish material is fluid preserved which meant we spent a day and a half in the fluid container with Ollie looking through a few hundred jars. As with all the previous reviews, Ollie was looking for fish specimens of significance in terms of their historic and scientific attributes. Rarities were also highlighted, as were those with particularly special public engagement potential. We labelled these up with our green Star labels.

We also looked at material at the other end of the scale: specimens which, for a variety of reasons, could be flagged as candidates for re-use (perhaps in an institution better placed to explore that specimen's story). We'll be talking about this in a later blog post.

Once the fluid material was reviewed, we moved inside to look at the dry specimens: fish cases, skeletal material and other odds and ends. Ollie worked his way through the relatively large number of globe and puffer fish and then had a look through the fish osteology (bone) collection.

Reviewing the rest of the fish collection only took a few hours, so in two days we managed to look at all of our fish material. That means now the vertebrates and invertebrates have all been reviewed, as have the geology collections. In fact, all that's left are the botany (plants) and oology (eggs) reviews to do.

Check out our Flickr page to see all the photos from the reviews so far and remember to follow us @HornimanReviews on Twitter for updates and more behind the scenes treats.

Horniman Inspiration - Jeremy Page

Critically acclaimed author Jeremy Page tells us about his latest novel and its connection to our Natural History Collection.

The Collector of Lost Things is a compelling historical novel of obsession, passion and ghosts, set in the mysterious frozen Arctic, and filled with characters who are not what they seem. At the centre of the story is a creature represented in the Horniman's own Natural History Gallery, the extinct Great Auk.

The story in 'The Collector of Lost Things' is that of a man, a naturalist and collector, who travels to the Arctic in search of the Great Auk, a year after the bird has become extinct.

The demise of the great auk was startling. Unable to fly, without fear of man, with rich edible flesh and fine feathers perfect for pillows, this bird’s attributes were the perfect storm for extinction. Gradually, they disappeared from Scandinavia, then Canada, then Greenland. The last British Great Auk was killed on St Kilda. By the beginning of the 1840s, there were only a few dozen birds left, living on rocks off Iceland.

As collectors and museums became aware that these birds would soon disappear entirely, there began a race to obtain specimens. The price upon the heads and upon their eggs of Great Auks became astronomical. The last two were killed on 3 July 1844.

  • Great Auk model, model of a great auk, a large black and white bird
    , model of a great auk, a large black and white bird

The Great Auk displayed in the Horniman is not a taxidermy specimen, but a model, made largely from the feathers of other birds. It is evidence of just how rare these birds become, and how quickly: to obtain a real specimen was almost impossible.

You can find the Great Auk model at the front of the Natural History Gallery, in a display highlighting some of the most startling extinctions in recent history.

Read more from Jeremy Page on his latest work at the Little Brown Books website.

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