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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

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.

Tales of the Unexpected: Dolly Mixture

The Collections People Stories team is currently working under the theme of Family and Home. Here Collections Assistant Alix introduces us to some of the dolls she's discovered in the stores.

Play, craft, recycling, resourcefulness and imagination: all characteristics we associate with childhood. So when Team Haddon started reviewing the toys and games in the museum’s collection, we instantly fell in love with the homemade dolls. Here I’ll share some of the Horniman Museum’s more unusual ones.

The doll above was collected in Bethnal Green, London, is made from a mutton bone and has handmade clothes made from scraps of material. This doll has always made me sad and although I thought it was unique in our collection it turns out I was wrong.

Another child, halfway around the world in Zanskar, India, also wanted a doll and made one using materials to hand – another mutton bone! This time it is decorated with scraps of material, a zip, shells and plastic.

Here is another bone doll, this time made from a bird. This amazing little doll is from Surrey, England and is made from a wish bone - the perfect shape for legs! The clothes are made from a scrap of leather decorated with beads and the head is made from an acorn. The acorn cup makes the perfect topknot hairstyle, or perhaps a hat.

Utilising food components that cannot be eaten, such as bones, is excellent recycling. In these little dolls from Virginia, USA, the cornhusk has been utilised. We particularly love the little banjo player.

Some of the dolls in our collection could even be eaten, if you have the heart. This doll is from Denver and has an apple for a head. The apple would have been fresh but with time has dried out; well we did acquire this example in 1984!

What goes well with apple? Well fig of course! This doll from Kandahar, Afghanistan is made from dried figs threaded onto cord and tied to create a human form. Little squares of fabric form the hands, feet and a necklace. He’s still sticky and has to be kept in silicone release paper when in storage at the museum.

Seaweed is also edible, and delicious, and that is what this little doll from South Wales is made from. It has little shell arms, seed hands and has a painted face.

And then there is the wonder material that is the humble gourd. We find it in every part of our collection and now we have found it forming the head of this doll from Nigeria.

In addition to all of these amazing items, we have many other dolls from all over the world, and made from more conventional materials such as wood, plastic, pottery and textile. Our collection of dolls, and other toys, can be explored through our online collections.

Gourds in the Gardens

A few months ago we blogged about some curious containers from our collections. Amy now introduces us to the link some of these objects have to the Horniman's display Gardens.

Our Display Gardens contain a wealth of plants that have thousands of uses in our everyday lives. The Materials Garden has many plants which people from all over the world have put to use in clever and suitable ways to adapt to challenges of living in and using their natural environments. Gourds are a great example of this.

Our gardeners grow gourds, which are similar to pumpkins or squash, along trellises to support the fruits as they develop. The fleshy orange fruits, once ripened, can be dried out – either by leaving them on the plant or by storing carefully in dry conditions, until they become hardened. These hardened gourd shells can be used to make tools, musical instruments, art and textiles, and containers.

The hard shell of the dried gourd is water tight and keeps the contents inside cool, providing a way to transport or store liquids and foods in hotter climates.

This Kenyan Masai milk container is made from a long gourd which has been dried and hollowed out. It is decorated with carved and painted designs of gazelle, giraffes and types of birds. It would be used to store milk, blood, honey or oatmeal.

This one is from our handling collection and can be seen in the Hands on Base.

The Sudanese vessel below was used for storing buttermilk. The woven case around it (made from plant fibre) would be used for carrying the container.

This Kenyan Kamba container is decorated with a net of multicoloured beads with small metal bells around the bottom. The hide strap which runs around the gourd is used as a handle.

Why not take a closer look next time you visit our Gardens and see if you can find where we grow our gourds?

Our Community Fieldworkers Explore Anthropology and Exhibit their Art

Nicola, Skills for the Future trainee at the Horniman, reports on the art exhibition held to exhibit the work from the Community Fieldworkers project.

The Community Fieldworkers project took 34 South Londoners on an adventure in Anthropology. Over 7 weeks they were sent 18 postcards, each on with a different object from the Anthropology Collection on it. They were asked to ‘Make, Investigate or Tell a Story’ around one or all of the objects.

In February their fantastic and varied responses were showcased at the Community Fieldworkers Exhibition.

  • Community Fieldworkers Exhibtion, Photo by Megan Taylor
    , Photo by Megan Taylor

The public joined friends and family of the Community Fieldworkers in the Gardens’ Pavilion to see the exhibition, which included sculptures, collage, conceptual artworks and photography.

  • Community Fieldworkers art work, Photo by Megan Taylor
    , Photo by Megan Taylor

They were also treated to a live performance by Community Fieldworker Rupert whose spoken word reading of his poetry anthology 'An Anthropology of 18 objects – A Field Guide' wowed the crowd.

  • Rupert performs his poetry anthology at the Community Fieldworkers exhibition, Photo by Beth Atkinson
    , Photo by Beth Atkinson

South East London Artists Network’s animation was also on display. It revealed how they had created their artworks based on the four postcards they had chosen – including postcard No.2.

The Marshall Islands navigation chart that appeared on postcard No.2 was the most popular object inspired a diverse range of responses.

One was Paulette’s ‘people clock’, which explored how her bike ride to school with her daughter was timed using the people they saw on the route.

  • Paulette shows off her Community Fieldworkers project, Photo by Megan Taylor
    , Photo by Megan Taylor

Other interpretations included Neville’s impressive navigation chart of London that showed the journey to museums around the capital and Sarah’s beautiful representation of the object.

  • Neville's own navigation chart showing London museums, Photo by Megan Taylor
    , Photo by Megan Taylor

  • Sarah and her interpretation of the Marshall islands chart, Photo by Megan Taylor
    , Photo by Megan Taylor

It was a fantastic day that brought the Community Fieldworkers together to talk about their ideas and show how they had explored the Horniman Museum and Gardens’ collection in a creative way.

  • The Horniman Community Fieldworkers, Photo by Megan Taylor
    , Photo by Megan Taylor

You can see more photographs from the Community Fieldworkers exhibition on Flickr.

Five Go Collecting: Kingly Swords

Modern-day collector Farhana updates us on her fieldwork in Bangladesh, where she has been aiming to collect objects as part of the Horniman Collecting Initiative.

I am in the early stages of my fieldwork in Bandarban, contextualizing and deepening my knowledge of the Marma community. I am trying to understand how Marma people remember and celebrate their unique history, and have begun by studying those who are the leaders of the Marma community – the Bohmong families.

When visiting the current leader, Bohmong-Gree U Chaw Prue, I noticed photos of previous Bohmongs on his wall. They all appear to be carrying the same sword with gold ornate hilt as part of their ceremonial dress.

Apparently, every Bohmong has inherited a kingly sword. All previous swords appear to be lost but the one in these photos still lives on. It is thought to have been a gift from a British governor to this region, possibly Thomas Herbert Lewin in the period 1864 to 1875.

In order to understand the origins of this kingly blade and the symbolic power that it holds, we need to delve into the history of this dynasty.

The Bohmong families are descendents of the legendary Emperor Tabin Shweti (1531-1551) of the historical Pegu Empire in neighbouring Myanmar (Burma).

In 1599, Emperor Tabin Shweti’s successor, Emperor Nanda Baran was defeated and killed in a battle against a formidable coalition made up of the kings of Taungoo, Siam and Arakan. The King of Arakan took the son and daughter of the dead king as captives.

Accompanying these surviving members of the royal family were 33,000 ‘faithful followers’, thought to be members of the royal court of Pegu. They carried the spoils of war and symbols of royal power - weapons, gold and four white elephants - to the court of Arakan. (I wonder at this point whether the bodyguard’s swords in the photo may date back to this period.)

In 1614, the captured Pegu prince, Maung Saw Pyne, was sent to Chittagong, then part of Arakan province. He defended the region against Portuguese pirates and was honoured with the title of ‘Bohmong’, the King of the Generals. He was given a sword which is lost.

In 1710, the then King of Arakan and the 4th Bohmong Hari Nyo were able to re-conquer the region after it had been invaded by Mughal forces. In return for his valour, Hari Nyo was given the title of Bohmong-Gree – the Great King of The Generals.

In 1900, now part of the British Empire, the Chittagong region was divided into three circles, with each headed by a Circle Chief. The descendents of the Pegu prince became Bohmong rulers of the Bandarban circle. The present Bohmong Chief is the 17th of his dynasty.

Therefore the history of the Bohmong family has its roots in central Myanmar (Burma), but the captive prince of Pegu became a ruler again in his new incarnation as the Bohmong of Bandarban, and the ‘faithful followers’ have become part of the present-day Marma community.

It appears that the original sword that was lost has been reintroduced in the twentieth century: it represents military prowess in the face of Portuguese and Mughal invaders, and shows that Bohmong authority was sanctioned both by the Kings of Arakan and the British Empire.

Although it does not seem possible that the Bohmongs of the twentieth century would have been directly involved in battle, it is likely that the early renditions of this sword were more than symbols of military prowess; they were battle-ready swords.

The sword has gained significance through its placement in this dynasty’s story, even though it is a relatively new addition to the ceremonial wardrobe. It expresses a commitment to maintaining a link with an ancestral heritage, connecting the present with different moments in the history of these people. Moreover, it reinstates the vanquished prince of Pegu to his former kingly power.

Richard Quick from the Horniman to Russell-Cotes

Collections Access Officer Sarah has been renewing the Horniman's connection to Bournemouth's Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum through our Object in Focus loans scheme.

In light of a recent loan to the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, I can’t help but look through our archive for pictures of our friend Richard Quick.

I work on an Arts Council England funded project called Object in Focus whereby we proactively encourage museums to borrow objects from our stores. One of these objects is a beautiful ceramic shogi (chess) set from Japan.

This object has been part of the Object in Focus project since 2012 and has so far toured to Maidstone Museum, Hastings Museum, Powell-Cotton Museum and Chiddingstone Castle, and lastly to Bournemouth at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

The Horniman Museum is comparable to the Russell-Cotes Museum not only due to our similar collections, but also because of Richard Quick. Quick was resident curator of the Horniman Museum and Gardens from 1891 to 1901. His move to the Horniman coincided with the museum being open to the public, and he oversaw a change in museum practice: the retention of letters and receipts relating to purchases, production of annual reports, and rearrangement and relabelling of numerous displays.

During Quick’s tenure, he also acted as an agent for John Frederick Horniman and between 1897-1899, listed his entire collection in two bound registers including a ‘Geo-Global Survey’ of the ethnographic collection that listed a total of 7,920 objects.  

After leaving the Horniman Museum he worked at Bristol Art Gallery and Museum until 1921, then moved to the Russell-Cotes where he worked until he retired in 1932. It is understood that Quick was handpicked by Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes due to his extensive Japanese knowledge.

Quick was married but his wife died not long after he started working at Russell-Cotes. His daughter, who was a nurse, also lived in the museum. When a visitor died of a heart attack in Gallery One, she tried to save him before the doctor arrived.

Quick gave many lectures both at the Horniman and Russell-Cotes Museums. He was a curator for 43 years and an original member of the Japan Society in London.  

Tales of the Unexpected: Peculiar Pipes

The Collections People Stories project is moving on through the stores, checking and photographing thousands of objects. Collections Assistant Clare has updated us on some of her team's favourite discoveries.

Since moving on to our current theme of Health and Healing the review teams have explored and processed some truly weird and wonderful objects. However none have been so varied in type and style as those in our pipe collection.

First started back in August, this part of the review has been slowly working its way through 2 Bays and over 1900 objects to date.

Having briefly investigated the bays before setting to work on the Narcotics and Intoxicants section, it appeared that a significant amount of the collection came from Europe, and particularly England. Therefore, we were expecting the vast majority of the section to be pipes, and especially clay ones. We certainly have a few.



Fortunately the collection has, as always, surprised us and the review teams have been on a whirlwind adventure around the world. From trying to work out exactly how these pipes from New Guinea would have been used...

...to figuring out how hookah pipes fit together, and why there are so many animals decorating pipe bowls across the globe.

We were also excited to find some truly beautiful and intricate objects. 

Even if this does mean that occasionally our conservator needs to work out where a wolf has become detached from.

Five Go Collecting: An Update from India

As part of the Horniman Collecting Initiative, Gorby Jandu aims to gather turbans from the Sikh diaspora. In his previous update, he gave us an introduction to this religio-cultural item of clothing, and now returns to report on his fieldwork experiences.

In a recent field trip to Punjab, India, I spent two weeks looking at the material culture associated with the turban in the daily lives of Sikhs in rural areas of Northern India.

Seechewal, located some 50 kms Southwest of the city of Jalandhar was the location of this particular ethnographic study. The Parish town and its closely knit hamlet villages have a population of about 800 people, a number decreasing as younger people go overseas to find work, leaving behind a majority of elderly people, children and women.

The annual trips the men make back to the town normally coincides with significant lifecycle events such as births, deaths or marriages. If not then the trip coincides with vaisakhi – the harvest festival, an annual highlight of the Sikh calendar and a time of song, dance and of course, lots of food.

The research took in the daily routines of the few remaining male farmers who work on large tracts of verdant landscape in this semi-rural set town that supplies the raw commodities of milk and seed. These are sent to the city’s factories for processing into finished goods like paneer, a local cottage cheese used in luxury food dishes, and roti, the staple chapatti foodstuff eaten everywhere.

Whilst there, the research also happily coincided with a wedding taking place in the family of the town’s administrator-general (traditionally called sarpanch). This was a matter of high-importance as his son was marrying the daughter of the neighbouring village’s sarpanch! The wedding lasted a week, during which all non-essential activities in many villages around the town were ceased, the village the sarpanch was from sent their cows to a neighbouring farmer during the wedding as they would be too busy to milk them for the duration of the family’s wedding celebrations – all two weeks of them!

This is a picture of the groom, Ranjit, 24 years of age.

The bulk of the research took place around the lifestyles of the land-working class, such as that of Harinder’s family: he is pictured below taking a dip in what he jokingly called a ‘Punjabi swimming pool’. It is in fact a open water pump tank, called a khua in Punjabi. The khua itself has an iconic status in Punjabi folklore and is romantically linked to a place the famous forbidden lovers Sohni and Mehival and many after them met. It is more likely that the scarcity of water in Punjab before the Green Revolution contributed to its high regard in a region that is considered to be India’s breadbasket.

The town operates a traditional occupation caste system that meant that Harinder and his family have worked the same plots of land for over four generations. Harinder, now 24 years of age, is a self-employed carpenter in Dubai who only helps with land-tending when free. He has no wish to continue the family tradition and is hoping to be able to purchase the land that his family’s homestead stands on.

Harinder’s situation and many like them all over East Punjab are interesting examples of the changes that were conceptualised by Emile Durkheim, the 19th Century sociologist, about the changes that societies like these that transform from mechanical to organic solidarity.

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.

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