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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?'

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.

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.

Could a museum use WhatsApp?

Here at the Horniman, we're always thinking of new ways to get people interested and excited by our collections.

Once upon a time, we did this through lectures and demonstrations but nowadays we also use lots of digital and online tools like Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.

One of the most talked about smart phone apps lately is WhatsApp, mainly as it has recently been bought by Facebook.

I have been thinking about how museums like us could use WhatsApp, and had an idea about messaging people with personal recommendations for their visit - a bit like a personal shopping service for a museum collection.

To test out the idea, I turned to It's Nice That who were doing a "Power Hour" (ie. helping people out with their ideas and projects in their lunch hour).

So on Wednesday, Anna Rob and Sam helped try out the idea. I asked them what they are interested in and sent them photos and info on our collections.


They wrote a little about it here.

It was certainly a good test. I learnt that:

  • Having three WhatsApp chats at the same time is tricky!
  • Typing and sending quickly on a phone is also hard work!

It was great seeing them get interested in the collections so there is some potential here.

I don't know yet what it will become, and there are lots of questions raised about making it sustainable, safe and manageable, but it feels like something worth exploring.

Watch this space!

Museum Documentation

Documentation Manager Rupert introduces us to #MuseumDocumentation and the important role it plays at the Horniman.

Documentation is one of the less visible aspects of what we do at the Horniman.

In museums, 'documentation' has quite a specific meaning: looking after the information about our objects (some of which finds its way online), and making sure that we can account properly for them – being able to say what we own and where it is, and making sure that nothing happens to the collections without being properly considered and authorised.

Without that information, our objects are effectively meaningless: we need to know what they are, where they came from and when, how they're used, who made them, and so on, before we can understand them.

So documentation is fundamental to everything we do, but few people realise how vital it is and how much of it goes on behind the scenes (for example, large parts of our projects Collections People Stories and Bioblitz are about finding out and recording more about the objects).

This was brought home to me before Christmas, on a visit to the National Maritime Museum, where I saw a collecting box asking people to choose to contribute either to education or to conservation work – but not to documentation, which so often seems to be invisible.

  • Collections Assistant Laura Cronin at work reconciling one of our mummies with its paperwork, Photo by Helen Merrett
    , Photo by Helen Merrett

So to try and raise its profile, I've encouraged my fellow documentalists (yes, that is what we seem to call ourselves) to tweet about they're doing, and why it's important, using the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation:

Tweets about "#MuseumDocumentation"

I also started a thread in the Collections Management group on LinkedIn, asking for people's suggestions for bite-sized definitions of why documentation is important. The discussion showed that opinion was divided between those of us who, like me, think we should try and raise the profile of documentation, and those who think we should just focus on the end results.

I’d be interested to hear what you think:

  • Would you be interested in hearing more about the documentation work we do, and why we do it?
  • Would you like to find out about our documentation work during activities like visits to our stores or exhibitions?
  • And of course, would you put money in the slot marked ‘documentation’ in a museum collecting box?

Let us know your answers in the comments or on Twitter with the hashtag #MuseumDocumentation.

Tree Felling in the Gardens

As part of the gardens tree maintenance programme, our trees are surveyed every two years by a professional arboriculture consultant. He advises on how we should prioritise our tree works.

In the most recent survey, completed in January, a horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) located on the Avenue was flagged up as being a priority.

The tree is probably between 50-100 years old and, although it looks fine from the outside, there is decay within the base of the tree which makes it potentially dangerous.

On Tuesday last week, the tree was felled by a registered tree surgeon who has worked in our Gardens before.

Some of the wood will be used for a new wildlife garden, smaller branches will be chipped up and taken offsite, as will the main trunk.

Our next steps are to replace the tree and redevelop the bed around it.

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.

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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