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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

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.

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.

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.

Five Go Collecting: A Wedding Gift to the Bride

Modern-day collector Farhana Hoque reports on her research progress for the RAI Horniman Collecting Initiative.

Location: Bandarban, Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh

Project: Anthropological Research on the Marma people

Langajulako: lan (husband), ga (protection), ju (spikes), lako (bracelet)

My first month in the field and I have been busy trying to piece together the epic history of the Marma people. The Marma population is approx. 15,000 and they are one of 11 ethnic groups in the town called Bandarban which is part of Bangladesh with its total population of 155 million people.

I’ve met with local historians and various experts within the Bohmong (Royal) families. The Marma people have a unique and complex history. They came to be here through a series of migrations from neighbouring Myanmar that began in 1614 when Maung Saw Pyne, son of the King of Pegu (now Bago) became Governor of Chittagong. The Marma people are thought to be a fusion of Mon, Burman and Arakan.

The word ‘Marma’ is thought to come from ‘myrma’ which carries the concept of Myanmar nationalism. I am here to see how culture is maintained, remembered and affirmed through cultural objects.

In my first days in Bandarban, I visited the Tribal Cultural Institute and visited the Marma cabinet in this museum. To my absolute delight, Prokash Marma, the in-the-field collector and curator of the cabinet allowed me to select objects for handling. The collection consisted of women’s clothing and ornaments. There were blouses (Bedai ungi), wrap-around skirts (thami), ornamental belts, hairpins and both wrist and ankle bracelets.

Prokash had collected these objects himself from Marma groups living in rural settings. He could remember the owners of these objects and their stories. He was the connection between the field, the people’s narratives and a museum cabinet. It felt wonderful to be able to quiz this man who opened up the museum especially for me (the only visitor in weeks).

One set of objects particularly drew my attention. They were a pair of bracelets that were spiky/jagged all round. They looked heavy but were in fact quite light due to the type of material used – thought to be alloys.

This set was rare and possibly dates back to the early 1900s. They were made for a young bride and they served the function of protecting her from beatings from her husband.

The Marma consult the Laws of Menoo (Manu), Volume IV, 14th Law – The Law when a man and woman fight.

“If a man shall beat an unresisting woman, let him pay in compensation double the twenty-five tickals laid down in the Damathat as the price of her body, or fifty tickals.” (page 123)

Collections People Stories Update

With the year drawing to a close, Alix updates us on the progress of our major Anthropology collections review.

With the Collections People Stories project currently focusing on 'Health and Healing', we thought we’d give you an update on the review. By September we had reviewed 10,000 objects, a major milestone. Only 20,000 more to go…

Work started on objects for Health and Healing theme in December 2012. One team started by looking at beliefs, including religion, charms and magic, and have since moved onto toiletries and hygiene, medical science and narcotics and intoxicants.

The second team also worked on Health and Healing, but has primarily been finishing off the Food and Feasting theme and starting work on containers, which contains some food related items, but mainly falls under our next theme of Family and Home.

If you are wondering why the review teams seem to work to ‘sub-themes’, such as Narcotics and Intoxicants, it is because of the way our stores are arranged. When the stores were initially set out, objects were arranged thematically and then by country or continent.

This followed the model of the Pitt Rivers Museum, as there was a belief at the time that a comparison of similar objects told you more about the culture and people. Most anthropology museums now prefer objects to be arranged by country and then by use. 

In addition to improving the object records and photography, the project is also beginning to improve storage conditions. Historically many objects were stored in special bags, but the museum now prefers to store objects in low acid boxes with acid free tissue. We have had volunteers working on repacking objects into boxes.

As well as improving the storage, it has also created lots of space, making the Collections Management team very happy!

We have also been busy working on getting the photographs the teams have taken onto our collections management database. These are slowly filtering through and now you can see some of our wonderful photographs in the online collections. Many objects had not been photographed, or had photographs that were of a poor quality meaning they weren’t that useful.

In addition to putting object photographs online, we are still putting objects on our Tumblr blog. We sometimes get a little excited at events and celebration, like Halloween and Frederick Horniman’s birthday. You can follow us there now to see our Horniman advent calendar objects.

Stories on a Staff

Tom, Assistant Curator of Anthropology, gives us another update on the research being carried out for Collections People Stories.

A couple of weeks ago Julie Adams from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge and Wadrokal Wadra, an archaeologist from New Caledonia visited our stores. They were interested in having a closer look at the eighty odd objects which we have from New Caledonia.

One object in particular held their attention for a long time. It was a bamboo staff about a meter and a half long, covered in beautiful, finely engraved line drawings.

Wadrokal explained how this staff facilitated the telling of stories. It would have been held by an important person as he spoke to his clansmen. The drawings on the staff recorded events in the clan’s history, in this way the staff acted like an archive for the clan. The drawings could also be useful to the speaker when employed as aide memoire for the telling of stories. Alternatively the drawings could act as illustrations which would be pointed out to the audience.

Wadrokal told us that at important points in the stories the clansmen would make a special sound of agreement. This shared sound, resonating through the chests of the clansmen generated a feeling of togetherness. Ancestral stories held in common and the bringing together of clansmen to hear them constituted an important mechanism for the maintenance of unity in New Caledonia.

The staff bore several representations of European sailing ships and sailors. These prompted Wadrokal to tell us the story of how his grandfather had left New Caledonia, taking passage aboard a ship like those on the staff and eventually ending up in Sydney. There he trained as a priest, became the first New Caledonian to be ordained and went on to work as a clergyman in New Zealand.

As I took in this remarkable account, I realised that I had witnessed something very special: after 100 years in storage the staff from New Caledonia had once again produced a story of the clan.

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