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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.

Shuk Kwan's favourite object

We asked Shuk Kwan, who works in our Marketing Department, about her favourite object in the museum - the seahorses.

Your question about what my favourite object is prompted me to think about the seahorses and why I liked them. I like the seahorses I think, because they are very beautiful, they obviously come in different shapes, sizes and colours when I look at them they seem so fragile and beautiful. I love the way their tale curls around and anchors them as well.

Also, I think it is because they resonates with a part of me that really likes fantasy, mythology and all that kind of stuff. When I was younger I used to read Roald Dahl; I was an avid book worm so I read Roald Dahl and David Eddings, even Enid Blyton. They were all fantastical authors; the sea horses are like mythical creatures to me. What I also like about them is that the males look after the eggs. I think that is really sweet actually, and they are also monogamous, so they have one mate for life and I just really like that about them.

Nowadays men would probably freak out about holding the eggs inside them and giving birth but, for the seahorses it’s so natural and actually it makes me respect them more.

Emily's favourite object

We asked Emily, who works in our Learning Department, about her favourite object in the Horniman - a Brazil nut seed pod.

“What is your favourite object?”

This Brazil nut pod in the Hands on Base is my favourite object because it just baffles people. I wouldn't normally start a conversation by saying what this object is, I would ask people to tell me what they think and try to encourage them to work it out.

What's really interesting about it is that it has been carved back and someone has drilled holes in it so that you can see the Brazil nuts inside. It doesn't look exactly as it would look on the tree and people have all sorts of ideas as to what they think it might be.

‘What have people thought it was?’

It's really tactile, lots of people think it's a toy, they don't know what is necessarily inside.  Some people have tried to get the seeds out. My question would be, how did someone get them in? Lots of people think it's a musical instrument like a shaker.

I'm not 100% sure whether it was made to demonstrate that this is a seed pod or whether it was made for decoration.

It usually it takes people quite a while to guess.

‘Why have you chosen it? ’

The thing I personally like about it is that it has some really interesting stories and links that I can make in teaching sessions. This Brazil nut pod grows on a tree in Brazil; it only exists because the tree is pollinated by a very particular insect which also depends on orchids.

Now, the orchids that live in the area are being destroyed and although the Brazil nut trees have been protected by law, all of the eco-system around the Brazil nut tree isn't protected.  A lot of the areas around the Brazil nut trees are being cut down, the orchids are being cut down.

This means the insect pollinator doesn't have the orchids and can't pollinate the trees. So the trees, despite being protected, are dying.

It's a really interesting story and a message to us to think holistically about our environments and the interactions between them.

Ewen's Favourite Object (part 2)

Ewen works in our Learning Department - he tells us about one of his favourite objects - the glass armonica.

Is this a favourite instrument of yours?

Yes, it’s called the armonica. Although sometimes it’s called the glass harmonica, it has various other names.

Is that a wheel on the end?

It is quite an unusual instrument because you might look at it and think what an interesting contraption. You might wonder what it does, and is it something to do with doing the washing or laundry. You wouldn’t know immediately what it was.

There is a wheel on the end and there is a pedal at the bottom, so you sit and peddle and the wheel turns which turns the glass bowls. It is similar to when people play glasses with a wet finger, which when you move your finger around the glass it makes it sing. That is basically what you are doing here, but it was evolved into a mechanism to be able to do it.

Each bowl is tuned to a different note and that is how you can play music and because of the way it is laid out you can use all 10 fingers in the way that you would on a piano. You can play harmonies and melodies on it.

This actual set up was invented by Benjamin Franklin. What particularly interests me is that it was particularly popular in the late 18th century and into the 19th century and was used in music by Beethoven and Mozart. Although often they would end up re-transcribing the music for another instrument because the armonica moved largely out of fashion partly because the sound they make is quite quiet and it wouldn’t really carry over a full orchestra.

However, they have come back into fashion over the past 20 or 30 years, so there are a lot of contemporary people like Daman Albarn and Tom Waits who have been using them in music.

Have you ever played one?

No, I’d love to. If I had to pick an object that I would like to have, this would be one. I don’t think they are particularly easy to get hold of and they are probably very expensive. What I like about it, as well as being a really unusual instrument, is the sound that it makes. It is incredibly spooky, it makes a kind of eerie, wailing sound.

There was a rumour (and this is one of the reasons they may have gone out of fashion) that the sound would drive people mad; both the listeners and the musicians’ nervous systems would be affected.  It is something to do with the specific frequency of the sound which is a frequency that is very hard for the human ear to process and pin point. It makes you feel disconcerted. I suppose is a bit like the sound of a musical saw or theramin.

It was used by Donizetti in an opera he wrote called Lucia di Lammermoor to accompany the heroin’s mad scene. I am fascinated by the concept that there an instrument that scared people and made them feel unnerved.

Our glass armonica is featured in a BBC radio programme featuring Evelyn Glennie. It is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday, 28 April at 12.15pm. Full details here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01gvqsb


Sarah's Favourite Objects

Sarah worked in our press office - we asked her to tell us about her favourite objects in the Museum. She chose two - a tenrec, and an 'ugly mask'.

Why do you like this animal?

I know very little about this animal but I am sort of obsessed with its facial expression, it almost looks like its jaws been dislocated. I can’t quite believe this actually happens. I think it is the taxidermist using a bit of artistic license. He probably thought, "I’m going to make this look fiercesome". It’s probably a very sweet little vegetarian animal.

I love its stance, it sort of looks like its looks like it is trying to stand up to something. Its golden fur is quite attractive, and its little ears, little beady eyes, are quite cute, but its face has been contorted into a snarl.

How did you come to notice it? 

I am quite lucky because I have to supervise film crews and photo shoots so I spend quite a lot of time in the galleries waiting for things to happen and that gives me a chance to notice things.



What's the next object you've chosen?

There are 3 ‘ugly masks’ in the centenary gallery, but the one I really like is the one that’s made out of a piece of tree bark but it’s also got a kind of knot of a small branch coming out of it. (On the left of this picture above.)

What I really like about it, is the way the makers have used all the natural properties of the materials, so the crumply surface of the tree bark is used to make this really horrible pocked marked skin. The knot is used to make a wonky nose. It looks slightly charred, I don’t know if they’ve used something to burn the marks in. I really admire it as a piece of craftsmanship. I love the way the mouth looks toothless, it has almost a gurning expression.

Does it remind you of anything?

It looks like some of the illustrations you get in children’s books; it’s got a very fairy tale quality definitely, you can imagine trees that get up and walk and talk.

Do you know where it is from and what it was used for?

It’s from the Tyrol used as part of a folk ceremony, a masquerade with ugly masks and beautiful masks to chase the winter away.

Laura's Favourite Object

Laura worked as one of our visitor assistants until last weekend - to say farewall, we asked her to tell us about her favourite object in the Museum: the Benin bronzes in African Worlds.

What is about them that attracts you to these objects?

I am a sculptor, so I like the process of things, and it is interesting to see how they’ve been made. I did bronze sculptures myself when was been studying. It’s interesting to see a more original, traditional way of making them, like putting it in the earth, in the ground.

I did it in foundry, but this how they were originally made. I like that I can see the hands, I can see the journey of the sculptor making it, which is interesting. You can see how it’s been done in the piece. I see where things went wrong, or what happened - if there is a crack and why it happened. You can see the marks of the mould; you can see the tools he used. That is what is interesting for me.

So you like the fact that you can see the process and the craft?

I don’t know if I like the pieces physically, I think I like more what they mean more than how they look visually. I like the craft. I like the fact that this craft is being taught from family to family. It is beautiful that it hasn’t died out. There are people who are still making bronze sculptures.

In the modern art world, particularly, craftsmanship is disappearing and people are tending to do less making and do more talking. I find that interesting because you don’t see people making bronze sculptures in art colleges today in the UK, it’s not that common.

Why do you think that is?

I think it is just the way the modern art is gong – there is more video, media and things that are easy to make, people don’t have space and it is more expensive. Modelling is disappearing, like proper drawing or proper painting. It is kind of changing into something else, which is also interesting. 


Grace's Favourite Object

We asked Grace, who works on our exhibitions, to chose a favourite object from the Museum. She picked a romantic object: our red-faced lovebirds from the Natural History Gallery.

I think these love-birds are very romantic. They can be found in the Parrot’s case of the Natural History Gallery. The red faced love birds are from equatorial Africa. They are very small, little bright green birds with orangey-red faces. These hang upside down in the gallery with their beaks touching.

I just think they are the most romantic object I can find in the museum. They are lovely little things.



Lily's Favourite Object

We asked Lily, who is a placement student in our Marketing Department, about one of her favourite object in the Horniman - a Stradivarius violin from the V&A collections in the Art of Harmony exhibition.

  • Violin, Antonio Stradivari, Cremona, 1699, V&A , Bequeathed to the V&A by Mrs B. Muligan in 1937, this was the first Stradivari violin to be displayed in a London public collection. Old violins are adapted for modern performance through subtle changes such as lengthening the fingerboard, changing the angle of the neck, adding a chinrest, using mostly wire strings and replacing the sound post and bass bar with ones that provide greater resonance. The neck, fingerboard and tailpiece of this violin are 19th-century replacements.
    Bequeathed to the V&A by Mrs B. Muligan in 1937, this was the first Stradivari violin to be displayed in a London public collection. Old violins are adapted for modern performance through subtle changes such as lengthening the fingerboard, changing the angle of the neck, adding a chinrest, using mostly wire strings and replacing the sound post and bass bar with ones that provide greater resonance. The neck, fingerboard and tailpiece of this violin are 19th-century replacements.

"Why is the Stradivarius one of your favourite objects?"

I’m studying music at the University of Surrey and I play the violin, so know all about the prestige that surrounds Stradivarius violins - I’m just itching to play it, to be honest! I understand why they have to be put in cases, but I think it is a bit of a shame.

‘Do you know why they are so expensive?’

The sound quality - you can really tell the sound is better and the more you pay the better it is going to be. When I was buying my violin I had a budget and I was playing various violins to see which one I wanted, there were some on the wall which were worth £10,000 and up. I asked if I could try one but was told not to because I’d feel like mine was second best. So just to try one that is worth that much would be lovely.


Ewen's Favourite Object

We asked Ewen Moore, who works in our Learning Department, about his favourite objects in the Horniman - the hobby horse.

“Why is this your favourite object?”

I like the hobby horse, as I have a very strong interest in folk lore and folk lore traditions, particularly British ones. I am also particularly interested in Christmas traditions too.   There are a lot of things at Christmas time that we do without thinking about which go back hundreds of years.  They are variations on themes that keep recurring and the Hobby Horse is a Christmas and New Year object.

I think it is incredibly beautiful.

I like the way the fabric is quite faded, I don’t know if that’s how it’s always looked or if it’s like that because it’s old, but it has a beautiful faded look. It looks like the kind of thing that you’d hope to find if you were looking through somebody’s attic - you’d open a chest and pull this out.

“What traditions are associated with it?”

The tradition is that the Mari group, with the horse, would travel around the town going from house to house at Christmas or New Year. The group bestowed good luck on the inhabitants of house.  All the people in the group, like musicians and people doing Punch and Judy, would be in costumes. They be raucous, banging on the doors, rattling the windows and trying to get the attention of the people inside. Then they’d have something like a rhyming contest where the people outside would rhyme or sing something, and the people in the house would answer with something else.  It was improvised and if the people outside won, they would get to come into the house and bless it by running around the house. The horse will be capering all over, Punch will be like trying to kiss the girls and the women, and Judy will be trying to stop him and there’ll be lots of singing and merry making. It would have been quite a raucous, but good natured event.

It’s part of similar traditions all over the UK particularly in Cornwall, Somerset, Kent, and Northamptonshire. Probably along the border of Wales and England there would have been a standoff by the Welsh and Mari Lwyd and the English mummers with their hobby horses including mock battle or contest between them.

“These traditions sound like a lot of fun.”

I like that whole idea of marking the seasons and these traditions bring everybody together in a sense of revelry and joy. I think a lot of those kinds of activities, which have been forgotten for a large part of the 20th century, are on the increase again and a lot of theses traditions are being

Young people want to do these things again and maybe when people look back in a few hundred years time it will be a blip in the 20th century when folk traditions didn’t happen much. We will see them as living, breathing traditions revived.

Camille's Favourite Object

In this, the first in a series of posts, Camille Oosman, who is a Learning Trainee with our Learning Department, tells us about her favourite object in the Horniman - the dodo.

“What is your favourite object?”

“My favourite object is the Dodo in the Natural History Gallery. I like it for sentimental reasons really. It reminds me of my childhood. I remember when I came here for my interview a couple of months ago and my eye was immediately drawn to the Dodo because it reminds me of my dad. He was from Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean and he used to tell me about the Dodo.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Well, I remember him telling me the reason behind the expression ‘Dead as a Dodo’.  The Dodos were native to Mauritius and became extinct after the Dutch colonised the island. It’s a tragic story but the Dodo itself is quite a comedic figure, I really like him. Even the fact that he tasted horrible didn’t give him much protection!”

“It’s a memory which evokes mixed feelings then?”

“Yes, for me it’s a very fond memory, yet at the same time it’s sad. It was the first time I really understood extinction as something definite and final - something that could not be undone. I felt very sad and indignant about it. There was this innocent and friendly looking bird that would never be again because of something humans had done.”

“How is the Dodo viewed in Mauritius now?”

“Well, it has become a quite an important symbol. It’s on the coat of arms, as well as becoming an unofficial Mascot which you find on all sorts of tourist trinkets. For me, it’s also the archetype of the extinct animal and a symbol of how unthinking human intervention can have such devastating consequences.

On a personal level it symbolises a way of connecting with my own family history through stories of something unique to Mauritius”

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