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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.

Ethnomusicality with SELAN

Last year, South East London Arts Network (SELAN) member Phil Baird completed one of our community worker training days with fellow artist Carlo Keshishian. As a result, they devised a project for other SELAN members to take part in.

Here they report on the project and what it was like for the group working closely with the Horniman and our collections.


I enjoyed co-facilitating art and music workshops at the wondrous Horniman Museum, upon being summoned by fellow artist and friend Phil Baird.

Initially we had imagined basing the sessions at the Horniman's aquarium due to Phil and I's shared interest in the mysteries of ocean life and deep sea creatures. By the time our workshops came to fruition, however, it had all metamorphosed into another area we are both very much in tune with (pardon the pun), music and improvisation.


We entered the hands on base and quickly got the idea to set a rhythm going and made an amazing piece of improvised piece of music. One participant discovered an amazing gift for solo didgeridoo.

We began working with small pieces of paper and ink pens to draw the rhythms of different instruments such as the Irish Bodhran or African Djembe drum. Everyone created a way of capturing the sound on paper.

Carlo took on a Dr/Shaman role giving individual music treatments literal and metaphorical, each person laying down a track towards a group soundscape recording.

Everyone enjoyed these workshops so much, Phil managed to secure funding from Drake Music Connect and Collaborate to take the project further.  The group recorded the sounds of instruments in the handling collection to create a composition, and then created an animation to go with it.

The brilliant end result is entitled 'Ethnomusicality':

Thanks to everyone at SELAN – you are always a pleasure to work with!

Cleaning the Hands on Base

Christine from the Learning Team has sent us an update explaining how the handling collection here at the Horniman is kept clean and free of dust. 

Have you ever vacuumed a duck?

The Horniman's handling collection has over 3700 objects all kept in the Hands on Base. Many of these objects are used weekly for school and community sessions and they all need to be cleaned.

The learning team and volunteers must carefully take down all the objects from the tops of the cabinets in the Hands on Base and set about cleaning them. It is quite a challenge as the objects can range from old and new, come from all over the world and are made of many different materials.

To clean the objects we use a special conservation vacuum cleaner with low suction which is very useful for cleaning taxidermy ducks and other birds as well as the fox.

The big clean also gives us a chance to check the objects for any sign of pest damage and to see if any need repair. We aim to do this twice a year and are very grateful for help from volunteers and the facilities team which makes the job much easier.

Want to know more about the handling collection? The Hands on Base is open every Sunday until the 23 March 2014 from 2-3:30pm for Discovery for All.

Lewisham Young Carers Visit

The Lewisham Young Carers service is based just down the road from the museum in Forest Hill. They support young people who live in a family where someone is affected by a long-term illness or disability.

Over Easter holiday we had the 8-11 year olds and 12-16 year olds groups visit for workshops at the Museum.

As an introduction to the museum, members of the group selected an object from the Handling Collection that they felt represented themselves and then wrote a label for it. This activity is always a lovely way to find out things about each other and for individuals to think about what the things they are important to them.

On the final two days, we looked at some charms from the Lovett Collection.  The Horniman has hundred of Lovett charms from all around the world, and they are a great way of exploring our upcoming Collections People Stories theme, Health and Healing.

Using magnifying glasses we looked closely at the charms and tried to figure out what was on them and helped each other figure out what some things might mean.

This Greek silver amulet case doesn’t have much information about it but as a group we decided the figure must be St George. If you open it up, there is a dried plant – perhaps a herb or a remedy?

Scott selected one to look at that was a small horse-shoe charm with 1917 written on the back, and the word LOOS on the front. Victor got into looking at a blue glass ‘evil-eye’ charm and the small bubbles formed inside the glass when it was made. Chantelle selected a tiny charm with the number 13 on it – which she considers lucky.

We had some brilliant conversations about the charms – can you make your own luck? Do wishes come true? Should you be scared to break a lucky ritual that you have always done? What does religion have to do with luck? How can something become lucky? Which way up should you put a horse-shoe and why?

As a group we also discussed our own lucky charms that we carry around. Click on the images below to see some up close.

  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Scott's Charms
    Scott's Charms
  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Naomi's charm
    Naomi's charm
  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Qianna's charm
    Qianna's charm
  • Lewisham Young Carers Visit, Chantelle's charms
    Chantelle's charms

Thanks to all the young carers for making this a fantastic and fascinating event!

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.

Community Projects with our Objects

Today we held our popular 'Community Projects with our Objects' training day for community group leaders and service workers.

We run this training 4 times a year. The aim is to provide group leaders and service workers with an introduction to using the museum and its collections so that they can return with their groups and service users.

  • Community Training Day object handling, Handling objects at a Community Projects with our Objects training day
    Handling objects at a Community Projects with our Objects training day

During the training, which is held in the Hands on Base, we do a number of creative activities using objects from the handling collection and share case-studies of past community projects. We also provide practical guidelines on safe object handling and information about how to use the museum.

  • Community Training Day object handling, Object handling at a Community Projects with our Objects training day
    Object handling at a Community Projects with our Objects training day

Today the training was attended by representatives from a range of organisations, including Woodcraft Folk, Downderry Children's Centre, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, MindCare, Beckenham and Penge Gateway and Princes Drawing School.

  • Community Training Day, Discussing objects at a Community Training Day
    Discussing objects at a Community Training Day

During the training there is plenty of time for everyone to share their project ideas – which are always really inspiring. For example today we discussed using the objects from around the world for themed reminiscence sessions.

  • Community Training Day object handling, Interacting with real objects at a community training day
    Interacting with real objects at a community training day

We got some good feedback today:

One thing I have learnt today about the Horniman collection is how varied, vast and inspiring it is. There is something here for EVERYONE.

Thank you! I like that the day was very much applicable to different client groups. It has given me so many ideas as to how we can use the facilities.

  • Community Training Day feedback, Some reactions to our Community training day
    Some reactions to our Community training day

Our next plan is to develop our training in using the Horniman Gardens...watch this space!

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