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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.

Taxidermy on Film

Dan Brown (MASH Cinema) is providing the film programme for our Taxidermy Late. Here he tells us a bit more about it.

My view of taxidermy is shaped by Jan Švankmajer’s film, ‘Alice’; a little macabre but truly captivating. Even now, wandering around natural history galleries in museums, I love looking at the specimens and the characters created by the taxidermists.

When programming the films for the Horniman’s Taxidermy Late, I wanted to include a mixture of genres, allowing me to explore different areas of this fascinating subject. Hopefully showing a truer representation of it: one of integrity, artistry and scientific discovery.

Below is a short introduction to some of the selected films.

'The Taxidermist' by Bertie Films

Produced by Warp Films, this eccentric short film explores what would happen if pets lived forever, thus leaving a taxidermist without work.

'Le Taxidermiste' by Le Taxidermiste Team

This beautifully made French animation deals with the fate of a taxidermy collection after the death of its creator. It’s time to say goodbye to what is left behind.

‘Taxidermists’ by Nicole Triche

This documentary follows two taxidermists at the biennial World Taxidermy Competition, providing a glimpse into the often overlooked world of art, science and competition.

Modern Taxidermy: Mounting the Indian Elephant from American Museum of Natural History

Rich Remsberg’s edit of this archival film (1927) documents Carl Akeley's taxidermy process from the raw hide to the finished display.

These films will be shown in collaboration with Electric Pedals who will use the energy created by the audience to power the cinema.

Today is the last day you can buy tickets for Taxidermy Late in advance: book yours now to be in with the chance of skipping the queues and having enough time to watch MASH Cinema's fabulous film selection.

Ethical taxidermy: where do the animals come from?

Ahead of next week's Late event, taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long blogs for us on the history of her craft and where she sources her specimens.

Taxidermy has evolved a lot since it first became popular in the early nineteenth century. Most of the specimens collected during this time (including the specimens at the Horniman) would have been collected from overseas. The animals would have be killed, their skins salted, and then shipped back to the UK to be mounted by a taxidermist. The skins may have been sent with no measurements at all and the taxidermist had probably never seen the animal in real life so this is partly the reason why most Victorian taxidermy looks a little odd.

  • Horniman Walrus, A fine example of taxidermy that isn't an accurate representation of the living animal.
    A fine example of taxidermy that isn't an accurate representation of the living animal.

Taxidermy in the modern world however is very different. Although trophy taxidermy does still exist, most taxidermists work using animals that have not been killed purely for the purpose of taxidermy. There are also laws protecting certain species which means a taxidermist must obtain legal paperwork to prove they have died naturally.

I call myself an ethical taxidermist as I only use animals that have died from a natural cause or accident. All of my specimens have been donated to me by family, friends, rescue centres or strangers that find me via my website or Twitter.

The animals I work with may have been hit by a car, flown into a window or died from old age or illness. This means I never know what animals I’m going to receive and the condition they’re going to be in. Using animals sourced in this way can often be problematic as more work has to be done, such as: fixing broken skulls and replacing lost fur and feathers. Occasionally it means I will start work on an animal but find it is no good to use and have to throw it away which I find very sad and frustrating.

Methods in taxidermy have also dramatically improved throughout the years. Many modern materials and techniques mean the results can be amazingly realistic. If you would like to learn more about taxidermy the UK’s Guild of Taxidermists hold an annual conference every March. It’s the best place to meet other taxidermists and learn techniques through talks and demonstrations.

I will be showing my method of bird taxidermy at the Horniman Museum and Gardens Taxidermy Late in the evening on Thursday 27 February, so come along and feel free to ask me as many questions as you like.

Extreme Animals Arrive

This week has been an exciting one at the Horniman Museum and Gardens as we prepare for the opening of our new family friendly exhibition, Extremes.

There have been quite a few taxidermy animals to settle into their new home. It was exciting to see them all arriving.

Extremes offers a chance for us to loan some larger taxidermy specimens which are rare in the Horniman collections. Can you guess who these claws belong to?

There is also an opportunity for some of our own collections to come out of storage and get some well-deserved attention on display. The Exhibitions team have been busy preparing and mounting a wide variety of objects.

It's been fantastic fun testing out some of the interactives, too.

For the last few weeks, our #ExtremeCurator has been experiencing the enviroments explored in the exhibition, and looking at how well-adapted some animals are compared to humans. You can catch up on Paolo's adventures on Youtube.

Today, Paolo took a tour around the exhibition itself. Keep an eye out for the last #ExtremeCurator video, where he'll introduce you to some of the animals featured in Extremes.

Extremes is open to the public from 12.30pm on Saturday 15 February. You can buy your tickets online in advance.

Extreme Curator: Dark

In Paolo's fifth and final #ExtremeCurator challenge, he found himself trying to navigate the Natural History Gallery here at the Horniman in complete darkness.

One of the environments explored in our Extremes exhibition, opening this weekend, is extreme darkness. Many animals live their entire lives without sunlight, and have adapted to survive without relying on their sight.

During his challenge, Paolo tried to adopt some of the techniques used by these animals to navigate his way to a ringing phone. He discovered that, in total darkness, even familiar places become strange and confusing.

Watch the video to see Paolo attempt echolocation, and hear him talk about some of the animals that are far better adapted to extreme darkness.

Paolo's #ExtremeCurator challenges have seen him face cold, heat, aridity, low loxygen levels, and now darkness. Watch all the challenge videos on Youtube or follow all the updates on Twitter.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

Extreme Curator: Dry

After the humid heat of his hot yoga class, Paolo's next Extreme Curator challenge was to face the dry heat of the desert.

To experience the extreme environment of the Sahara Desert, we travelled to the Centre for Air Conditioning and Refridgeration Research at London South Bank University. Their environmental chamber can be brought down to an arid 20% relative humidity, while the temperature is cranked up to a toasty 43°C.

Once again, the human body's ability to sweat came into play, although this time in the dry air made it a far more effective strategy for keeping cool.

Watch the video to see why sweating isn't always such a good idea, and find out how other animals cope with dry desert conditions.

Spending a short time in these conditions wasn't too hard on our Extreme Curator, which hints a little at the fact that the human body is actually quite well-adapted to cope in the heat. This is in part due to the fact we as a species evolved in Africa, and have not lost our adaptations which allowed us to thrive in the continent's hot climates.

There is still one Extreme Curator challenge for Paolo to face before he has experience the full range from our upcoming Extremes exhibition. You can keep up with his adventures on Twitter or subscribe to our Youtube Channel to see the latest #ExtremeCurator updates.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

Extreme Curator: Hot

With his cold and low oxygen challenges complete, this week it was time for our Extreme Curator to feel the heat.

Paolo bravely agreed to join a class at Hot Bikram Yoga, near London Bridge, in his Extreme Curator 'uniform' to experience some of the effects of heat on the human body.

The poses weren't the only challenge in the class; the room was heated to around 40°C, which encourages the body to relax and stretch further. Of course, it also encourages the human body to sweat, allowing us to see a very human adaptation to extreme heat.

Watch the video to see how Paolo coped with the heat and find out how other animals have adapted to extreme environments:

Paolo still has two more extreme environments from our upcoming Extremes exhibition to experience. You can keep up with his adventures on Twitter or subscribe to our Youtube Channel to see the latest #ExtremeCurator updates.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

Extreme Curator: Low Oxygen

Yesterday our Extreme Curator completed the second of his challenges, this time venturing into The Altitude Centre to experience low oxygen concentrations.

Animals living at altitude have had to adapt to as little as 9.5% oxygen in the air they breathe, compared to around 21% at sea level. At the Altitude Centre that environment is replicated to help mountaineers acclimatise to conditions at Mount Everest’s base camp, as well as athletes who train at altitude to improve their performance under normal conditions.

  • 9.5% oxygen, Paolo takes a breath at 6,000 metres
    Paolo takes a breath at 6,000 metres

Paolo's challenge involved him breathing air with an oxygen concentration equivalent  to what you would experience at almost 6,000 metres (over 19,000 feet) up some of the world's hgihest mountain ranges.

Watch the second #ExtremeCurator video to see how Paolo coped with 9.5% oxygen.

Click for a close up of Paolo's heart rate and oxygen levels during the challenge:

  • Heart rate and Oxygen levels, Paolo's health was carefully monitored throughout the challenge - it looked like he was coping quite well.
    Paolo's health was carefully monitored throughout the challenge - it looked like he was coping quite well.

There are a few more environments featured in our upcoming Extremes exhibition which Paolo will be experiencing over the coming weeks. You can keep up with his adventures on Twitter or subscribe to our Youtube Channel to see the latest #ExtremeCurator updates.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

Extreme Curator: Cold

Last week our Extreme Curator Paolo Viscardi ventured into the sub-zero temperatures of Icebar London to experience firsthand some of the challenges faced by animals living in extreme cold.

  • Extreme Curator in the cold, Paolo braves London's Icebar for the first of his challenges
    Paolo braves London's Icebar for the first of his challenges

Icebar is the UK's only permenant bar made entirely of ice, with powerful air conditioning units which keep the temperature below freezing. For Paolo's challenge, Icebar was at a chilly -7°C.

  • Most visitors to Icebar are wrapped up warm, Paolo is completing all his Extreme Curator challenges in his shirtsleeves
    Paolo is completing all his Extreme Curator challenges in his shirtsleeves

Usually, Icebar's visitors are wrapped up warm and provided with a waterproof cloak. Paolo had no such luck, as he's completing all his extreme challenges in his shirtsleeves (don't try this at home/Icebar, folks).

Watch the video to see how our Extreme Curator got on in the cold.

Click on the image below for a close up comparison of Paolo's tiny label-writing at 21°C and -7°C:

Over the next few weeks, Paolo will be exploring other environments featured in our upcoming Extremes exhibition. You can keep up with his adventures on Twitter or subscribe to our Youtube Channel to see the latest #ExtremeCurator updates.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

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