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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.

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!

Bookblitz: Another Frederick Hornemann

During the Bookblitz of our historic volumes, our librarian Helen came across a book that seemed at first as if it might contain a typo or two. 'Frederick Horneman's Travels in Africa' sounds like it might be an account of our founder's adventures during which he gathered some of the museum's collection.

But on closer inspection this volume is quite a bit older than our own Frederick John Horniman, who was born in 1835. The book contains an account of the incredible travels of a German man with a name rather similar to that of our founder.

Friedrich Hornemann (his name is anglicised to 'Frederick' for our volume, while the last 'n' is removed in the printed version) spent years exploring parts of Africa which no Europeans had travelled to in around 100 years.

  • The Journal of Frederick Horneman's Travels, The printers didn't seem to agree with Hornemann about the spelling of his name
    The printers didn't seem to agree with Hornemann about the spelling of his name

His 'Travels' contains both handwritten entries and printed accounts translated from the original German for the years 1797-8, during which he travelled the 'Interior of Africa', setting out from Cairo in Egypt. He was just 24 at the time.

Hornemann was perhaps a good deal more of an intrepid traveller than our founder, who obtained most of his collection by buying it from other explorers, and only travelled widely much later in life.

It is tempting to imagine our own Frederick Horniman reading these accounts, perhaps developing a desire to do some of his own travelling in and collecting from 'undiscovered' lands.

  • Our Frederick Horniman's own bookplate, Hornemann's journal was a part of our founder's own personal library
    Hornemann's journal was a part of our founder's own personal library

Hornemann's account is punctuated by his hand drawn maps of the regions, while large fold out charts by Major James Rennel are added to this volume to show his whole journey.

Also included are a number of letters and minute documents detailing the preparations needed to arrange for his trip, which was undertaken on behalf of the London-based African Association (explaining why his journal is written in English).

They provide a brilliant insight into 18th century travel, detailing the expenses expected to occur (including a compass, telescope and sextant), languages Hornemann would learn in advance and his need to become familiar with the 'manner and customes of all such stangers'.

We're unsure what happened to this world explorer. It seems he kept travelling for the rest of his life, and in 1803 was recorded as being in Tripoli. It is thought that he died in 1819, somewhere in or near Nigeria. No other European explorer followed his route again until 1910.

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!

#MuseumWeek: Get Involved

Last week we announced that the Horniman is taking part in the first ever #MuseumWeek. Organised by Twitter UK, the project aims to gather hundreds of museums across the UK and Europe together to celebrate how Twitter can help them connect people with art, culture, history and science in new ways.

For one week, starting on Monday 24 March, hundreds of museums will take to Twitter and share their stories using the project's daily hashtags as inspiration. Here's what we have planned at the Horniman:

Monday - #DayInTheLife

We're aiming to give our followers a look into the daily lives of as many museums departments as possible. Join us as we pop our heads into offices and join Horniman staff on the front lines. You can even take to tweeting yourself and let us now which parts of museum life you'd like to see.

Tuesday - #MuseumMastermind

It's time to swot up on your Horniman trivia as we pose quizzes and questions about our history and collection. We've also got a surprise up our sleeve so be prepared for a challenge.

Wednesday - #MuseumMemories

Join us to take a trip down memory lane as staff and visitors alike share their earliest memories of the Horniman. Have you been visiting since you were small or are we a recent discovery - we'd love to hear what's stuck in your mind.

Thursday - #BehindTheArt

This is a day to celebrate what goes on behind the scenes to keep our collections safe and get them out on display for the public to see. We'll be sharing all the hard work our staff do to make this happen.

Friday - #AskTheCurator

Ever wanted to know exactly what's inside the Walrus? How to tell the difference betwen a harpsichord and a clavichord? Or what it takes to care for our adorable alpacas? We have experts in areas all across the Horniman standing by to answer your questions.

Saturday - #MuseumSelfies

The museum theme of the moment is back, with a day dedicated to sharing your selfies taken in museums. The best kind, of course, being one with a walrus - why not use this weekend to snap a pic with our most famous resident? Make sure to include the #selfiewiththewalrus hashtag when you share it and it might even make it to our Pinterest board.

Sunday - #GetCreative

And finally, Sunday is a day to be inspired by our collections. We want to hear from you what your more unusual Horniman highlights are (after all, it's not all about the Walrus). What are your 'must-sees' for a visit and what would you include on a treasure trail around the Museum?

You can track the project using the #MuseumWeek hashtag or follow our account to see what we're sharing.

We'd love you to get involved and join the conversation: remember, if you're tweeting about Museums next week, don't forget to include the #MuseumWeek hashtag.

Gardens in Bloom

Wes, our Head of Horticulture, shares an update from the Gardens as we head into Spring.

Over the last few weeks the Horniman Gardens have been bursting into colour with a dazzling display of crocus, snow drops, and daffodils.

The crocuses in particular have been stunning, and are naturalised in many areas of our lawns.

  • A riot of colour from our crocuses, These are growing near the Animal Walk
    These are growing near the Animal Walk

Crocuses are in the Iris family, and there are quite a lot of them: about 90 species and many more cultivated varieties. They grow throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and China.

Crosuses grow from a 'corm' in the ground, which in appearance are similar to bulbs and act as an underground plant stem that store nutrients and water.

Saffron is a spice derived from the dried stigmas of the Saffron crocus Crocus sativus, it has been used as a fragrance, dye and medicine and is one of the world’s most expensive spices. Visitors can see these flowering in our Dye Garden during the autumn.

Naturalising bulbs in lawns is great way to grow certain plants and it’s a really easy way of providing an amazing spring display. If you want to do this with crocus, you need to plant them in autumn, simply buy as many as you can afford, and scatter them randomly over the grass, and wherever they land plant them in that space. Using a trowel or bulb planter, plant them to 3 times the depth of the bulb and you’re good to go.

We'd love to know if you've got any crocuses growing in your Gardens at home, or whether you've seen any in other public Gardens around London. Why not share them with us in the comments or on Twitter @HornimanMuseum.

Bookblitz: Man, his Structure and Physiology

The next find from our Bookblitz of the historic library collections may not be to everybody's taste, but to those with an interest in scientific illustration this book is something quite special.

Once owned by Frederick Horniman himself, 'Man: His Structure and Physiology' was written by Robert Knox, a Scottish surgeon best known for his use of bodies from the infamous Burke and Hare murders.

Although he was never prosecuted for his involvement in the crimes, Knox found himself understandably unpopular in Edinburgh. In 1842, after the death of his wife, he made the decision to move to London where he became a science journalist and published several works, including this one.

Knox illustrated his work not only with black and white diagrams, but with intricately detailed colour illustrations.

Many 19th century medical texts feature similar images, but this volume from our library is quite special. The book's frontipiece proudly declares it includes 'eight moveable dissected coloured plates'.

Each of the coloured illustrations folds out to reveal more details of human anatomy.

Some have several layers to be revealed.

Knox also address some smaller parts of the human body with as much detail.

'Man: His Structure and Physiology' covers every part of the human body, with the exception of genetalia.

Despite his influential early career, Knox's reputation never recovered. Although he continued to publish works on human anatomy, he found it impossible to work as a surgeon, and his books about fishing sold best.

Gourds in the Gardens

A few months ago we blogged about some curious containers from our collections. Amy now introduces us to the link some of these objects have to the Horniman's display Gardens.

Our Display Gardens contain a wealth of plants that have thousands of uses in our everyday lives. The Materials Garden has many plants which people from all over the world have put to use in clever and suitable ways to adapt to challenges of living in and using their natural environments. Gourds are a great example of this.

Our gardeners grow gourds, which are similar to pumpkins or squash, along trellises to support the fruits as they develop. The fleshy orange fruits, once ripened, can be dried out – either by leaving them on the plant or by storing carefully in dry conditions, until they become hardened. These hardened gourd shells can be used to make tools, musical instruments, art and textiles, and containers.

The hard shell of the dried gourd is water tight and keeps the contents inside cool, providing a way to transport or store liquids and foods in hotter climates.

This Kenyan Masai milk container is made from a long gourd which has been dried and hollowed out. It is decorated with carved and painted designs of gazelle, giraffes and types of birds. It would be used to store milk, blood, honey or oatmeal.

This one is from our handling collection and can be seen in the Hands on Base.

The Sudanese vessel below was used for storing buttermilk. The woven case around it (made from plant fibre) would be used for carrying the container.

This Kenyan Kamba container is decorated with a net of multicoloured beads with small metal bells around the bottom. The hide strap which runs around the gourd is used as a handle.

Why not take a closer look next time you visit our Gardens and see if you can find where we grow our gourds?

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