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Using WhatsApp to answer visitors' questions

Two years ago, we wrote a blog about an idea we had to use WhatsApp as a way of answering visitors questions.

At that time, we had run a very simple test to try the idea out, and had plans to do more. It took us a while, but we did eventually try something out.

Last September, around the annual Ask a Curator twitter event, we put posters around the museum telling visitors that they could ask questions either on twitter or by texting via SMS or Whatapp.

We put these posters in all our galleries, in the gardens and near the Animal Walk.

We initially had thought we would keep the posters up for a day or two, but, in the end, decided to keep them up for just under 6 weeks.

In that time, we received quite a few questions - though not as many as we do via Twitter or Facebook, or indeed as many as our staff in the galleries were asked.

Some of the questions we were asked are below - a mix of practical, easy-to-answer questions and more in-depth discussions.

Does the walrus have a name?

Why are the bees fighting?

Why do the African statues all have navels facing out of their body?

Why are the alpacas out in the rain?

Why have you labelled an object as being from a specific island and another as being from Papua New Guinea?

Are the miniature dogs real?

Their questions, and how and when they were sent, lead us to consider:

  • Where we placed the posters - we did not want these to obscure objects on display, but that meant they were not always in very prominent, visible postions.
  • The speed with which we were able to reply, particualry on weekends.
  • Our visitors ask fascinating questions, some of which we'd never have thought about.

Overall, this experiment was useful - partly to tell us that maybe our visitors' interest in this is not what we thought it would be. That, more than anything, has led us to wonder whether we should continue exploring this area or move on to something else, something our visitors will find more immediately engaging.

Introducing Favela: joy and pain in the city

Our current photography exhibition, Favela: joy and pain in the city, is a collaboration with the Observatory of the Favelas – a social organisation based in Maré, the largest complex of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

Jailson de Souza e Silva, Founder and Director of the Observatory of the Favelas, spoke to us about the three photographers who trained with the Observatory of the Favelas and are exhibiting here this summer.

When thinking about peripheral spaces, such as favelas, there are many prejudices. They are seen as places characterised by absence and deprivation deficient in decent facilities, services, order, education, culture and civic values. They are believed to be lawless and overrun by violence, representing the height of urban chaos.

These photographs allow us to judge favelas according to what they actually have: intense joy, pain, life, death, respect, violence, struggle, celebration, games, play, work, intimacy, complicity, complexity, simplicity and sociability among many other expressions of life.

Bira Carvalho, Elisângela Leite and AF (Adriano) Rodrigues all come from the favela of Maré – an important point of reference in their artistic work. They are all members of a vast contingent of young people from favelas and the peripheries of Brazil who refuse to be categorised as the “beneficiaries of social projects”, or mere documenters of their own daily lives.

We train the photographers to have excellent technique and an anthropological outlook. This seeks to recognise life where many see only death, invention where many see only deficit, beauty where many see only aesthetic compromise, and violence where many see only the inequality that has been normalised by the social system.

The work of these photographers allows the fluidity, richness and density of the life that is present in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas – and in all peripheral communities the world over – flow past your eyes.

Every day, by exercising their profession and their art, they show people can reinvent themselves, no matter where they come from or where they live. Because, for the person who sets out to find it, the world is never too far away, and life is never small.

“Favela: Joy and pain in the city” is realised through a partnership between The Horniman Museum and Gardens, Observatório de Favelas and People’s Palace Projects.

Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus

Our current exhibition Dinosaurs: Monster Families features an impressive Tarbosaurus skeleton. Author Dave Hone tells us more about the Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus dinosaur species.

'Probably everyone has at least passing familiarity with Tyrannosaurus, but this is only one of some thirty species that make up the tyrannosaur 'family'.

This group of dinosaurs was around for 100 million years and became the dominant carnivores in North America and Asia (and perhaps Europe, though fossils here are scarce) in the Late Cretaceous period, from around 100-65 million years ago. Starting at a small size, the earliest tyrannosaurs were just a few meters long but they evolved to produce 12m-long, 5 ton giants.

Some of the Asian tyrannosaurs are the most interesting, including lightly-built fast runners with narrow heads and the huge Tarbosaurus from Mongolia (a specimen of which is on display in the Dinosaurs: Monster Families exhibition) which is one of the closest relatives of Tyrannosaurus.

Some of these bigger tyrannosaurs had numerous adaptations in their skulls to deliver a bone-crushing bite. The bones of their heads were especially thick, they had huge sites for attaching powerful jaw muscles and their teeth were much thicker than those of other carnivorous dinosaurs - to better resist the massive forces going through them.

Take a look at a Tarbosaurus and it is also clear that the giant tyrannosaurs were somewhat built around the head. The neck is short but very strong and the body is stocky - there's a lot of support there to help hold of that great skull.

And although the legs are long, the arms are very small because they probably got very little use. Even so, this was clearly a successful body plan which lasted for millions of years.

Had the mass extinction not hit, it is likely the tyrannosaurs would have endured and diversified further. We should be grateful that we have any record at all of them. This magnificent and fascinating group are a great example of what we can learn about the dinosaurs and their lost world.’

You can win a copy of Dave Hone's new book, Tyrannosaurus Chronicles published by Bloomsbury, by entering your details below.

The Redstart Arts Horniman project

Redstart Arts use a room at the Horniman once a month for a creative workshop. Their artist leader, Cash Aspeek, took part in our Community Worker Training Day and used what she had learnt to devise her own project at the museum for the group. Cash tells us what they have been doing.

The Horniman project was inspired by both natural figures and by ancient pieces of artwork found in the Horniman. Over a period of five sessions the Redstart Arts produced a series of figurative sculptures made from found materials that were neither human nor animal but a hybrid of the two.

My approach is to encourage the Redstarts to explore their own creativity rather than create a series of uniformed work. Thus, each of the works produced reflects the personality of its maker.

The structure of the sessions I run is similar each time. The members greet each other at the beginning by standing in a circle and creating a sign for their name, not Makaton but a sign or action of each individual’s choice. The group then copies the sign. This way of starting energises the group and creates a light environment in which the Redstarts are at ease.

The session then involves brief discussion about the journey they are on, looking at previous work and thinking about the next steps. I use a visual time plan to mark out steps and note opinions.

The starting point for the Horniman project began with the Redstarts immersing themselves into the gallery space. The Redstarts produced observational studies of pieces they found of interest in the galleries and then went on to realise their figurative sculptures through plaster bandage.

The Redstarts then set about exploring textures; they discussed how some animals are covered in fur whilst others have feathers or scales and that humans have skin. The Redstarts were very keen to explore the galleries using the collections as inspiration for the ‘skin’ for their figure.

One Redstart was fascinated by the scales of a Pangolin and so covered his figure in small pieces of grey rubber, each piece overlapped to form a scale like texture. 

Another Redstart covered his figure in compost and then carefully hammered nails into it after he was inspired by a Nkondi figure. 

Furthermore one of the Redstarts rather than covering her figure decided to use a black pen to meticulously cover her figure in drawings, she particularly enjoyed drawing from observation within the gallery.

Each Redstart produced a figure that was very representative of their personalities, likes and dislikes. They enjoyed the freedom of exploration and creativity that they were given. This was poignant for each Redstart, as they seemed extremely proud and happy of the work they produced. 

You can find out more about Redstart Arts on their website.

Cleaning a Persian Dhal

Conservator Charlotte talks to us today about cleaning a steel Persian Dhal to discover its intricately detailed decoration. 

This steel Persian Dhal (shield) is one of a number of objects to go on loan to Bucks County Museum as part of their “Art of Islam” Exhibition.

At some point in its history this shield had been covered in shellac lacquer that had, over time, discoloured and trapped dirt against the surface. The lacquer had also been applied over tarnished metal and both these issues were obscuring the fine engravings and gilt layer across the surface of the shield.  

We removed the old lacquer layer with solvents. This process had the added benefit of removing some of the corrosion product across the surface of the metal. We then applied museum-grade abrasion paste to remove the thicker areas of corrosion.

To protect the metal, we hot waxed the shield with microcrystalline wax. This technique involves carefully heating the metal and applying wax to the surface, which is then left to cool. Using a lint-free cloth we then rigorously buffed the metal to remove excess wax and create an even shine. 

The cotton textile on the back of the shield was detaching from the metal and had to be secured back down. To do this, we aheared small tabs of Japanese tissue between the textile and the metal to act as an “anchor” and to allow for easier treatment reversibility.

We then inserted thermoplastic adhesive, applied as a “dry film”, between the Japanese tissue and the metal and then heat activated to bond the two materials together. A “wet” adhesive was then applied on top of the tissue, with the textile pressed down on to the adhesive and clamped in place, while the adhesive dried. This technique was repeated around the edge of the shield until the textile was secured in place.

The resulting clean and corrosion removal allows us to see more intricate detail and securing the textile on the back of the shield should hopefully prevent any further damage to this material.

Roots and Branches: local memories from South London

From January to March 2016, we've been meeting each week with a group of people living in South London to explore their memories of the local area and further afield.

Some of them have lived in South London for years and have seen the area changing dramatically. Others moved in more recently and feel they belong elsewhere.

This social history project recorded the changing face of the local community, bringing together past and recent memories of shops, bars and restaurants that no longer exist, street corners often gone unnoticed and landmark buildings that are still standing.

Participants worked together with storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton and textile artist Seiwa Cunningham on a multimedia project, which provided them with an outlet where they could share their knowledge and learn new skills. 

Below, look at the artworks and hear the people taking part in the project telling stories of south London. You can also explore their memories on HistoryPin.

Debbie's story

Roxanne's story

Michael's story

Ray's story

Sadat's story

Sandra's story

Phyllis's story

Nigel's story


Irene's story

Alan's story

Ibronke's story


Jilla's story

The Art of Islam

Objects from the Horniman's collection are on display now in a new major exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury.

The exhibition, running from March 26 until September 24 2016, is part of the Art of Islam Festival and reflects Islamic culture and its links with Western Europe, 

Treasures on display will include carpets, paintings, furniture, metalwork, jewellery and splendid calligraphy from across the Middle East.

Among the objects from the Horniman's collection are this ewer, seal and baby cover.


This Bidri ware ewer is from India and dates from the late 19th century, when it was sold to Frederick Horniman.


This seal, dating from 1776, is engraved in Persian with a floral border. It belonged to James Peter Auriol of the Bengal civil service, who was secretary to the government of Warren Hastings in India in the late 18th century.

This cover from Sumatra is placed on the forehead of a baby (along with another cover for the baby's body) when visitors come to see it during the first forty days of life.

In addition to the Horniman's collection, exhibits will also be borrowed from the British Museum, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and from the private collection of Razwan and Sarya Baig.

About the art: Here, Now

Our current exhibition Here, Now is a collaborative project delivered in partnership with photographer Nana Varveropoulou and Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers.

Nana spent four months working alongside ten newly arrived migrants in the local area to produce a series of portraits. In this blog, we ask her about the story behind this portrait.

How did you approach this project?

The first step was to spend several days at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, so that people got to know me and start to feel comfortable. I spent the first whole day approaching people, showing them examples of pictures and discussing the project idea.

Some people seemed interested, but most of them were understandably pre-occupied with their lives, their papers, their circumstances.

How did this particular photograph come about?

One day, I was waiting at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers to meet another project participant. While waiting, I approached this man.

OS didn't speak English, but luckily one of the many volunteers at the centre offered to help with translating. While we tried to work out a theme and a location for his portraits, he received a phone call from his caseworker who informed him that he was being moved to Scotland with immediate effect.

We were all slightly shocked - particularly OS. He kindly got back to me and told the interpreter, if you want to photograph me, you better do it here and now. I doubt that I will be here next week.

What was his reaction to this? 

He didn't seem angry or upset. He looked more resigned to the fact that he had no choice.

I asked him if he wanted to move and he said no, he didn't know anyone in Scotland. I realised that he was right - we had to do his portrait on the spot.

His experience really captures part of the reality of being an asylum seeker.

We looked around the centre to find the right spot for the portrait and came across a "Welcome" sign, which I found quite ironic. We took the portrait there.

Here, Now is on display at the Horniman until 6 June 2016.

Our Access Advisory Group

The Horniman's Access Advisory Group meets 4 times per year.

Its membership is made up of volunteers who have lived experience of disability and a keen interest in making the museum more accessible to Disabled people.

Here, Julia Austin – a member for over a year – shares what has been happening.

"I always look forward to our meetings: we cover so many different topics and everyone is so friendly and welcoming.

Examples of things we have fed back on include Equality and Diversity training, web design and content, accessibility of the museum gardens and volunteering schemes. Now we are working on a display about disability that will be shown in one of the main galleries.

We're introduced to staff from different departments and they sit in our meetings so we really feel part of the museum. We've also started doing a newsletter. Recently Brighton Museum Access Group came to visit us, and staff from the V&A Musuem and Shakespeare's Globe have also dropped in.

It's been really cool working with people who have different abilities. I've learned a lot about people's needs and it's given me fresh perspectives on a whole range of things, not least approaches to museum engagement! It's exciting to come together and develop a collective voice :)"

About the Art: Luis Rey

We interviewed Luis Rey, artist of Dinosaurs: Monster Families, focusing on his vivid piece: Gigantoraptor Found.

What scene have you portrayed here?

This painting shows Gigantoraptors, a gigantic versions of the oviraptor. These huge dinosaurs were larger than even T Rex and the Alectrosaurus. They actually laid the biggest eggs of all dinosaurs.
Inspired by these dinosaurs, I wanted to recreate their nesting grounds.

What inspired you to paint this scene, and create this artwork?

First of all, my fascination with dinosaurs, usually I go to the species that fascinate me first.

Then I try to produce something that is different, and think what can I do that is different. Conducting scientific research, looking at fossils and other work is essential - if you do this, the sky is the limit.

I want to be ground breaking and provide a new vision

How do you balance the scientific facts with your own creativity?

You have to study the evidence, but paleo-illustration isn't an exact science. I study the anatomy, and the environment; I want to make them more believable animals, monstrous, not monsters.
I also want to show the dinosaur link to birds, they are not extinct and live on in this form.

What advice would you give young artists, illustrators or paleo illustrators wanting to develop their own work?

You always need to do your homework, studying your medium but the work of others and then make it your own. Everyone starts by copying, and that leads to inspiration. If you look at the Great Ovirpators next to the nesting portrait they are different medium, but my style is still there and distinctive.

The artwork on the left is digital, on the right acrylic and cardboard

How do you use digital tools in your artistic process?

We have to follow evidence, so I make amendments to paintings when new evidence is found, naturally this is a lot easier with digital art and tools.

Like dinosaurs, art is a product of evolution, with new digital media we can correct and create artworks in new ways


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