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Travel back in time at the Prehistoric Garden

This summer, a new display of Prehistoric plants and living fossils is being planted in the Horniman Gardens. Here, we introduce you to some of the plants you will be seeing in the new bed.  

You may have noticed that our gardeners have started some work in the conifer bed on the lawn above the herbaceous border. This is going to be our new Prehistoric Garden. The theme will tie in with our current major exhibition, Dinosaurs: Monster Families but it will also remain as a permanent planting after the exhibition has moved on. 

We have kept three trees in place from the original planting: the yew, the redwood and the Lawson cypress. We will be replanting the rest of the area with other plants known as 'living fossils' - species that have been around for thousands of years. This planting will include a ginko and a Wollemi pine, as well as tree ferns, cycads and a monkey puzzle tree. 

The tree ferns, or Dicksonia antarctica, were particularly appealing to low-slung herbivorous dinosaurs like the stegosaurs because they did not grow too high off the ground. Today, ferns have prospered, with over 12,000 named species. Perhaps because there are not any dinosaurs left to eat them!

Monkey Puzzle trees, or Araucaria araucana, were around in the Mesozoic Era - which is sometimes known as the Age of Conifers. Conifers were some of the first to evolve on dry land. Today, these cone-bearing trees are represented by familiar species such as cedars, firs, and pines. 

It will still be a while before the bed is completed but there is already a lot to see, so do go and take a peek. 

This project has benefted from funding from the Tesco Bags of Help initiative, with a grant of £8,000.

Planting in the Sunken Garden

Our gardeners are busy digging up the flower beds in the Sunken Garden to make way for our next colourful display. 

This spring saw the Sunken Gardens planted with a wonderful display of dark purple tulips sitting in a sea of blue, pink and white forget-me-nots. 

Sky blue coloured forget-me-nots are common in the wild, but the pink and white veritities are less common, so it was a joy to see this colourful display in our gardens this spring. 

Now the flowers are past their prime, they are being dug up by our gardeners, who will be replanting the Sunken Garden with a new display of flowers that are currently being grown in our nursey. 

The new dispaly will carve the beds into geometric triangles of contrasting-coloured flowers. The arrangement will consist red Salvias, pink Verbenas, red Zinnias and purple Nicotiana. 

Keep an eye out for our new display, which will be planted in the next few weeks. 

We would love to see the photos you take of the display - so please tag us @hornimanmuseum on twitter, and share your pictures with the hashtag #horniman on Instagram

Sowing the seeds for future gardeners

Our Head of Horticulture Wesley tells us all about work being done by a group of student horticulturalists.

If you visit the Gardens here at the Horniman on a Monday, you may well have come across an enthusiastic group of students from Capel Manor College working here.

Capel Manor College run a wide range of land-based courses at their centres all over London that cater for all ages and levels. 

These students study on the Level 1 Horticultural Diploma course at the college based in Crystal Palace Park. Led by their tutor Susan Urpeth, this fantastic group of gardeners use our Gardens to practise some of the practical tasks that are part of their studies.

It is a great opportunity for the Horniman to help the next generation of gardeners. And we get lots of extra help with jobs that we usually don't find time for. 

Over the last couple of months, they have rejuvenated shrub borders, planted 1,000s of bulbs, sown wildflower seeds, carried out lawn maintenance and prepared hundreds of pot plants for the Edible High Road Festival which will be happening in Forest Hill from May 7 onwards.

We would like to say a big thank you to Susan and her students for all their work so far this year, and wish them luck in their studies. 

Exploring Baron Samedi

In preparation for our Queer Late event on 12 May, we have been exploring our collections, searching for objects that have connections to queer culture. Here we look at the dandy figure of Baron Samedi.

Have you ever noticed the Vodou shrine in our African Worlds gallery? We often get asked about the objects inside the shrine. What do the objects represent? What is the connection to Vodou faith? Why is the head of the baby from the Dinosaurs TV show in the shrine?

In the shrine you can see four objects placed here for ‘Baron Samedi’ – a Loa (or spirit) of Haitian Vodou faith associated with death and resurrection.

Baron Samedi is the leader of the Barons. He is often shown as a bisexual dandy or occasionally as being transgendered. He wears a top-hat and frock coat along with a women's skirts and shoes. Much of the time he is drinking rum and smoking a large cigar. He has been described as having ‘lascivious movements’ that cross gender boundaries. This is not unusual in Haitian Vodou, as the faith is very open to people of all sexual orientations.

These two flags are made from different-coloured beads and sequins and represent Baron Samedi. The left flag shows a crucifix sitting on top of a coffin with a skull and cross bones in the centre. On one side is a bottle and on the other, a candle. The second flag shows some of the other symbols Baron Samedi is often associated with, such as the playing cards shapes (heart, spade, diamond, and club) and anthropomorphised faces.

Beliefs, mythology and customs brought to Haiti from Africa mixed and fused with Catholic imagery to form the distinctive characteristics of Haitian Vodou we can see on these two crosses made for Baron Samedi. Also, more recent Vodou altars use imagery from the West including Barbie dolls and figures from TV culture to honour the spirits being represented – which might explain the baby dinosaur’s head.

You can see the Vodou shrine in our African Worlds gallery during our Queer Late event.

Art inspiration at the Horniman library

How the Horniman library influences local artists.

For the last 115 years the Horniman Museum library has been a resource for anyone wishing to research subjects related to natural history, anthropology and musical instruments.

This group includes not only academics, curators and students but also gardeners, textile designers, architects and artists. 

One such artist is Ian Robinson who visited the library in 2015 and spent time with some of the older anthropology books in our collection, which had originally belonged to Frederick Horniman. These resulting works were exhibited at the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea earlier this year.

For anyone interested in visiting the library, we are open by appointment on Mondays and Tuesdays, and on the first Sunday of every month (no appointment needed). 

Find out more information about the Horniman library.

More of Ian’s artwork can be viewed on his website.

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.’

Dave Hone is the author of Tyrannosaurus Chronicles published by Bloomsbury.

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.

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