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Wish Full Thinking

In preparation for November's Festival of Lights Late, artist Mary Branson visited the Horniman to record the wishes, hopes and dreams of our staff and visitors.

Mary will use the resulting recordings for her piece 'Wish Full Thinking'. This installation will see hundreds of thousands of specially-prepared white feathers fill the Horniman Conservatory, and visitors invited to walk amongst them while lit with UV light.

The accompanying sound piece will include the many voices captured by Mary at the Horniman, speaking their own wishes, hopes and dreams.

Mary managed to record a range of voices in her afternoon at the museum, including schoolchildren, participants from community groups, general visitors and even some of our staff.

It was wonderful to see the range of wishes expressed, from lengthy monologues and streams of thought to one-liners, from selfless hopes for the happiness for others, to the simple and ubiquitous 'I wish I could fly'.

Listen to the final sound piece amongst the atmospheric setting of Wish Full Thinking in the Horiman Conservatory at Festival of Lights Late, on Thursday 6 November. Tickets are now available online (over 18s only).

A Trip to the Taxidermist

Every now and then some of our handling collection objects need a bit of a spruce up. Maria from our Learning tteam has blogged about taking a few of our taxidermy specimens for some specialist treatment.

One of the things that makes the Horniman so special and enduringly popular with visitors, is that it is one of the few museums where you can actually touch museum objects.

If you’ve ever wondered the exact ratio of bushy to soft in a fox’s tail, (and frankly who hasn’t?) the Horniman is where you can come and find out. We are famous for our Natural History collection and the Nature Base and Hands on Base allow our visitors an opportunity to explore through touch, some of our taxidermy specimens, like those seen behind glass in the gallery.

With hundreds of hands stroking our foxes and badgers, smoothing the plumage of a mallard or two and exploring the knobbly notches of our caiman’s skin, it is little wonder that from time to time we have to spruce up and repair our current specimens, and sometimes even source replacements. While the Horniman has an excellent conservation team on hand, our taxidermy is repaired by a specialist taxidermist offsite.

It was on just such a mission that I found myself and a colleague driving over Battersea Bridge, in the company of not just an A-Z, but with a badger, tawny owl and chicken skeleton in the back. 

Derek Frampton, our taxidermist, can do everything from re-fitting a squirrel’s tail, to ethically sourcing and stuffing a replacement fox for the Handling Collection. He has also been known to spruce up the feathers of an owl, and to make models based on museum specimens and historical records, to recreate extinct species.

Come along to our Sunday Discovery For All sessions to explore some of our taxidermy for yourself, or meet select specimens in the Nature Base.

Conservatory Anniversary

It's one of the Horniman's standout architectural features. So it might surprise some to learn that October 2014 marks just 25 years that the Grade II listed Coombe Cliff Conservatory has stood in our Gardens.

Of course, the Conservatory itself is a lot older than 25 years. It was originally constructed in 1894, at the Horniman family home, Coombe Cliff House, in Croydon.

Conservatories were popular additions to large houses in the 19thcentury, providing shelter and an artificial climate for sensitive plants to flourish. The Coombe Cliff conservatory was constructed Glasgow firm of MacFarlane’s, Scotland at the time a world leader in architectural cast ironwork. The company was well known for its decorative cast iron and had been awarded an International prize at the 1862 International Exhibition.

Coombe Cliffe house had been the home of our founder's parents, and Frederick Horniman's mother lived there until her death in 1900. After being sold in 1903, the house later served as a convalescent home for children, college of art, education centre and teachers' hub.

Over the years, many voices spoke out for the need for preservation of the Coombe Cliff Conservatory, as the house was eventually left abandoned and suffered from neglect. In 1977, the building suffered considerable damage in a fire.

Eventually, it was decided that the best way to preserve this listed building was to dismantle and move it to another location. This work began in 1981, although it would be a few more years before ownership was transferred to the Horniman, and the component parts spent a few years in storage in Crystal Palace Park.

The dismantled Conservatory was eventually moved to the Horniman in 1986, and its reconstruction began in June 1987.

The Coombe Cliff conservatory has impressive dimensions, being 56 ft long, 22 ft wide and 20 ft long.

The ambitious restoration project was completed in 1989, and the Conservatory officially opened in the Horniman Gardens in October of that year.

The cast-iron work-panels, friezes, roof spandrels within and the fish scales, terminals and crestings without, all show the wealth of pattern available from MacFarlane’s. The decoration is ornate but it lightens the effect of the structure and gives it an airy appearance belying the weight of the materials from which is it made.

Today, the Conservatory is home to music, film, dance and poetry performances at many of our special events, provides a stunning setting for our arts and crafts markets, and is available to hire for weddings, civil ceremonies and other special celebrations.

We'd love to hear from anyone who remembers the Gardens before the addition of this fantastic building, or even remembers its reconstruction period. If that's you, and you have any memories to share with us, please get in touch on Twitter or Facebook.

Researching a Congelese Sword: A Student’s Perspective

Each year, University College London's Museum Studies MA programme offers its students a Collections Curatorship course for their second term. This year, Katy Bartosh joined the Ethnography team along with Alkisti Efthymious, Anita Francois and Hsueh-Chin Wang to work on the Horniman's collection under the supervision of Assistant Curator Johanna.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is a veritable treasure trove of cultural artefacts and history, so when Johanna presented us with a choice of three objects we were ecstatic about the possibilities. Ultimately, we chose what had been described as a 'Congolese mansword,' fascinated by the options for research on this unique object.

At first, we didn't know much about the artefact besides the key facts: a Baptist missionary named Reverend Lionel G. West donated the knife to the collection in 1970. It was made in the 1930s with wood, iron and copper, and was attributed to the Mpama tribe.

West had donated this knife with 71 other 'Congo curios' from his personal collection and many were as unique and interesting as the human shaped knife. While these other objects showed us the scope of West's collecting, they didn't tell us anymore about the history and origin of our knife. At this point, we expanded our research.

Our project took us on various adventures. We spent hours at the British Museum's Anthropology Library and Research Centre learning about the evolution of Congolese weaponry. We also studied Congolese cultural practices, symbolism and art to understand the context of the artefact.

Our most exciting journey however was our trip to the Angus Library at Regent's Park College, Oxford, the leading collection of Baptist history and heritage worldwide. We were greeted by librarian Emily Burgoyne who had gathered the entirety of Reverend West's personal papers for us to sort through. Faced with several boxes and thousands of newspaper clippings, papers and records, we set to work to understand more about the man behind the knife and to discover why he had brought it with him on his return to England in the 1960s.

Lionel George West was a Baptist missionary born in Paulton, Somerset on 28 November 1904. After receiving his Baptist training at Rawdon College, he was accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society and sent to Bolobo, Congo in 1930. While conducting missionary work at the station he met Elsie May Palmer, who he would marry three years later. They were both transferred to Lukolela, a small missionary station on the Congo River, where they lived until 1961.

Reverend West was known in the Congo as 'Ebaka,' and he was well regarded by the local population who often sought his guidance and advice. While West and his wife built churches, schools and dispensaries he also acted as an amateur anthropologist, collecting artefacts and studying the culture and customs of the various people.

Interspersed throughout his missionary records we found notes on cultural practices and drawings of tools, animals and plants from the area. West was obviously interested in all aspects of life in Lukolela, not just his missionary work, and the notes he provided about the artefacts he brought back makes the collection even more interesting for the museum.

Reading through his diary and the scrapbooks he kept, we watched as he became accustomed to life in Lukolela and his family grew. We read about the birth of his sons and the milestones in their lives, and the difficulty with which they left the Congo when political tension forced them to leave. It was as if we were with him, in Lukolela, and this personal connection to West brought his collection alive for us.

Before donating his collection to the Horniman the Reverend displayed it in his house, the Bratton Manse in Wiltshire. The Manse was located in the back of the Baptist chapel where West was ministering, and he dedicated a room of his home to his collection of Congolese artefacts. West and his wife had even decorated the curtains with names of Congo towns, maps, local proverbs, and pictures of animals. Reverend West had eagerly explained the stories behind each object to local journalists because for him, the artefacts that he had collected were not just curios, but also mementos of the thirty years that he had spent in Lukolela.

Our research culminated in a report on the artefact's history, production, cultural and historical context, and symbolism. It is a complex object that represents a vast number of histories that extend from Congolese iron working, to the role of British Missionaries in the history of the Congo people.

However, it was the story of the man who received the knife, conserved it, and donated it to the Horniman that connected us with this unique and foreign object. Today, the knife remains in storage, but we hope that in upcoming years it will be put on display so visitors can connect with the story of Reverend Lionel G. West, and learn how a single artefact can represent a diverse, and interesting history.

Communicating through Objects

Every year over 450 people suffer a stroke in Lewisham. The Stroke Association supports stroke survivors to attend weekly support groups where they can develop and practice communication skills and build their confidence. In the past few months, the Stroke Association has partnered with the museum to develop a series of workshops exploring issues relevant to the life of stroke survivors. Our sessions have taken place in the Hands on Base and complemented by a visit to the galleries.

In one particular session we explored the use of sound in non-verbal communication, looking at musical instruments that serve a similar purpose across the world and listening at some recordings, such as click languages from Africa and whistled languagefrom Europe. The group then visited the Music Gallery to draw cross-cultural comparisons.   

Anne Jones, group member at the Stroke Association, has shared some thoughts with us:

I was saying it (the lilting) sounded Irish or Scottish, I did my Scottish accent for the group. When we were children we would go to Scotland on holiday with English accents and by the end of the holiday we would have Scottish accents!

We looked at the music, we looked at instruments and the Horniman staff explained what they were. Then we looked at the music gallery.

We looked at the bagpipes, they were my favourite thing in the gallery.

Learn more about our work with groups like the Stroke Association on our Community Learning pages.

Romanian Layouts

On 4 October, a new exhibition exploring the folk art of Romania will open at the Horniman. The end product, which will be free for all to visit on our Balcony Gallery, is a result of almost two years of hard work by staff across many museum departments.

One of the most exciting stages of this process occurs when the objects chosen by the curator for display are brought out of storage and laid out in the museum in an early mock up of the final exhibition. Staff from all over the museum have a chance to take a look at the planned displays and work out what they need to do to get them ready.

Prior to the physical layout, our Graphic Designer Stew uses database photographs of each object to produce an initial paper layout matching designs by the curator, the precise measurements provided by the Documentation team allowing him to get this as accurate as possible without seeing the real thing.

The chosen objects are then laid out in positions as close to how they will be be displayed as possible on a 2D surface.

The measurements of each display case are marked out with string, so everyone can see clearly how the objects will fit in the space.

Having the real objects laid out is an important step, allowing the curator and Exhibitions team to compare the 2D plan with the real thing, and for our technicians to get a good look at the objects they will have to mount in a 3D display.

Some of the objects in Revisiting Romania provided a challenge for our Technicians, who needed to devise a way to mount large textiles without altering them in any way - meaning creating holes to attach them to walls.

Our Conservation team were on hand to advise on the best way to care for the objects while putting them on display, as well as to pick up on any necessary treatments.

In this case, it became obvious at the layout stage that a belt intended for display was too stiff to be mounted, prompting the Conservation team to step in with a treatment to soften the leather prior to display.

These technical considerations mean there are always small adjustments to be made to the way the objects are positioned.

Once finalised, each part of the layout is carefully photographed so that an up to date plan can be printed for the installation teams can refer back to, and more detailed shots are produced for the technicians to use when building mounts.

The size of some displays requires a high vantage point.

Long arms can be helpful, too.

The photographs and notes made during the layouts help to produce an up-to-date plan, which the installation teams can refer to when getting the objects on display.

To take a look at some of the Revisiting Romania installation in progress, check out our Twitter feed or the #RevisitingRomania hashtag.

The Revisiting Romania exhibition opens on 4 October on the Balcony Gallery. We're celebrating with a weekend of free Romanian-themed entertainment.

Dazzling Dawson's Heights

Local author John Grindrod reflects a little on the East Dulwich estate which dominates the view from the Horniman's Bandstand Terrace.

If you enjoy the view from Horniman Museum Gardens you may have been wondering about those blocks of flats. You know, the staggered brick ones with Wembley on one side, and St Paul’s Cathedral on the other.

This East Dulwich estate of almost 300 flats is called Dawson’s Heights. It was designed by young Scottish architect Kate Macintosh, and built between 1964 and 1972.

Its futuristic ‘streets in the sky’ design and stepped ‘ziggurat’ shape is unique. Kate Macinosh wanted both to echo the shape of the hill rather than build a typical square block here, and to create a landmark, rather like a castle.

Cutbacks at the time meant that all the flats weren’t allowed balconies, but Kate was determined to give each of them some outside space. And so as well as their communal garden she made sure each flat has a fire escape – which, for some, sneakily doubles as a balcony too.

Some people might begrudge Dawson’s Heights’ place on the horizon, but I love it. Not only is it a monument to space-age sixties cool, it’s a reminder of a time before London became such an expensive city to live in, and when the council were still trying to build affordable, imaginative and good quality homes for everyone.

To find out more about Dawson’s Heights I’d recommend tracking down the film Utopia London. You can find out more about Dawson's Heights on the Utopia London website.

John Grindrod is a Forest Hill local and author of the book Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain.

An Edwardian Play Day

Play Day is the national day for play in the UK, when thousands of children and their families get to play at hundreds of community events across the UK, including at the Horniman. This year, the Horniman's Play Day took on an Edwardian theme as part of our Big Wednesday series, and our Gardens were filled with an extravaganza of Edwardian games and entertainment.

The traditional Edwardian games were very popular, with kids trying their hand at Hoop and Stick, sack racing, skittles, giant pick-up-sticks (Mikado). 

The Giant Zoetrope by Matthew Kay and Heather Jones attracted many amateur animators creating cartoons and spinning them in the zoetrope in the display gardens.

You can see some of their work in this short film:

The Giant Zoetrope by Matthew Kay and Heather Jones @ the Horniman, London 2014 from matthew james Kay on Vimeo.

The day's star attraction was Sir Leopold Aleksander, otherwise known as The Mighty Moustache, Edwardian Strongman wowing the crowds with his ability to bend metal, smash watermelons and lift grown adults with ease.

As well as this raft of Edwardian entertainment children could get hands-on with some world games in the Hands on Base, follow the Selfish Giant story trail by Edwardian author Oscar Wilde, and get up close with some wildlife in our wildlife garden.

Play Day happens every year on the first Wednesday in August so we are looking forward to next year’s event on 5 August 2015. Visit the Play Day website for more information.

A Chung Tai Shan Visit

As part of the Collections People Stories our Anthropology team have been hosting various expert groups on visits to the Museum and our stored collections to help us learn more about the objects and share them with their source communities. Assistant Curator Tom has updated us on the latest.

Back in August we were honoured to host a visit from a group of monks and nuns, adherents of Taiwan’s Chung Tai Shan Monastery.

It was a very busy day at the museum and the group attracted quite a lot of attention in their elegant brown robes. At the reception, where we arranged to meet the group, things were particularly hectic, but the maelstrom of shouting children and harassed parents didn’t seem to faze our visitors. Instead they appeared to be pleased by their surroundings, responding to gawping faces with polite nods and benevolent smiles. One nun said to me - just audible over the din - “Here is a paradise for children”.

Our visitors, as well as being practicing monks and nuns held positions in the administration of Taiwan’s enormous Chung Tai Shan Monastery - home to over 1,500 resident devotees - or were involved in the running of the monastery’s daughter establishments, which are located at sites all over the world. Chung Tai Shan Monastery has a museum attached to it with an impressive collection of Buddhist objects and our visitors included the museum’s director, a curator, an exhibition designer and a conservator.

Faced with such an impressive array of expertise we did our best to show the group a representative selection of the different types of work undertaken by the Horniman. Their tour took in the curatorial, conservation and learning departments.

In Conservation, they were able to take a close look at a collection of Tibetan figures recently treated by the department.

While the team working on our upcoming exhibition, Romania Revisited, were able to give some insight into how the displays were developed behind the scenes.

We also took the visitors up to the Animal Walk to admire the baby alpaca. It was an inspired idea, the alpacas were a hit and the group even came up with a strong contender for the newborn’s name: Chuan Yang (傳羊) a title which combines Chinese for ‘sheep’ with the potential for eventual reincarnation as a Buddha.

Find out more about how the Horniman's Anthropology team are working to better understand our collections and share them with other groups on the Collections People Stories project pages.

Busy with Busy Bees

Busy Bees, our lively sessions for under-5s, are returning next week and it's important time for the Horniman's Learning team. Aaron, one of the Horniman's Learning Assistants, reflects on what everyone has gained from this regular event over the years.

Being a Learning Assistant for the Horniman Learning team is necessarily a hectic and unruly role, supporting across schools, community learning and volunteering sections. Change is as good as a rest they say but in our ever-developing department the familiar becomes endearing and is one of the reasons that our long-running Busy Bees sessions are a highlight in my otherwise hectic week.

We work with a wonderful team of storytellers, who are also authors, musicians and performers, and they have gathered a dedicated regular following and continue to surprise first timers. It has been a real pleasure to get to know some of our parents and watch their children grow up attending Busy Bees sessions over the years.

Everyone who comes has a great time whether they are under 5 or much much older, here is what they have told us recently:

Fantastic session for mixed age children – baby and toddler – feel so welcome, comfortable and entertained (and educated!) Thank – you.

Such an awesome resource! My eldest loves it – the songs and participation are just excellent

We love the busy bees sessions. I have been bringing my son since he was 8months old – he .... still gets joy from busy bees along with his 4year old sister. Great interactive sessions.

The girls and I always love busy bees, it’s always really engaging and fun for the girls... They  thoroughly enjoy the session as they re-enact  parts of the story they’ve heard afterwards. Thanks!

One of the strengths of this programme is how flexible it is but, as with all regular activities, it can be subject to changes so do please check the website for timings. Also, although we do not encourage early queuing with early years children, if you want to attend the first session you will still need to arrive fairly promptly to get a ticket.

The new season of Busy Bees gets underway on Tuesday 16 September with 3 sessions held every Tuesday and Wednesday (with some exceptions). Check the event page for more details.

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