[Skip to content] [Skip to main navigation] [Skip to user navigation] [Skip to global search] [Accessibility information] [Contact us]

Previous Next
of 324 items

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The British Library has put together a new exhibition on the power of the word – written, spoken and sung – in West Africa, and the Horniman has contributed by lending items from both the Anthropology and Musical Instruments collections.

The exhibition opened to coincide with Black History month earlier this year, and is exploring a range of fascinating stories from the region’s 17 nations. Focusing on West African history, life and culture over the last three centuries, it covers from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to the cultural dynamism of West Africa today.

Using a range of collections they have looked at text, story and writing and how words can be used to build and change societies, to challenge and resist, and sustain life and dignity. The exhibition highlights the rich manuscript heritage of West Africa and the coming of printing, as well as oral genres, past and modern.

The Horniman has loaned a talking drum and lamellaphone from our Musical Instruments collection and a Bwa plank mask, Gelede mask and divination board from our Anthropology collection to help bring the printed and written works to life.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is on at the British Library until Tue 16 Feb 2016

Peoplescape Theatre at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

This week at the Horniman we saw the final performance of Tom’s Ship of Stories by Peoplescape Theatre. This interactive theatre show is the culmination of a project which has been running for over a year. 

Peoplescape Theatre, in conjunction with the Horniman, Cutty Sark and National Maritime Museum have worked with SEN Primary Schools local to each museum to create a story inspired by their collections. 

Outreach workshops in Brent Knoll, Willowdene & Stephen Hawkins schools, gave pupils the opportunity to create the story, decide on the characters and develop the plot.  Peoplescape then helped develop this into an interactive performance. 

There were opportunities for all to take part; scrubbing the decks and singing shanties, helping Tom overcome some troubles on his travels and multi-sensory experiences for the audience to enjoy; such as smelling tea leaves and feeling cherry blossom petals fall from the sky!

Local SEN Primary Schools had the opportunity to come and enjoy one of 5 free performances at the Horniman. The legacy of this partnership will be the creation of a new facilitated schools session for SEN schools.

Secrets from Olympus

Ancient Greece is perhaps one of the most famous periods of human history. The gods and goddesses of mythology are passed on to us through story telling, museums and some frankly awful (and some amazing) films.

With our Secret Late event this week it got me thinking about how much we actually know about these gods, and what secrets they had. Not everything is well documented and known, in fact some of those devious gods seem to have had a few secrets of their own...


Aphrodite, the foam born Goddess of Love, is one of the oldest gods from the Greek pantheon. She is married to the god Hephaestus, but they didn't exactly have the most stable of marriages.

Aphrodite with her son, the winged Eros

In fact, Aphrodite kept many secrets from her husband and had affairs with other gods such as: Poseidon, god of the sea, Dionysos, the god of wine and Nerites a sea god who she turned into a clam when he refused to leave the sea for her.

Her long relationship with Aries, the War God, was her most famous clandenstine affair, and is even mentioned in Homer's Odyssey. Despite all her cunning, she wasn't the best at keeping secrets and inevitably her husband would find out.

Demeter and the Eleusinian Mysteries

Demeter is a personal favourite of mine, she is the mother of Persephone who was kidnapped by the god of the underworld but is eventually returned after sixth months. Demeter's changing mood at having her daughter with her were believed to influence the seasonal change.

Teracottas like this may depict the goddess Demeter

The Eleusinian mysteries were a cult honouring Demeter, but the activities were a secret and never written down. Only initiates to the cult knew what was hidden within the kiste (a scared chest) and kalathos (basket), I'm guessing something shiny.


Ok not Ancient Greek (originally a Persian deity renamed Mithras in Greek), but the cult of Mithras is perhaps one of the most famous secrets from the Ancient World.

This replica Greek cup represents a bull, a popular motif with the Greek god Zeus and the illusive Mithras.

Like the Eleusinian Mysteries this was Mystery Religion, meaning only the initiates knew what happened inside the temples. Mithras was popular with the Roman military, although he is a far older god, and often features Tauroctony, which means a bull slaying scene. No one really knows what this scene might mean, the bull is probably a sacrifice, perhaps he represents the Greek god Zeus and marks the end of the old rule and a celebration of the new Roman Empire, or perhaps it links to a Zoroastrian myth with a similar story?

We will probably never unfathom these secrets, and I for one love that!

If you fancy sharing in some secrets with us this week, be sure to pop along to our Secret Late this Thursday evening.

Conservation of a trailing feather war bonnet

Hello! My name is Sarah, and I am the new student placement in Conservation. I have recently been spending a lot of my time treating a trailing war bonnet used in a Wild West show. You might be wondering what a trailing war bonnet is, well…

A Kiowa tribe war bonnet at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/8375).  Photo by NMAI Photo Services.

A war bonnet is a form of ceremonial headdress worn by men of various Native American and First Nations tribes in the Plains area of the United States and Canada.

Traditionally, each feather was taken from the tail of a golden eagle, and was intended to commemorate an act of bravery performed in the wearer’s life. Sometimes the tips were dyed red to indicate a particularly significant act.

The war bonnet before treatment.  It will be displayed in the redeveloped anthropology gallery.

The war bonnet that I am working on is a replica created as a prop. It was made of white goose feathers that were painted, with red feathers attached to the tips. Despite its beauty from far away, it is quite dirty and requires a lot of work before it can be put on display in the newly redeveloped anthropology galleries.

My current work with the headdress is focused on the condition of the feathers. Some time ago someone tried to make the feathers more stable by putting adhesive on them to keep them from moving. Unfortunately, after all of that time, the adhesive has started to peel off and become dirty.

Before the adhesive was removed from the feather (above) and after (below).

Sometimes this happens in conservation. Conservators can’t see into the future, and sometimes unexpected things happen to objects that we were unable to foresee. It can be a challenge, but we try to keep a close eye on our objects to minimize that risk.

Removing adhesive off of the inside of a feather using a homemade cotton swab.

My job now is to remove all of the dirty, peeling adhesive so that the feathers are in a more stable state. This involves me using a cotton swab (I make my own!) dipped in solvent, and gently rolling it over the surface of the adhesive until it lifts away.
It takes a long time! So far, I’ve spent 14 hours delicately taking off the adhesive, and I’m not done yet! But the end result looks much better than before treatment, and the feathers are in much better shape.

After I have finished removing the adhesive, I will be repairing some of the feathers that have been bent or broken, and cleaning the dirt that has collected on the feathers over time.


Photography on a Large Scale

One of the aims of the Collections People Stories project is to properly image and accurately document a much larger part of our Anthropology collections than has ever been done before. While most of our objects are fairly small, the size of some objects offer some extra challenges.

In June 2014, I started planning for the “Long Object Photography” Project, which was about photographing very long objects from our Anthropology collection as part of the Collection People Stories Project that had been running since June 2012.

The objects to be photographed by me and reviewed by the CPS teams were mainly canoes, some of them up to 7.5metres long. Some of these object had no record shots or if they had they were not good enough for a documentation point of view.

The main issue was space: where to photograph such long objects? Our studio space wouldn’t be big enough so my first idea was to photograph them outside but in order to do so we would need to build a marquee to protect the objects from the environment.

After a lot of discussions and visits from specialist art movers we realised that the biggest canoe would only come out of its storage if the entire shelf surrounding it came apart and for that to happen we would need to make a lot of space beforehand, breaking down other shelves around it.

Once this was agreed, I then reassessed the area and came up with an indoors solution for the photography set up, which not only would allow the objects to be in a safer environment but also meant we would spend much less on hiring the marquee. This new solution meant that all the electric cables and wires attached to the photographic equipment would be hanging from the ceiling, meaning a much safer working condition for all the staff needed to make this project happen.

On 24th November, the specialist art movers arrived and started breaking down Hall 1 at SCC – the Horniman Museum storage area where the canoes are located – and leaving the canoes ready for the conservators to clean them.

On the 5th December we started the photography – which was like being in a film set, with lots of people around where each had their own role and just had to be waiting to get in action when needed. By the end of the week we had managed to photograph and review the objects and on the following week the art movers put everything back in place.

I also made a time-lapse of the whole process, so you can have a taste of how it all worked out. A bit of a behind the scene!

 You can find out more about our behind the scenes work at our event Secret Late.

Behind closed doors...

We take a look at some of our museum's buildings, which will be part of our Secret Late's behind the scenes tour.

Our famous clocktower and building that faces London Road was built in 1898, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend. In addition to the Horniman, Townsend also designed the Whitechapel Gallery and Bishopsgate Institute.

Townsend's clocktower

The clock tower's jolly yellowish colour comes from the Doulting stone used to make it. This iconic limestone comes from the Doulting Stone Quarry in Somerset and is one of the oldest quarries in England, having been used during the Roman occupation of Britain.

Our African Worlds gallery as well as the South Hall gallery with our temporary exhibitions Revisiting Romania and Project Tobong are in the original museum building, but the displays are very different from the originals.

An archive photo of Emslie's lecture theatre and the old library

In 1912, Frederick Horniman's son, Emslie, funded the building of a new lecture theatre and library at the museum which were added next to the 19th century building.

Since Emslie's additions we have gradually added to the original site, or had restoration work on our original features. The iconic Bandstand, also a Townsend design, is over 100 years old and enjoyed a renovation of its oak floor and weather vane as part of our large redevelopment of the gardens in 2012.

A band playing on our Bandstand in 1943

Now, the Bandstand hosts our summer concerts, storytelling and is a popular wedding venue location thanks to its magnificent view over South London and the South Downs.

As part of our Secret Late event in November you will be able to get behind the scenes in some of our galleries and displays. I'd love to tell you where you will be exploring, but that would ruin the Secret!

What Horniman secrets will you discover?

From exhibition layouts, to collections care, aquarium research to music, lots goes on behind the scenes here at the Horniman, so be sure to join us next Thursday for our Secret Late, but don't tell anyone...



Enter a European Design Challenge

Calling all designers, makers, creatives and crafts-people! Have you ever been inspired while visiting a museum?

The Horniman is a partner in a Europe-wide project called Europeanan Food and Drink. It aims to create exciting products inspired by Europe's rich food and drink heritage.

Our recently launched web app Tea Trail London is our contribution to the project.

The project has recently launched a product design challenge with two prizes of €2,000.

Explore food and drink related collections (like those above) in Europeana and also on the Horniman site.

Use the inspiration you find there to design a 2D or 3D product - it could be product packaging, towls or tiles or something we've not thought about so far. The two winners (one for 2D and one for 3D) will receive €2,000 which will be presented at a Challenge Event in January in Seville, Spain.

To enter, make a short video explaining your product idea.

The closing date for entries is 20 December 2015. There is lots more information on the Europeana Food and Drink website

We'd love to see your ideas. If you have any questions, feel free to tweet us or Europeana Food and Drink.


Protective charms and scary curses

We had some visitors to the stores today; the son and grandson of Rev. Lionel Weeks who is one of my favourite collectors. He was a Baptist missionary in the Democratic Republic of Congo and particularly interested in local magic, or ju-ju as he called it.

A charm protecting you against lightning 

We have 5 whole boxes of magic from him, including charms to protect you from lightning, to make people forget debts that are owed, and to help with fertility. We even have a pretty odd looking ‘witch stick’.

Remind your friends to pay you back!

This charm helps you with fertility

It’s certainly the weirdest wand I have ever seen.

What an odd witch stick...

As we stood there poking about, it dawned on me that we were in fact surrounded by magic from all over the world, and not all of it friendly. I knew that two aisles down to the left sat a small Congolese Nkisi with the power to run about at night and give you a nasty disease should you offend it.

A Congolese Nkisi


Rev. West’s son, Arthur, was standing right in front of a shelf where I’d recently stumbled across a Sierra Leonean staff covered in human jawbones and a few rows down was an Ecuadorian shrunken head, or Tsansta, which is so dangerous it was recently described as being akin to a hand-grenade in the wrong hands.

A Sierra Leonean staff

As Rev. West’s Grandson, Richard, inspected a large Congolese knife, all I could think of was the Tibetan T'un-rva ram’s horn that is filled with magical substances and can be hurled at an enemy with disastrous effect.

A witch bottle

I began to freak out a little bit. But then I remembered that three aisles to the right, on the bottom shelf, in a small cardboard box and wrapped in many layers of acid free tissue paper, sat a tiny witch bottle. According to the label, its careful use can cause a witch with bad intentions to wee uncontrollably until she repents. It made me feel much, much better.

So magic comes in bad or good, and isn't that what Halloween is all about?

A Horniman Halloween

We have our Halloween Fair this weekend which features animal handling, spooky stories and a costume parade. Stuck for costume ideas? We have drawn inspiration from our collections to suggest some scary Halloween costumes.


OK, not very original but an easy costume, bed sheet over your head, two eye holes and you're ready to go.

This scene shows a kabuki actor bowing infront of King Enni, who reigns over the afterlife, behind the king float some translucent spirits or ghosts to get your creative juices flowing. Ancestor veneration is prevalent in many Japanese beliefs, but may relate to the Chinese philosopher Confusicus' ideas of filial piety (children respecting their parents). 


Twlight, Underworld and The Howling etc. all feature savage and bloodthirsty forms of werewolf and wolf making them a suitably scary Halloween costume. However, not all cultures feared wolves, for example Romans reverred wolves. According to myth (and history-ish), Rome was founded by Romulus. He and his twin were half divine but were abandoned at birth on the banks of the river Tiber. Fortunately, they were found by a wolf, who raised them as her own.

See, wolves aren't all bad.


You may need a friend to give you a lift or a small step ladder for an effective costume. Giants have been prevalent in mythology for millenia, this front piece comes from one such legend: the story of Jack the Giant Killer.

The earliest known publication of 'Jack' comes from 1711, and ours was published about a hundred years later. Also in this book is an edition of 'The Book of Wild Beasts' and 'Bluebeard'. There's another great costume idea, a pirate, or why not a giant pirate?


Quite frankly I don't find bats scary at all, and would quite happily have one with me at all times. From blood sucking vampires to massive Flying Foxes, bats have become the poster boy for halloween. Their vampire legacy and history is also inherent in their latin name: Pteropus vampyrus.

This playing card shows a 'Flying-dog' bat, presumably a term for the 'Flying-fox' which is the largest species of bat - actually known as Megabats!

Whether you can make a costume or not, feel free to come along and enjoy our fair, activities and museum this weekend at our Halloween Fair.

About the Art: Helen Marshall

We chatted with Helen Marshall, one of the artists who co-created our new exhibition: Project Tobong, which includes the stunning photograph, 'Airport'.

How did the collaboration for Project Tobong come about?

This was a very personal project for me, I met Risang whilst on holiday in Indonesia and he introduced me to Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya, from this chance encounter came this wonderful story.

What is the meaning behind this photo?

The point of this exhibition, or one of them, is for you to make up your own story; there's no one way of interpreting these images. 'Airport' makes you think of beginning and end, old and new. This is a rapidly changing city, with new stories constantly being made, hence why there's no one narrative to follow.

Many viewers do think of the AirAsia crash which happened after this photograph was taken. It didn't inspire the shot, but it has now become part of the story if that's what it evokes for you. There are all sorts of questions in the image to make your own story

How did the composition for Airport come about?

Risang and I often take shots at the same time so we can then select the best ones to use. We also collaborated on the ideas, settings and poses. This one was more my idea as I was inspired by the airport and how close you could get to the planes; it's totally different to an airport in the UK.

Project Tobong also features images and materials from our archive and objects from our collections.

How long did you have to wait for the shot?

Long! It was very hot and uncomfortable and we kept trying different things, with the bow pointing different ways, waiting for the plane.

“We worked with imaginations, costumes and place to tell the stories”

Project Tobong is open and free to visit in the South Hall Balcony, more information on the project can be found here.

Previous Next
of 324 items