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Collecting Carnival in Brazil

Musical Instrument curator Margaret tells us about her recent research trip to Rio de Janeiro to collect instruments relating to carnival (with photographs by Sandra D'Angelo).

In February, I spent time in Rio de Janeiro collecting materials for a new display of instruments, costume and film representing performances of some of the 'blocos' or bands of musicians and dancers, whose lively parades are an integral part of the street life of the city during carnival.

Filming focussed on the samba baterias, with percussionists who play a variety of drums, together with rattles and agogo bells.

They parade behind the dancers and in front of the 'camion', a lorry equipped with a sound system to amplify the voices of the singers, and the sounds of the plucked stringed and other instruments that are played by musicians standing on its roof.

The streets are usually closed for these events, and in the case of the parade of Monobloco, whose instruments will be shown in the exhibition, one of the city's main arterial roads, Avenida Presidente Vargas, was shut down to accommodate not just the large bloco, but also the million strong army of fans who followed the parade.  

Twitter Museum Week 2015

Next week, the Horniman will join museums and galleries from across the UK and Europe for the second Twitter #MuseumWeek.

#MuseumWeek will take place from Monday 23 March to Sunday 29 March.

Museums will be tweeting using the #MuseumWeek hashtag, telling stories about their collections, exhibitions and events and showing what goes on behind the scenes.

The project will see museums tweet using a different theme and hashtag for each day of the week - with everyone else getting involved too. 

  • On Monday 23, we'll be tweeting the secrets of the musuem using #secretsMW. 
  • For the #souvenirsMW in Tuesday 24 March, we'll tell you about our gifts and ask you to tell us your favourite souvenirs. 
  • On Wednesday 25 March, we'll turn our attention to buildings with the #architectureMW hashtag.
  • On  Thursday 26 March, we'll be showing art inspired by the Horniman and our collections and asking you to share yiurs with the hashtag #inspirationMW
  • Friday 27 March is all about #familyMW - lots about families in our collections or visiting the Horniman. 
  • On Saturday 28 March, we'll be asking you to tweet the favourite thing you have seen in the Horniman using #favMW
  • Finally, on Sunday 29 March, we want to see your photos posing like our objects -  using #poseMW

You can follow the Horniman's #MuseumWeek activity by signing up to Twitter and following us @HornimanMuseum

Crossing Borders 2015: local communities come together at the Horniman

Joanna Slusarczyk and Lucia Cortelli tell us about Crossing Borders, an event at the Horniman bringing together local communities.

On Saturday 7th February, the Horniman hosted an event bringing together local community groups of newly-arrived migrants and refugees.

We were asked to volunteer on that day and decided to join in.

We became volunteers at the Horniman to learn how a museum engages its audience and local communities with its vast collection. It was also relevant to our studies at UCL in Anthropology and Museum and Gallery Education.

We had never volunteered on a Crossing Borders event and we were looking forward to working with the members of the many associations involved.

In fact, Crossing Borders began in 2003 and has grown each year due to the increasing participation of local community groups working with refugees and asylum seekers. This year the event included a wide range of exciting activities, from storytelling to live theatre performances.

Upon our arrival at the museum, other volunteers and member of staff were already decorating the galleries with bunting created by the collaboration between the Youth panel and new arrivals at Pan-Intercultural Arts as well as shopping bags created by families of the Indoamerican Refugee Migrant Organisation and the family learning team.

In the conservatory, others were setting up the tables for the food to be served at lunchtime, free of charge to all participating community groups.

Before the opening time, we helped the members of Streatham Women’s Sewing Group transforming Gallery Square with a giant colourful dress, which provided inspiration for the family activity. The dress was a collaborative artwork conceived by artist Fion Gunn and craftswoman Ifrah Odawa and was inspired by personal memories of how important life occasions were marked by different dressed in the lives of the members' mothers.

The activity was to design and make your own outfit using colourful fabrics, the finished designs were displayed on the wall in the museum. Gallery Square was busy with families creating artworks and enjoying the social and inclusive atmosphere, our group of volunteers was trying to help with the activity and make a contribution to the smooth running of all the events.

Later, Gallery Square was reshuffled into a performance space for the Paper Project at the Oval House Theatre. These artists from different cultural backgrounds performed an experimental piece of theatre called "I Was a Child Somewhere Else", demonstrating the journey from childhood to adulthood.

They used a series of symbolic props such as egg shells and odd shoes to demonstrate the journeys undertaken by many people who wish to build a new life for themselves in a new country. The performance was dedicated to the undocumented children living in the UK who are precluded university or a career.

The audience waited in anticipation for the other performance, which occurred later in the afternoon. Fairbeats!, together with families from Action for Refugees in Lewisham, sang lyrics they had written themselves, in an energized and exciting song sharing performance.

In the meanwhile, in the Hands on Base there was a screening of Seeking Refuge. This is a series of animated films created by Mosaics Films for the BBC. Director Andy Glynne says the aims of the films are clear: "At the very least I hope that it increases awareness within children," he says. "It's about showing engagement, empathy and understanding of what it's like for people who are fleeing their own homelands because of persecution."

In the same room, films were alternated with storytelling. Sally Pomme Clayton led interactive storytelling sessions with visitors and members of the Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers. Using pictures taken by the participants of an ongoing photography project, the story teller engaged members of the public to tell their own stories using the photographs as well as to listen to stories from different cultures.

Visitors to the museum thoroughly enjoyed the event and all activities on the day were welcomed with enthusiasm. A local grandmother who attended the event told us that the Horniman is brilliant for community events because it brings people from different backgrounds together. As volunteers we also enjoyed taking active part in this event and witnessing the exchanges and encounters that took place on the day in a spirit of inclusion and openness.

 

To QR code or not to QR code?

New displays opened in our Natural History Gallery this week, exploring our fascination with nature over centuries and providing an introduction to both our historic Natural History collections and gallery.

While developing the displays, our Keeper of Natural History, Jo Hatton, found that there were some stories she wanted to tell, but just could not fit, like showing the history of the gallery or more of Frederick Horniman's large insect collections.

Additionally, while there is space in the displays for 8 of Edward Hart's cased taxidermy dioramas of British birds, we have more than 250 of these dioramas in our collection - so there is lots more to explore.

We set about thinking about ways we could encourage our visitors to explore and learn more about our collections digitally.

Our website provided us with the tools for that. We have:

But the question remained: how do we encourage visitors to further explore these, either during or after their visit.

We didn't want to put screens into the gallery (they're expensive, they break) and our visitors now come with their own mobile phones, tablets, sometimes even laptops.

There are a number of options we could have used: iBeacons, NFC tags, QR codes or simply a web address.

We quickly decided against iBeacons. The way these send a message to phones in the vicinity felt, to us, to be a little intrusive and unnecessarily disruptive. We also didn't think NFC tags were understood enough.

So we settled on using two options. A short cut web address is printed on panels next to the relevant displays, along with a QR code - with clear info on what the visitor gets by scanning the code.

For years, QR codes (little barcode-like images) have been hailed as a great solution to a problem like this.

Their only downfall (and it's a pretty big one!) is that people do not know what they are, how to use them and, consequently, don't use them. So they can seem more than a little redundant.

QR codes do have some advantages though: they're very cheap to implement (they can be free in fact - except for costs of printing the panel) and we can see how many times they are used. Both of these advantages apply to the printed web addresses too.

So, in addressing a great museum digital debate which has raged for the past few years - to QR code or not? - we've said yes, albeit a little reluctantly.

We're intriged to see how well these will be used - we'll let you know what we find.

Introducing Mark Fairnington

We began a fundraising appeal last week so we could stage an exhibition of Mark Fairnington's art.

We really want to bring Mark's art to the Horniman, as many of his paintings are inspired by our collections.

But in case you don't know him, we thought we should introduce his excellent artworks.

We hope you'll love Mark's art as much as we do - to help us stage his exhibition, visit Art Happens to donate.

 















Help us reveal the Horniman's hidden world

Yesterday, we announced a new fundraising campaign here at the Horniman. Here's our curator Jo Hatton and artist Mark Fairnington to tell you more.

We've teamed up with Art Fund for #arthappens - we want to stage an exhibition here later this year by the artist Mark Fairnington. To do so, we need to raise £9,500 in just eight weeks.

Mark Fairnington has been visiting the Horniman for several years, exploring the secret specimens which we keep in store.

He creates wonderful, slightly unusual paintings which give a glimpse of the animals as they are in store.

We'd love to have an exhibition here of Mark's paintings - but we need to raise the money.

In return for your help, you'll get great rewards - like prints, postcards, tote bags and more - and you'll play your part to fund great art.

 

Researching batik in Java

Last year I was awarded a grant from the Jonathan Ruffer curatorial award scheme, which is administered by the Art Fund, to explore contemporary batik in Java, Indonesia.

Batik is produced by drawing wax onto cloth and then dyeing it, the wax protecting parts of the cloth from the dyes. Repeating the process can produce complicated and sometimes stunning multi-coloured patterns.

The Horniman's batik collections have grown quite a bit recently, but does batik carry the same significance as it did in the past?

My journey started with two of the most famous centres of production, Kedungwuni near Pekalongan and Trusmi near Cirebon on the north coast. Here some of the finest batik is produced, in workshops run by Javanese as well as by Chinese Indonesians. I found that it is still possible to buy batik altar cloths, used in the temples at Chinese New Year.

In Yogyakarta, perhaps nowadays the most famous centre of all, I spent several days filming the batik process, for a possible future exhibition. This included both hand drawn batik and the less painstaking variety where the wax is stamped on by hand. At the Winotosastro workshop conditions are very good, and the batik is produced to a very high standard.

There is a growing market for batik made from natural dyes, so many producers have some examples on display. For ceremonies, though, the actual design is more important than whether the dyes are natural or chemical. Most designs have meanings, and are used for particular occasions. Those associated with weddings and childbirth carry the most significance, and though not everyone knows the meanings, the specialist organisers of such ceremonies always make sure that the right ones are used.

In outlying villages, some batik producers are churning out low quality batik in conditions which leave a great deal to be desired. Workers unprotected from the chemical dyes and dangerous conditions would not meet the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive. The Indonesian government tries had to regulate production, but there is still much to be done.

The last leg of my journey took me to the less well known workshops of Pacitan, Banyumas and Garut. In Banyumas I came across the Hadi Priyanto studio, where some of the most exquisite designs I had come across were being made. Customers come from a long way to purchase cloths from this producer, and examples of their finest work are now finding their way into museums.

Many collections of batik in European museums contain examples where the name of the maker, the name of the design, and most importantly the significance were never recorded.

This trip gave me the opportunity to gather this kind of information so that for any future exhibition at the Horniman we will have all these details at our fingertips, to pass on to visitors wanting to understand the role played by this lovely fabric in Javanese life.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

Although it has been very cold and snowy outside, many people turned up at the annual RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch at the Horniman on January 24 to see what birdlife could be found in our Gardens.

David Darrel-Lambert, our bird expert, was on hand to take guided walks around the garden. So armed with binoculars and cameras, our visitors went twitching.

The count this year was really impressive – over 60 birds were spotted around the gardens! Amongst the more common wood pigeons, magpies and robins, we spotted, goldfinches, woodpeckers, a mistlethrush, nut hatch and even this beautiful kestrel.

As well as spotting birds, we made over 100 pine cone bird feeders to keep the Forest Hill wildlife fed though the cold winter months.

These are really easy to make and are a great nutritious snack for our feathery friends. To make one of our bird feeders, we use pine cones as the base – a great natural treasure!

 

We used lard which is nice and fatty which helps keep birds warm and energised. Peanut butter is a good alternative.

Cover the pine cones in the lard or peanut butter and then dip in bird seed.  The bird seed provides the nutrients.  You can get lots of different bird seed mixes depending on the birds you have in your garden, or you can just use a mixed one suitable for most birds.

Tie a piece of string to the end of the pine cone and you’re ready to hang it up!

We hope you managed to take part in the Big Garden bird Watch too, and if not, then come along next year to take part in 2016!

Full bird count list below:

  • Wood Pigeon 14
  • Magpie 21
  • Song Thrush 1
  • Blue Tit 3
  • Great Tit 6
  • Robin 3
  • Blackbird 1
  • Dunnock 3
  • Chaffinch 1
  • Herring Gull 6
  • Carrion Crow 6
  • Parakeet 5
  • Feral Pigeon 6
  • Coal Tit 1
  • Long-tailed Tit 1
  • Goldfinch -1
  • Wren 1
  • Woodpecker 1
  • Kestrel 1
  • Mistlethrush 1
  • Field Fare 2
  • Nuthatch 2
  • Gold Crest 1

 

 

Superb Owls + Super Bowls

Around SuperBowl Sunday, there is a wonderful social media trend for museums to mark the occasion by sharing either a Super-Bowl or a Superb-Owl from their collections.

We couldn't resist sharing some of ours.

Fossils and Evolution

In our last #FossilFriday post, the Horniman’s Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo took a look at some of the scientific principles used to understand the age of the Earth and the life of the past. This time he takes a look at how fossils have helped our understanding of how life has changed over time.

Once geologists were able to work out the relative age of different rock types they divided them into geological Periods, with names reflecting something characteristic about them. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that the first to be recognised was the Carboniferous – named because of the economically important carbon-rich coal seams found in beds of that age.

But names could also be a reference to where rocks of the type were found: the Devonian is named after Devon. Or they could be a reference to the ancient tribes that lived in those regions: the Ordovician is named after the Celtic tribe of the Ordovices.

You can see examples of British fossils from each of the geological Periods in the cases around the balcony in the Natural History Gallery – each with a map showing where rocks of that age are found.

As more geological Periods were named, they were grouped together into Eras based on the types of organisms preserved as fossils. The oldest rocks with fossils were dominated by the remains of small and quite simple animals, many of which were unlike those alive today. These rocks were placed in an Era called the Palæozoic – the Era of 'Ancient Life'.

Younger rocks that were missing some of the major fossils found in the Palæozoic Era, but which still contained fossils of animals quite different to those seen today, were placed in the Mesozoic – the Era of 'Middle Life'.

Even younger rocks that only contained fossils of animals of a type similar to those found today were grouped into the Cænozoic – the Era of 'New Life'.

In the early 19th Century the different types of life that were seen through time were considered to be links in a 'Great Chain of Being', but how that chain was formed was a mystery. One scientist who tried to explain this chain using natural laws, rather than by assuming the input of a creator, was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.

In 1800 Lamarck suggested that there was a complexifying force (a natural tendency for biological organisms to become more complex due to internal factors) and an adaptive force (use or disuse of characteristics would lead an organism to adapt to its environment).

Lamarck also suggested that animals could pass on the characteristics that they acquired in life to their offspring - for example, by stretching to reach high leaves, he suggested that Giraffes would lengthen their neck and this change would be passed on to the next generation. This theory became known as Lamarckism.

This idea led to the introduction of the term 'Evolution' as we think of it today. Lamarck’s idea didn’t account for what was observed in nature very well, but he did help set the stage for later scientists who proposed new ideas about evolution, including Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.

I’ll say more about their contribution and how Evolution is displayed at the Horniman in my next post.

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