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Volunteer Rocks

We’ve previously blogged about preparations to uncover our fossil collection in a new display, but selecting the specimens that will go on show has only been made possible by the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Steve Smith has been volunteering at our Study Collections Centre for over three years, working on over a hundred thousand fossils in an extraordinary hidden collection.

In 2011, I attended a visit to the Horniman Museum and Gardens organised by the Open University to see the fossil collection on display in the balcony and the mineral and rock collection in a side room. We were met by Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo Viscardi, who introduced us to the Geology collection. I had recently retired from lecturing in Electronics and had only a scant memory of the geology degree I did many years ago, but the visit re-vamped my earlier interest, so I asked Paolo, quite innocently, whether there might be a need for a volunteer to document any of the fossil specimens not on display. He told me that the museum catalogue was incomplete for a separate fossil collection held in store. Maybe there was a chance for me.

The museum initiation process was extensive. Before starting, there were many training programmes to be done including an introduction to the main collections and displays, health & safety, and correct specimen handling. I was particularly interested in the introduction to the musical instrument display, having been a professional drummer years before. But my work was not to be at the museum; I would be situated at the offsite Study Collections Centre (SCC) instead.

Paolo showed me the fossil collection I would be working on, which houses a jaw-dropping 175,000 specimens in over 600 drawers, trays and boxes. All of this in two tiny dehumidified basement rooms. This was to be my work area, once a week, for quite some time.

This massive collection of fossils was acquired by the museum on 1 February 1989 from the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. The original collector, Walter H. Bennett was a mining geologist who collected fossils from world-wide locations, but mostly from the UK. Many fossils are in an excellent condition showing much fascinating detail and may be comparable to some in the national collections.

The notes given in the existing database for this collection were inadequate; often naming just the group of animals the specimen came from, together with some place names and the geological age. In some cases there was no information at all.

We made a working copy of the database in a spreadsheet so that I could easily add to or correct any wrong entries. Working through the collection, I found many items with only a collection location and so had to assess the animal group (phylum) and, if possible, order or family so we knew which species were represented.

At first, the task was daunting, but each new drawer opened up a new set of ancient life-forms with their own characteristics. Some drawers have over 50 items in tiny snap bags to be prised open so the label can be read. This tested my patience.

There are pieces of black shale with stringy marks on them resembling razor-edged wire called graptolites.

As well as trilobites, both whole and in fragments.

There were also ammonites and shell fish of every description.

One drawer is full of samples from the Jurassic Solnhofen Limestone with insects, fish and ancient lobster impressions.

Another drawer has fossils from the Cambrian Age Burgess Shale, giving an insight into the very beginnings of more complex animal life-forms on Earth.

The aim of this work is to complete the documentation as far as possible, so this large fossil collection appears correctly on the museum database and is available, with photographs, for anyone doing research or merely having an interest in fossils and their evolution.

Collections such as this have been important in helping us understand the evolution of animals on Earth and the changing environmental conditions in which they died out or survived. They enable us to link rocks from various world-wide outcrops to their former locations before ancient continents broke up and drifted apart, and provide evidence for past mass extinctions. For example, we know know one such event, the Permo-Trias, left only 4% remaining from the previous animal populations: all current life has descended from that 4%!

New discoveries each year further extend our knowledge of earth’s remarkable history. And who knows, while pushing the frontiers of knowledge ever forward, I may even get to blast away on some drums in the collection. Maybe form a new band – playing rock, of course!

Adventures in the Costume Stores

Jack Davy is part of the Horniman's Collections People Stories team, working to carry out a review of our vast and varied Anthropology collections. Here, he explains the importance of photographing objects and uncovers some gems from the stores.

Over the last few months, as part of the Collections People Stories project, I have been working one day a week at the Horniman stores on the collections of European and Asian costume.

The Horniman has an enormous, diverse and fascinating collection of clothing and textiles from all over the world. Many of these objects are inherently fragile and therefore can only be put on display for short periods of time.

Thankfully, modern technology allows for much greater interaction between the public and these delicate objects, many of which are accompanied by stories of travel, adventure and ingenuity.

This is where I come in.

My role involved taking photographs of costume that can be used to provide a record of the object at a particular point in time. This is useful for a number of reasons:

  • It enables the museum’s curators to send images to experts (many living in far-flung places), who can provide detailed feedback on the costumes. Then these objects can be incorporated into wider narratives of human society that underpin the study and display of anthropology at the museum.
  • These photos will help the museum’s conservation team in the future to compare the photographs to the objects checking for any deterioration or damage over time- a constant concern with these kind of fragile objects.
  • It enables the general public, whether expert or not, to view and interact with these collections remotely.

Both the European and Asian costume collections at the Horniman are remarkably strong, including a diverse array of clothing worn at important festivals and feast days.

If you are interested in learning more, why not explore the Horniman's collections online to discover thousands of objects already reviewed, and let us know what you think. You can also get in touch with the project team on Twitter.

Earl, his stroke and visiting the Horniman

The Horniman regularly hosts visits from the Stroke Association, enabling stroke surviviors and their families to meet and explore the collections. Earl Bent has written a little about his visits to the museum and how they have aided in his recovery.

After having a stroke in December 2013, I spent 2 weeks in the Kings College Hospital Stroke Unit, followed by 6 weeks of occupational therapy home visits to help me regain the use of my right side and my speech. I was visited by Annette Carty who explained the various services offered by the Stroke Association. We spoke about furthering my communication skills which lead to me being introduced to Rachel Morrison who is the Communication Support Coordinator for Lewisham.

One of the services which sounded interesting to me was the communication group that meets on the last Thursday of every month at the world famous Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill, South London.

With trepidation and great anxiety I attended my first meeting. Within the first fifteen minutes, the group along with Rachel made me realise that my initial feelings were not warranted. Although in my personal life I have great support, it was nice to be surrounded by people that have a greater and personal understanding of the impact a stroke has on your life and many issues faced whilst trying to overcome it.

The first meeting consisted of a slow but steady walk around the Horniman Gardens where we looked at and identified the various groups of plants. My personal favourite was the Mint Chocolate Tree! After the walk, we all returned to a room where a lively discussion was had.

The second meeting I attended was about musical instruments and objects pertaining to communication throughout the ages. This included a visit to Music Gallery which houses a vast array of musical instruments. Some were odd looking, some fantastical and some were outright amazing.

My next meeting with the group was to the superb aquarium at the museum.  By now I had found that the partnership between the Stroke Association and the Horniman is of great benefit to Stroke survivors, their families and volunteers. It was because of this that although I did not always feel up to the journey, I pushed myself to attend.

The fourth meeting I attended, the group learnt about the art of communication through gesture and subtle nuances of movement in the body. We were thoroughly entertained by a Lady named Francesca, who is a trained Performing Artist and we looked at various masks and the roles they play in communication in societies. I was paired with Claudette, a fellow stroke survivor, and together we performed a short non-verbal set depicting 3 main gestures: shock, understanding & laughter.

I find myself looking forward to each and every meeting and disappointed when it is over in what seems like no time at all.

Who would have thought that when Frederick Horniman gave the museum to the people of London in 1901 it would become an aid to help in the recovery of stroke survivors.

I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt, that if not for the marriage between the Stroke Association and the Horniman, I would not be able to share this with you!

Uncovering our Fossil Collection

Preparations for new displays in our Natural History Gallery are well underway, and it's time for the team to get together and plan a section which will bring more of the Horniman's wonderful collection of fossils out of storage.

We've blogged about the layout stage before: it's an important step in the development of any display, allowing curators, conservators, designers, technicians and other staff to get together and discuss the finer points of how objects will be installed in the gallery.

Again, the space available in the display cases is carefully marked out, so the exact position of the objects and text panels can be planned.

Many factors need to be considered while planning a new display, meaning that not all final decisions can be taken by curators in advance.

With specimens as large and heavy as some of our ammonites, mounting them safely will be a bit of a challenge for our technicians. Not only will they need to be fastened securely, their size means the shadows they cast on other parts of the display needs to be carefully considered.

Our curators Paolo and Jo needed to make changes to the object choices based on the exhibition team's (and occasionally everyone else's) feedback.

Some hard choices are often made at this stage. This trilobite, despite being declared 'adorable' didn't make the final cut.

The remaining objects are then adjusted to best fit the space and convey information in the clearest way possible.

Once everyone is happy with this first 'draft', each object is given a clear number label which will be visible in layout photographs, so that everyone working on the display can refer back to them and identify even the smallest objects.

Our Conservation team were in attendence too, picking up on which objects need to be treated before going on display. This cut ammonite will need its old education labels removed.

The new Natural History Gallery displays will be ready in March 2015. Be sure to come along and see what treasures have been revealed.

Sam Loves Horniman

Sam and his family are regular visitors to the Horniman. His mum Jess has written a piece for us explaining why Sam especially loves our storytelling sessions and what keeps them coming back.

My son Sam loves visiting the Horniman. Sam is almost five years old, enjoys stories and is bright. He is also physically disabled, uses a wheelchair and is unable to talk.

It is often hard to find places of interest to Sam, and then to access them with him. It can sometimes be difficult to physically get in to the building or to get Sam close to an exhibit that is high up. For a child who struggles to use his hands, some interactive exhibits can be frustrating and boring.

The Horniman is a rare exception. We discovered 'A World of Stories' events at the museum when Sam was two and have been going regularly ever since. Each Sunday, a storyteller chooses an item from the museum's collection and uses it as the basis for a story. They are often folktales involving animals and distant lands: 'How the lion got his roar' and other exciting adventures.

Children sit on the floor to gather around the storyteller, meaning that Sam can see from his wheelchair. What he really enjoys in a story is lots of drama and a lively telling, and the tales here never disappoint. While Sam is unable to talk, his chuckles make obvious his enjoyment. Some children lose concentration but Sam is totally focused and is often the child laughing loudest and longest.

The only low point is at the end of the session, when Sam often feels sad at the end of the stories. Fortunately, there are lots of other things he finds interesting at the museum, and the whole building is easily navigable with a wheelchair.

He finds the aquarium fascinating and loves to get up close to the insects and fish, which are low enough for him to see from his chair.

He can also use some of the hands-on instruments in the music room and is also able to play the outdoor instruments with a bit of help.

Sam's brother Eli is two and struggles to sit still for but of course there's plenty for him too at the Horniman - particularly stuffed monkeys (his favourite animal) and live crabs.

Read more about Sam's life at Jessica's website, storieswithsam.com.

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.

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