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Specimen of the Month: The White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum)

This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, has the pleasure of telling us all about her favourite odd-toed ungulate, the rhinoceros. 

Oh my goodness gracious, I get to write a blog about rhinos, my absolute favourite animal. Hold on to your hats and don't go anywhere folks, this is going to be exciting. Not only is this the penultimate Specimen of the Month blog to focus on each of the eight species of animal in our incredible Robot Zoo, it also happens to be World Rhino Day!

A feat of engineering 

  • Robot Rhino, The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.
    The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.

The robotic rhino grazing on the snazzy grey carpet in the Robot Zoo is made largely out of every day and household objects, this ingenious work of engineering manages to pick out all of the White Rhino’s most important features. It has a fly swatter hanging off of its rear end for example, as real rhinos flick away irritating insects with a swish of their hair-tipped tails - although only two of the five species of rhino have a particularly tufty tail per se; the White Rhino and the smaller, delightfully furry Sumatran Rhino. Microphones for ears, and large cones they called 'smell-inlets' for nostrils demonstrate the rhinos excellent senses of smell and hearing. Armour plating represents their thick skin and bright purple rubber takes the place of thick grass-gripping lips. It even uses a crane to lift the head, demonstrating how strong their neck muscles are.

A tale of two rhinos

  • Southern White Rhinoceros, Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.
    Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.

There are two subspecies of White Rhino; the Southern and the Northern. The wild population numbers of Southern White Rhino is a huge feather in the cap of conservation, and every one of these thick-skinned beasts hoofing about in sub-Saharan Africa is a testament to how humans aren’t entirely useless as a species. The White Rhino was down to just 100 individuals in the late 19th Century due to hunting in the colonial era. Due to intensive conservation efforts, the numbers have risen to over 20,000 and subsequently the (Southern) White Rhino is not currently listed as endangered. 

In contrast, their friends in the North are not doing so well. There are three Northern White Rhinos in the world. Three. They are called Sudan, who is the only male, and Najin and Fatu who are both females. Unfortunately, Sudan is Najin’s father and Fatu’s grandfather, making repopulating the earth with Northern White Rhinos an awkward conversation. Further complicating things is that Sudan has to be under armed guard 24 hours a day to protect him from poachers who would target him for his horn, which is as medicinal as the metal cone on our robot. 

A sixth rhino?

  • Nola the Northern White Rhino, This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.
    This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.

There has been an argument put forward that the Northern White Rhino is not, in fact, a subspecies of the slightly larger White rhino but a distinct species in its own right. Personally the idea of there being six rather five species of rhino in the world means Christmas has come early in my book, but the proposed name of Nile Rhino may never make it into the history books as the rhino scientists of the world met the proposal with scepticism. Darn it. Still - as exciting as it would be on the one hand if Sudan and his family of two did represent a distinct species, on the other, it would mean we are on the verge of losing a much more genetically distinct animal than previously thought. I could explain in detail why having distinct species is important to the ecosystem (not just rhino enthusiasts), but I’m out of space so you’ll have to campaign for the Horniman to allow me more rhino airtime.

Until then- Happy World Rhino Day!

 

How to be a curious entomologist

Our volunteer, Helen, tells us how an afternoon with the nationally renowned Richard Jones helped her catch the entomology bug. 

The Devonshire Road Nature Reserve tucked away in the middle of residential Honor Oak is a real gem of South East London and only a stone’s throw away from the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On 22 July, Richard Jones, the nationally acclaimed entomologist, led a group of excited wannabee entomologists into the meadows of the reserve armed with nets, magnifying glasses, collecting pots and test tubes to boot.  

Richard explained the right technique for using the nets, sweeping across the flora and grasses casting our nets far and wide to ensure a good catch to put in our test tubes.  We were advised to let go of species that had already been identified, particularly Bumble Bees and Butterflies and take back to the lab those insects useful for education and research that could be identified and ultimately added to the national database.  We were already feeling like debutante entomologists.

We were shown how to humanely kill our specimens with a form of ether, ethyl acetate, and to prepare and focus our microscopes so we could do the curatorial bit of mounting and labeling our bugs.

Picking up the array of micro pins with tweezers, a vital bit of kit used for spiking the smallest of insects required a great deal of care, patience, and a steady hand when working with the microscope.  For the flatter specimens, mounting them on card with a gum glue was the preferred method before adding data labels to our specimens. We had now become real citizen scientists.

As I left the nature reserve, with a spring in my step and renewed interest in plant bugs, leaf bugs, tortoise bugs, green shield bugs, the soldier beetle, picture-wing flies, and hoverflies – their facts and figures buzzing inside my head, I couldn’t help but feel that life just got a whole lot more curious!

 

Object in Focus: Romanian Eggs at Bruton Museum

Jackie Brooks, Curator at the Bruton Museum, tells us how they hope an Object in Focus loan will welcome a new member of the community.

As part of the 'Object in Focus' loans scheme, Bruton Museum has borrowed a collection of Romanian decorated eggs. We are a small Somerset town museum dedicated to local history and although at first sight the eggs have no relationship to us they have begun to reach out and make connections.

Recently a big issue seller has appeared in town, and he happens to be a refugee from Romania. His parents left him on the streets of Bucharest when he was 14 leaving him to fend for himself. When Roxanna Gibescu came to give a talk about the egg decorating tradition we learnt that all the patterns on the eggs are symbolic. Abundance, family, and wealth are all represented in the symbols that adorn the eggs and we hope our Big Issue seller will find these things soon. 

Upstairs in our store was a wooden box with 5 trays of eggs collected in the Victorian era. The Horniman loan has prompted us to display them and they now sit alongside the loan in all their glorious variety.

  • Bruton Museum's collection of eggs, Jackie Brooks− © Bruton Museum
    , Jackie Brooks

The case with the eggs in is placed at the entrance to the museum and is always greeted with a 'wow'. We love having them here.

 

13 Facts About the Horniman Gardens

The Horniman Gardens have been awarded their 13th consecutive Green Flag Award – one of a record-breaking 1,797 UK parks and green spaces in 2017 to receive the prestigious award, the mark of a quality park or green space. To celebrate, we’ve gathered together our 13 favourite facts about the Gardens…

1. Frederick Horniman first opened his garden to the public in 1895, and when he gave his new museum to the people in 1901, the gift included the ‘pleasure gardens’, intended as ‘a pleasant retreat for the visitors after an inspection of the collections themselves’.

2. There have been many changes since then. Over the years there’s been a wishing chair, tennis courts, a water garden, a putting green, and of course the boating lake, the base of which remains at the bottom of Meadow Field.

3. The Horniman’s Nature Trail is the oldest in London. It runs on the site of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway which closed in 1954. The area was left untended until 1972, becoming a wild woodland. Now carefully managed, the Nature Trail has just received its ninth Green Flag Community Award.

4. Two trees were planted in the Gardens in 1937 to commemorate King George VI’s coronation, as noted in the Royal Record of Tree Planting from the time (page 247). See if you can spot the Purple Beech and Double White Flowering Cherry next time you visit.

5. Our current tree-planting programme includes rare and endangered trees. The Wollemi Pine in the Prehistoric Garden and a recently planted Sapphire Dragon Tree are both Critically Endangered species.

6. The Gardens are also home to other declining or protected species of plants and wildlife – look up and see if you can spot some mistletoe, or down to keep an eye out for stag beetles (be sure to record any sightings).

7. An ecological survey of the Library building’s green roof recorded 52 insect species living there, including a rare type of ant and other unusual species. We also have a living roof on our Pavilion. And, no, we don’t mow them!

8. 97% of our Gardens’ waste is turned into compost on site, and reused for soil improving and mulching. Food waste from the Horniman Café is also composted and used in the Gardens as a liquid fertilizer. Yum.

9. 16 acres can take a lot of watering in hot weather – but 187,000 litres of waste water from the Aquarium’s water filters are reused in the Gardens each year. It has too many impurities for sensitive fish and corals but is perfect for plants.

10. The formal planting in the Sunken Gardens is changed twice a year, for spring and summer. The current design, by Apprentice Gardener Ian, features more than 5,000 salvias, marigolds, cinerarias, and cannas, and took the Gardens team seven days to prepare and plant out.

11. The Tea Clipper Rose was created by David Austin for the Horniman in 2006 to mark the centenary of founder Frederick Horniman's death. Named for his tea-trading heritage, you can see these apricot-coloured blooms beside the sundial overlooking the Sunken Garden.

12. One of the newest areas of the Gardens is the Butterfly House, which opened this summer. More than 500 plants create this tropical environment providing habitat, food for caterpillars and nectar for hundreds of free-flying butterflies.

13. Over the summer we’ve been growing 20 varieties of pumpkins and squash in the Display Gardens. They’ve just been harvested – and some of them are whoppers. Watch out for them in a seasonal display, coming soon.

Object in Focus: Shogi at Southend Central Museum

Iona Farrell of the Southend Central Museum tells us how an Object in Focus loan helped inspire an exciting new exhibition. 

I’m Iona Farrell and I volunteer with Southend Central Museum and the Beecroft Art Gallery, which are based in Southend, a seaside town in Essex.

At Southend Central Museum we have been lucky enough to have an exquisite Japanese shogi board on loan from the Horniman. This is part of the Object in Focus series and will be on display until the 18th of October.

Shogi, for those who don’t know, and I must admit I was pretty clueless before the loan, is similar to chess. This is an exciting game of tactics and once pieces are captured a player can replay them as their own, which some say is like soldiers switching sides in battle.

This shogi set has carved pieces painted with Japanese characters that have been carefully positioned to mimic the start of a game - so visitors can use their imagination to guess how the game would play out.

The loan has taken pride of place in the museum, so visitors are captivated by this intriguing object as they enter. Southend Museum displays local and natural history collections alongside a rotating exhibitions programme, and it has been brilliant having such a special artefact amongst the displays.

This object in focus inspired us to look within the Museum's own collection to draw out the history of games and create an exciting new exhibition – Toys and Games.

  • Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum, Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum
    Toys and Games exhibition at Southend Central Museum

A fellow volunteer and I were lucky enough to curate this exhibition and we decided to transform the space into a fun place for both young and old to delight in the stories of toys. There are lots of recognisable classics, with train sets and board games alongside some more unusual treasures such as toy theatres and magic sets.

Visitors can trace the chronology of toys as they accompany us in early life from simple building blocks through to complex engineering sets as we age and develop. The museum has also hosted a special Fun and Games event for children where they discovered the history of toys and played Victorian parlour games.

Whilst researching for the exhibition we were surprised that many games have ancient origins. Senet, which is believed to be the first board game ever, was played in Ancient Egypt over six thousand years ago. Shogi, in its earliest form, dates back to the 10th century and the Horniman’s set is thought to date from the early 19th century.

  • Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum, Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum
    Building Blocks at Southend Central Museum

One of the oldest pieces in the exhibition is a 19th century set of wooden building blocks. Like the shogi set it is formed of carved pieces, but these are used for the rather more simple activity of building towers. In the 19th century, the idea of linking play with learning accelerated but it hadn’t been until the late 18th century that toys like this were even created specifically for children.

We hope people will continue to enjoy discovering all about this shogi set and have as much fun as I did learning all about the history of toys.

 

How a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection can help modern science

Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.

I'm Katie, and I'm three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.

The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.

  • Herbarium Volume, Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
    Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
 

The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant's scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database. 

Once it is all in one place, it then becomes possible to spot some trends within the herbarium data - for example, who the main collectors were, which amateur societies or organisations they were linked to, what they collected, where and why. This information then enables us to begin to understand the herbarium within its historical context and uncover the interesting stories surrounding Victorian plant collecting. Through documenting the herbarium we will also be able to make it an important resource for botanical researchers today. 

  • Mimsy Database, An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy
    An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy

So why would a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection be relevant to modern science? Well, due to the work of these plant-collecting Victorians we know what grew where and when in the period they were collecting. For example, this herbarium sheet includes the name of the specimen - Potentilla reptans - and where it was collected - Thame in Oxfordshire - and when - July 1843. This information can be used to compare the known locations of Potentilla reptans today with where it was collected in the past, using examples held in this herbarium and others held elsewhere.

  • Potentilla reptans, Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott
    Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott

In doing so, it is possible to track the spread or decline of individual species - its distribution - through time. Species such as Potentilla reptans, also known as Creeping Cinquefoil, viewed by many gardeners as a slightly annoying weed, may not be such a cause for concern, but species that are rare and declining due to habitat loss, climate change or disease, or species which may have become invasive through their ability to thrive due to recent climatic changes, can be tracked by comparing data from historic herbaria with their contemporary counterparts. We only have to think about how much the British landscape has changed from the places familiar to someone like John Constable or Charlotte Bronte in the first half of the 1800s, compared to what is there now,  to understand how plant populations and diversity have changed over time. 

Not only is the herbarium useful in ecological terms, it is also interesting for us to see how plants have been named over time. Luckily, the name Potentilla reptans is still used today as the scientific name for Creeping Cinquefoil, but in other species, this may have changed many times between the mid-1800s and 2017. A single plant species may, at different points in time, have been attributed many different names. Potentilla reptans itself has around 17 synonymous names which are no longer in use or may previously have been used to describe a plant that was actually Potentilla reptans, but that botanists thought a different species. 

All in all, working with the herbarium has been great fun so far. It is interesting, as a museum studies student, to see the differences between collections care then and now - mercuric chloride, a form of mercury, may have made a super pest repellent in 1843 but now we go for less toxic methods - and after a while you do feel a bit of a connection between yourself and the plant collectors. Perhaps it is the nature of decoding the idiosyncrasies of someone's handwriting, but it is easy to feel as though you know the collectors through their work, which is, as you can see from the pictures, often not only scientifically valuable but beautiful.

In my next blog post, I hope to talk a little more about some of these collectors, as well as give an update on how the documentation is going.

Game of Thrones - Teen Takeover Day 2017

Our Horniman Youth Panel took over our Twitter feed as part of the Kids in Museums Takeover Day and led us on a Game of Thrones inspired tour of the galleries. They tell us about the experience in their own words.

This year we (Annie, Gabby and Jaz from the Horniman Youth Panel) were presented with the challenge of running a better twitter takeover than last year’s Pokemon hunt. When brainstorming the biggest pop culture sensations of this year we settled almost immediately and unanimously on Game of Thrones, as possibly the most widely watched television show of all time. We used our youth and cool hip-ness to run the best Kids in Museums twitter takeover so far and to advise old people on when to say on fleek (just stop it guys).


We were surprised by the number of Game of Thrones references we were able to find in the Natural History Gallery alone, with many taxidermy exhibits lining up with the sigils of the great houses of Westeros.

We thought it would be a good idea to ask the public who their favourite house was. The most popular was House Stark, represented by the Horniman’s own “Direwolf” - a beheaded wolf in the Natural History gallery.  


We used quotes from the show and jokes we made up to make our posts interesting. A hilarious example being Annie’s ’NEIGH-bourhood Dothraki’ pun, which was definitely the funniest thing said that day.


We were delighted to have a response from Sophie, who replied in Dothraki (nerd).

Much of our time was spent feverishly googling GoT references because it turned out none of us actually watch the show. Thankfully we had Ben, Digital Assistant and resident Game of Thrones nerd, helping us out with the more obscure trivia.

Obviously, at some point in our tour we had to include dragons! So when we discovered three dragon-like costumes in the Hands on Base to match Daenerys' children, we jumped on the opportunity to have a dragon dab. 

As it turned out one of our costumes was actually a snow leopard, but it looked dragony enough!

  • Teen Takeover 2017, Where are my dragons?
    Where are my dragons?

All that was left at the end of the day was giving the House of Horniman its own sigil, and the choice was clear from the start. The walrus is a resident celebrity and the perfect representative for the House of Horniman. 



How big is a crocodile's brain? A Year in Review

As another busy year kicks off the schools team, we look back at the sessions, questions, objects, and activities we have experienced over the last academic year.

Last year, over 30,000 pupils visited for school sessions with an additional 15000 pupils exploring the Museum galleries. We had giant robots, ‘plantastic’ plants, and a huge redevelopment project. But in addition to all of that, school session visitors got to handle real museum objects, to explore them for themselves, and answer and discover questions about these objects.

So how big is a crocodile’s brain? What’s a turtle shell made of? When did people discover fire? Why did the Ancient Egyptians mummify a bird? Which animal in the world has the most teeth? How do butterflies taste with their feet? These are just some of the questions we are asked. We don’t always know the answers, but luckily we have a team of curators to ask for any particularly tricky questions.

In the past year, we introduced new sensory SEND sessions, said goodbye to a fox, won an award, dressed up as jellyfish, and much more. Now after a nice break we're looking forward to next term when we will be meeting some butterflies, visiting new galleries, teaching new sessions, and of course trying to answer more questions.

Book now for a school session next term.

Object in Focus: Swedish Straw Goats at Haslemere Museum

Lindsay Moreton, Collections Manager at Haslemere Museum, tells us how the loan of five Swedish straw goats from the Horniman has helped their latest exhibition.

As part of our exhibition, ‘The Rustic Renaissance: Haslemere’s Arts and Crafts Heritage’ (on show until 2nd September 2017) Haslemere Museum has borrowed five Swedish straw goats through the Horniman Museum’s Object in Focus project. The exhibition tells the story of how a group of artists and artisans created an artistic enclave in Haslemere in the early 1900s. The exhibition features folk art objects from the European Peasant Art Collection, which were originally collected to inspire local craftspeople and to try to preserve declining traditional handicraft skills after the Industrial Revolution.

  • Swedish Straw Goats on display at Haslemere Museum, Swedish Straw Goats on display at Haslemere Museum
    Swedish Straw Goats on display at Haslemere Museum

We were thrilled that the straw goats or ‘julbock’ were available for loan to coincide with our exhibition as they are the perfect example of a traditional folk art from Sweden. Many objects in our ‘Peasant Art’ Collection originate from the country too. Our visitors have loved seeing these charming objects and a local Swedish resident who lives opposite the Museum has displayed her own straw goat in her window in honour of their arrival! 

The Object in Focus project is a great way for regional museums like us to borrow interesting artefacts from the Horniman and the whole process has been smoothly managed by Sarah and the team at the Museum. We will be sad to see the friendly goats go when we return them in September!

 

The Dilruba Player and The Boy, a poem by Chrissie Gittins

We are pleased to share a poem by local writer, Chrissie Gittins, responding to our Hear it Live! session with Baluji Shrivastav OBE. We think the poem articulates with great sensitivity the power of music to reach out across all types of perceived barriers, and the opportunities for these special moments to occur within our Museum.

The Dilruba Player and The Boy

A blind musician plays the dilruba,

sad sounds come from the strings.

 

A boy in a wheelchair appears in the audience,

his chest is congested – he wheezes and cries.

 

He cries and he wails –

the musician can hear him.

 

Moving his bow over the strings

he echoes the cries of the boy.

 

The boy cries once more, the musician replies,

the boy silently smiles.

Chrissie Gittins

The Dilruba is a stringed instrument of North India and Pakistan. ‘Dilruba’ is a Persian word for ‘heart stealer’.

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