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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.

Storytelling with the Stroke Association

The Horniman regularly hosts visits from the Stroke Association, enabling stroke surviviors and their families to meet and explore the collections. We recently heard from Melvin about his experiences with the group and how it has helped him explore the Horniman.

Hello, My name is Melvin and I have been attending the Horniman Stroke Association group since March 2014.

In November we had an interesting session with a professional story teller called Margaret. She started with a gentle song with actions about the sea and the earth. Then we all took turns to open a special box and use our imagination to say what was inside. Other group members saw flowers, money, gold, the sea, a cat. I saw a magic mirror. Next, Margaret told a short story about her daughter encountering a snake in Brixton. After that, she encouraged us to tell stories about animals. Sue talked about her 'house rabbit' called Roger. I shared a story about my dog Spangle answering the phone.

Margaret then told a long but enchanting story about an old woman, a snake and a Royal Family. She used her voice and hands to hold our interest. Lastly, she asked us to re-tell parts of the story in small groups. In my group Sue spoke about the beginning of the story and I illustrated her tale by using gestures.

Overall, I thought this session was the best ever! There was less talking and more hand gestures, which I found very useful.

You can find out more about how the Horniman works with community groups in our Learning pages.

Bookblitz: Early Entomology

It's been a while since we last had a Bookblitz blog post, so we're returning to the topic with a look at some of the most stunning works from our historic Library collection.

Linking with our collections, the Horniman Library contains many newer works all about entomology, or the study of insects. Now a staple of natural history museums, a few centuries ago studying these small creatures was a rare practice, making our detailed 17th and 18th century guides to the insect world particularly special. Several were highlighted as 'stars' of our collection by the recent Bioblitz review.

It is thanks to collectors such as Frederick Horniman, who had a particular interest in entomology, that these early volumes have survived.

The earliest entomology volume in our collection is Samuel Purchas' 'A Theatre of Political Flying-Insects', published in 1657, which spends much time expanding on 'the excellency of the bee'.

It is not until the slightly later volume by Johannes Godartius that we start to see the inclusion of illustrations, a feature of entomological works that so often captures attention.

The monochrome images in 'Johannes Godartius of Insects' (published 1682) were printed from careful copper etchings made by a 'Mr F Pl'.

Later still, entomological illustration hits a high in 'Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium' by Maria Sybilla Merian.

Merian was one of the first people to study the life cycle of butterflies in detail, including their transformation from caterpillars.

She also illustrated her own work, producing dozens of beautifully detailed prints not just of insects but of the many animals and plants that shared their habitats.

This copy, published in Dutch in 1730, has been later rebound by Horniman himself. This was often done to better protect pages as well as to give a collector's library and more uniform look, meaning it is rare to see older volumes in their original binding.

Also highlighted by our Entomology Bioblitz is an 1821 volume written in High German. This was especially unusual to find outside Germany at the time Horniman was collecting.

Christian Friedrich Vogel's 'Schmetterlings-Cabinet für Kinder' is a children's guide not only to various species of European butterflies, but also to catching, keeping and displaying your own specimens. By this time, entomology and further study of the natural world had become a popular hobby for young people.

The book is filled with vibrantly hand-coloured plates, not unlike modern nature guides.

If you're interested in viewing these stunning early entomological books for yourself you can book a visit to our Library by emailing our Librarian on enquiry@horniman.ac.uk. You can also discover insect specimens in our collections.

Fossil Foundations

Last #FossilFriday our Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo took a look at some of the fabulous fossil specimens soon to be installed in our Natural History Gallery and some of the fantastic stories used to explain them. Our upcoming Gallery redisplay will also cover the foundations of scientific principles we now use to understand these collections.

The 1700s was a time of considerable change in society, with the Enlightenment principles of reason and investigation supporting a scientific revolution. In this exciting time of social upheaval, the foundations of geology were being laid down, based on principles of slow and steady change.

Chemist, agriculturist and physician James Hutton observed the geology of the Scottish landscape and formulated the principle of uniformitarianism. This is the idea that rather than being the result of a catastrophic biblical flood, rock features were formed by the same processes of erosion and deposition that we see happening today, but taking place over an incredibly long period of time.

This heralded the beginning of a period where fossils were understood through scientific principles rather than the fabulous and fantastic theories of folklore we explored in a previous blog post.

Uniformitarianism combined with the theory of superposition (where younger rock layers or ‘strata’ are laid down on top of older strata) allowed relative ages of rock beds in a sequence to be worked out (this is called stratigraphy). The types of fossil found in certain strata proved useful for working out the relative ages of rocks in different places. The sediments in a bed may vary, but two beds with the same fossils would be closer in age than those with very different fossils.

Once the relationships between fossils, strata and age were better understood, it became possible to map what was happening underground. This was important for miners and the engineers digging canals and railway tunnels to cope with the transport needs of the Industrial Revolution of the 1700s.

The first geological map was produced in Britain by engineer William Smith almost 200 years ago, although it has been improved on since then, his first attempt was remarkably accurate.

The idea of uniformitarianism also changed how fossils were considered in terms of the organisms they represented. When William Buckland discovered a cave containing Hyaena bones in Yorkshire in 1822, he was able to work out that it was used as a den when the animals were alive. This discovery captured the scientific imagination and helped set the standard for palaeontological research.

New scientific thinking about the age of the Earth challenged traditional ideas that the Earth had been around for just a few thousand years, and introduced the idea that Earth may be millions of years old (we have since discovered that is in fact 4.6 billion years old). This older age for the Earth offered a much longer time for changes to occur, both to the planet and to the organisms living on it – providing scope for evolution to occur.

The Natural History Gallery's new displays will be opening to the public in March 2015. Keep an eye out next year for more blogs from Paolo all about the scientific stories told in our galleries.

Preparing for Winter in the Gardens

Gardens Apprentice Ian has spent the last few months working to help get the Horniman's 16.5 acres of Gardens ready for the winter months.

Hello, my name is Ian and I am a new gardens apprentice. I started in October and am experiencing the hard way just what it's like to be a Gardener in the winter.

The different times of the year bring new jobs for gardens. In October we dug out the dahlias in the dahlia bed because the dahlia is a tender plant which cannot take the cold of the winter and needs protecting.

As you can see in the picture here the dahlia bed is empty now.

What we have done to protect our tender plants is to dig them out carefully as not to damage their root tubers, cut down the plant's stem and store them in our poly tunnel upside down for a week (upside down to dry them out so they don’t root). After a few weeks we lined the crates with newspaper then spaced out the dahlias and covered them with soil. This picture of a cultivar of the Dahlia plant “Show and Tell” should give a idea as to how it should look.

We did that for all the Dahlias and then moved them to our greenhouse. It reaches heights of up to 15⁰c on even the coldest days in there so it was a good place to store them.

When it comes to the winter this isn’t the only way we protect our plants. If you go to our display garden you may see some plants wrapped in a clear bag. Those are our banana plants: these plants are more sensitive to the rain and damp rather than the temperature. I haven't included a picture of our wrapped up banana plants because you can come and see it for yourselves, and we also blogged about the process of proecting them last year!

I hope you have enjoyed this and learnt something in my first blog. I plan to write more of these so keep an eye on the blog for more gardens news!

Ian's apprenticeship is funded by The Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

Seeing Double

Documentation Assistant Rachel updates us on what the Collections People Stories team are getting up to in the stores.

Having reviewed over 27,000 objects from the Anthropology collection to date, the teams are currently pausing to carry out another important task: removing duplicate object records from our database.

Why do we have duplicates? Over the long history of the Horniman, some of our objects have become detached from their identifying numbers, labels, or other documentation. These have been assigned temporary numbers so that we can still keep track of everything that we have. Thanks to sterling detective work by our curators and the review teams, we are now able to identify some of these objects and reconcile them with our original accession records.

The teams are currently trawling through the database, copying all of the information from the temporary records into the ‘real’ record for each object and then deleting the redundant duplicates. This tidying work is important: the aim is that eventually each object will have only one record containing all of its information, so that we know exactly how many items we have in the collection, and where they all are. Duplicated information can cause confusion for both staff and visitors, and just makes our database look untidy!

The process may sound somewhat laborious (and it is!), but it is also quite exciting: a number of the objects with temporary numbers are from our founding collection, acquired over the years by Frederick Horniman and first catalogued between 1897 and 1899. It is very satisfying to restore the true identities of our oldest objects. The earliest number so far reconciled is object number 18, a beautiful Japanese clay figure of two shishi (lions) fighting.

Other important objects reconciled with their original numbers are these two Belu heads from Burma.

They are number 649 in our accession register, and they are important not just for being part of Mr Horniman’s collection, but they were also collected by him on a journey he made to Burma in the late 1890s after he retired from the tea trade.

So far we have reconciled the records for over 500 objects, including spoons, skillets, swords, charms, containers and chess pieces. There is a long way to go, and it will take years (if ever!) to achieve a duplicate-free database, but we are making a good start.

Keep up with the team from the stores on Twitter @HornimanReviews, or follow their Tumblr blog for more fascinating finds from the stores.

Fantastic Fossils

With preparations underway for new displays showcasing the Horniman's fossil collection, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History Paolo gives us a look at some of the stories he hopes to tell.

Developing a new display involves more than simply selecting the most attractive specimens to put on show. Those specimens need to illustrate a story that asks questions, explains ideas or inspires an audience – and usually that story has to be told in very few words.

Exhibition labels have very strict word counts, as there is limited space in a case and interpretation panels need to be easily readable. That means there is never enough space for a curator to say everything that they would like to.

For the geology section of the new Natural History Gallery displays this means explaining how humans came to understand the history and evolution of life and the vast age of our 4.6 billion year old planet by collecting fossils, all in around 300 words, split between two main themes!

The first theme will explore ideas about fossils from before geology was established as a science. There was no real understanding of what fossils represented or how they had formed, so folk tales were created to explain their origins. Stories of dragons, giants, and magical petrifying powers all took at least some inspiration from the fossils that people found in rocks.

Many of the most common fossils have alternative names inspired by folklore – like Devil’s Toenails which are a distinctive type of oyster called Gryphaea, that look like big gnarly claws.

Thunderbolts are the internal supports (guards) of squid-like animals called Belemnites. They get their name from their shape and because they can often found after storms, although rather than falling from the sky, they are washed out of mudstones by heavy rain.

Snakestones are the coiled outer shells of another squid-like group of animals called Ammonites. Many legends make claims that these fossils are snakes that have been turned to stone by the action of a local saint; from St Hilda in Whitby to St Keyne in Somerset.

To support this folklore, some people would carve snake heads onto the ammonites.

During the 17th Century, comparison of fossils against parts of living species started to uncover their true nature. Enlightenment thinkers like Fabio Colonna and Nicholas Steno realised that triangular stones called glossopetris or tongue stones found in rocks were actually shark teeth that had somehow been turned to stone.

This sort of increased understanding slowly led to superstitious interpretations of nature being replaced by a more robust scientific knowledge, which allowed exciting new discoveries to be made about the world... (to be continued)

Hot Stuff at the Horniman

Wes, our Head of Horticulture, shows us how the Gardens team got on when they tried growing some of the hottest chillies around.

Growing chillies is cool. It’s easy, and loads of fun, especially if they’re the proper hot ones!

Earlier in the year the Gardens team at the Horniman ordered a selection of seeds to grow our own plants, including the notorious ‘Trinidad Scorpion’ and the evil ‘Carolina Reaper’, currently the hottest varieties in the world. Gardens Keeper Alex and I are particularly fond of a hot chilli so it was all for a bit of fun rather than producing a bespoke display for the Gardens.

Seeds were sown in March in a heated greenhouse, germination rates were good and they were then potted on into 3.5in pots, they grew well over the summer: chilli plants love heat, lots of sun and regular feeding, and as a result we grew some magnificent plants that produced a lot of fruit.

It was about this time we learnt about Spitalfields City Farm’s Annual Festival of Heat from Amy in our Learning team. Amy arranged for us to have a stall on the day and display some of our plants including the world’s hottest, the Carolina Reaper. The idea was to showcase our plants and advise visitors how to grow and care for theim. We also wanted to know if there were any brave volunteers to try some fruit....there weren’t, apart from Gardens Keeper Alex who took one for the team - literally!

It was a great day and really well organised event by the guys at Spitalfields.

In October we harvested all our remaining fruit and Horniman Café Chef Jason is producing our very own chilli chutney which will be available to buy in the Café and at our Farmers’ Market held every Saturday on the Bandstand Terrace.

We look forward to seeing you there.

The Islington Twins and Ibeiji

Assistant Curators Tom and Johanna share the story of another behind the scenes visit and reveal some of our collections objects representing 'twinness'.

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a visit from the charming, stylish and erudite Chuka and Dubem Okonkwo, aka Chet and Joe, aka The Islington Twins. Well known on the London fashion, fine art and general culture circuit Chet and Joe make a big impression even before you meet them: they are identical twins, who more often than not dress identically.

Chet and Joe’s parents come from Onitsha, a city in Southern Nigeria. They told us how:

In Onitsha…twins are considered a double blessing. If they are identical twins, their parents are considered to be extremely lucky. We've always found the jubilant reaction from Africans who meet us in London peculiar. Westerners are excited with the idea of seeing 'two peas in a pod' (we don't believe there's such a thing), and curious about whether we feel each other's pain. Africans tend to bless us and our parents. Over the years we've been blessed by many strangers.

At the Horniman we have a collection of ibeiji twin figures, and other objects from around the world associated with ‘twinness’, which we were keen to share with Chet and Joe. Ibeiji are very moving objects, made on the sad occasion of the death of a twin at or shortly after birth. They are traditionally said to hold the soul of the twin, cared for by the family in the same way one might care for a loved-one. Some of our examples show signs of the careful attention once bestowed upon them, with marks where they have been gently and repeatedly rubbed.

We wanted to show Chet and Joe some light-hearted objects too. Since they are known for their love of English clothing and can at times cut a dapper dash we shared some of our favourite fashion items made in Nigeria, yet very British indeed. These included a strange little model of a District Officer in horn-rimmed glasses, a smart little jacket, a pith helmet and a nice little pipe. It is the work of Thomas Ona Odulate, a well known Yoruba artist who made fun of colonial administrators through such models between 1900 and 1950.

Chet and Joe were only at our stores for a couple of hours, but they managed to say something positive and sometimes even inspiring to almost everyone working there. We were left with the feeling that we had met two very unusual and rather wonderful people.

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