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The charming case of Alfred William Rowlett

Robin Strub, our Anthropology Volunteer, has been looking into the Horniman's collection of charms.

Have you ever wondered how the Horniman got its objects?

Who brought them here, and why? 

I’m here to help answer some of those questions! I volunteer in Anthropology’s collection of English charms and amulets, which has a lot of pieces from a man named Alfred William Rowlett. 

He came from the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots and, between 1904 and 1933, he sold the Horniman dozens of items that he had found as part of his town’s rural culture.

What do you think of when you look at the objects in the Horniman’s cases?  What do you imagine of the people who collected them?

Do you think of a Victorian, professorial man with a tweed jacket and pipe?

How about a Victorian dustman with a bin and broom? 

This picture is of Rowlett, who worked as a Dustman for the local government.  Bert Goodwin, a historian and local of St Neots, remembers Rowlett, and wrote about him for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s 2011-12 winter edition, including this picture of Rowlett and his dustbin making his rounds. 

When looking up Rowlett in the 1881 Census I found he was in work as a labourer by the time he was 13. He went on to become a businessman, as well as a Dustman, with an antiques shop, and worked with the Horniman in a professional capacity.  He even had his own official stationery that he used to write letters and invoices to the Horniman!  Here is how his letterhead looked:

We don’t know how Rowlett started working with the Horniman but as a local, he had specialist knowledge and access to his community. This was undoubtedly part of the benefit of the Horniman doing business with him. In a letter dated 6 May 1907, Rowlett noted that ‘my business is to find out and get all the necessary information I can get’ on objects destined for the Museum. 

His research is still important for the Horniman, as the things we know about the objects he sourced came via his connections. The information would otherwise have been lost without his detailed descriptors. 

Here is what he wrote about a ‘Spinning Jenny’ (object number 7.199) as an example, with a transcription beneath.

Spinning Jenny.

used at Easton Socon, Beds for Raffling oranges sweets & home made cakes at Holiday times & festivals with an original charm against the children in getting to high a number so as to benefit the owner of Spinning Jenny

used by Mrs Newton at home and village feasts in & Round Bedfordshire Cambs & Hunts

1856 half penny a spin

This is how the Spinning Jenny works:

You can see a piece of orange flint tied to the device - that’s the charm.

We know what that flint was for thanks to Rowlett, as well as precise details about how the Spinning Jenny is used. (I thought the owner would’ve been caught out by cheating, but my Curator figured out that if you keep the stone against your palm and hold out the Spinning Jenny, nobody can see that you have it in your hand!)

Rowlett would also make handwritten labels for artefacts that were entering the collection, and many of his labels are still stored with the objects. This is an example for number 9.41 in our collection, a wood pigeon’s foot that was used to ward off cramp.

A lot of the charms that Rowlett brought us are things from the natural world that people associated with various curative powers.

It may seem strange today, but the idea was that wood pigeons never get foot cramps. If I carry a wood pigeon’s foot, maybe that will protect me too. If you have ever heard of someone carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, it’s not too far a leap from practices today.

Rowlett’s community of St Neots still remembers him as someone to go to for these kinds of all-natural remedies for health problems.

Local historian Rosa Young transcribed several adverts from a 1900 issue of a local paper for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s, which included an old advert that Rowlett had put in the paper for his own special patent medicine. It cured everything (naturally) but Rowlett’s neighbours did come to him seeking his medical expertise.

Bert Goodwin, the local historian who photographed Rowlett, recounts that when he was a child he had a wart on his knee cured by Rowlett,

He cut a small twig from a bush which he called ‘Joseph’s Thorn’,  which he shaped into a spatula, and then made his mark on the wart X.  “There,” he said, “it will be gone by the next full moon.”  Strangely enough, I forgot about it, but when I next looked it had gone.

Because of Rowlett’s work at St Neots, the local historical society put up a Blue Plaque for him.

Like the wood pigeon’s foot above, many of the objects that Rowlett brought to the Horniman were considered to have health benefits. The charms I’m studying were used by real people who believed in them, and used them to solve a variety of different problems. Ironically, Rowlett – with his Joseph’s Thorn for curing warts – thought that some of the charms’ owners were ‘eccentric’!

I don’t know about you, but I have lucky charms. Millions of people all over the world believe in the power of objects and in 2018, the Horniman will open a new gallery where you will be able to find charms from all around the world, including those collected by Rowlett!

If you’d like to see what Rowlett brought to the Horniman, and 2018 is too long to wait, you can find all of Rowlett’s objects online

Cleaning a Persian Dhal

Conservator Charlotte talks to us today about cleaning a steel Persian Dhal to discover its intricately detailed decoration. 

This steel Persian Dhal (shield) is one of a number of objects to go on loan to Bucks County Museum as part of their “Art of Islam” Exhibition.

At some point in its history this shield had been covered in shellac lacquer that had, over time, discoloured and trapped dirt against the surface. The lacquer had also been applied over tarnished metal and both these issues were obscuring the fine engravings and gilt layer across the surface of the shield.  

We removed the old lacquer layer with solvents. This process had the added benefit of removing some of the corrosion product across the surface of the metal. We then applied museum-grade abrasion paste to remove the thicker areas of corrosion.

To protect the metal, we hot waxed the shield with microcrystalline wax. This technique involves carefully heating the metal and applying wax to the surface, which is then left to cool. Using a lint-free cloth we then rigorously buffed the metal to remove excess wax and create an even shine. 

The cotton textile on the back of the shield was detaching from the metal and had to be secured back down. To do this, we aheared small tabs of Japanese tissue between the textile and the metal to act as an “anchor” and to allow for easier treatment reversibility.

We then inserted thermoplastic adhesive, applied as a “dry film”, between the Japanese tissue and the metal and then heat activated to bond the two materials together. A “wet” adhesive was then applied on top of the tissue, with the textile pressed down on to the adhesive and clamped in place, while the adhesive dried. This technique was repeated around the edge of the shield until the textile was secured in place.

The resulting clean and corrosion removal allows us to see more intricate detail and securing the textile on the back of the shield should hopefully prevent any further damage to this material.

What we did on our holidays…Helping Heritage Survive

Helen Merrett, our Collections Officer, writes about our work on a Regional Restoration Camp in Kosovo.

For a second year, myself and Alex took a few weeks away from the Horniman to volunteer with Heritage Without Borders (HwB) working in partnership with Cultural Heritage Without Borders (CHwB), on one of their award winning Regional Restoration Camps.

HwB is a charity organisation based at UCL and CHwB is an independent non-governmental organisation. Both are dedicated to rescuing and preserving cultural heritage affected by conflict, neglect or human and natural disaster.

For the last three-years CHwB have run a Regional Restoration Camp in Mitrovica, a town in Kosovo divided by the Ibar River. It is still an area of recent contention and the camps aim to bring communities together, as well as preserving cultural heritage.


Alex demonstrating using a microscope to investigate damage and how best to treat an object

Based in the Museum of the City of Mitrovica, the camp provides lectures on the theory of preventative conservation, collections management, remedial conservation and interpretation, as well as a lot of hands on practical work - including working with the museum’s own collections. The participants ranged from university students to local museum professionals and international heritage workers, largely from the Balkan region.


Two participants cleaning a leather miner’s bag from the museum’s collection

Alex was our fantastic Team Leader and made sure there was a brilliant range of content for the course, and also had to organise sourcing local supplies to make sure that there was real value in what we were demonstrating. The course is very practical, with sessions on marking artefacts, basic conservation cleaning and repairs, sewing covers for costumes, packing artefacts for storage and transport, and the ever popular egg packing challenge! In the mornings we would start with lectures to inform on all these subjects, and Alex led a number of sessions on ethics in conservation, pest monitoring, object drawing and material experimentation where the students got to try out a selection of conservation tools on some sacrificial materials which had had a few 'little accidents'.


Alex showing participants how to make Paraloid for marking objects

My role was focused on the importance of documenting collections – to truly understand what you have, how best to work with it and preserve it for future generations. I also discussed the ethical side of collecting, documenting and storing collections, taking in to consideration legal and sector guidelines, but also a variety of cultural factors. Along with this I was able to teach and assist with a variety of packing and handling techniques, practical documentation tasks and preventative conservation.

Conservation of a trailing feather war bonnet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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

 

Conserving a Cree Shirt

Although our new gallery displaying our anthropology collections is still some years away, we have already started work preparing and conserving objects to be shown in the gallery, as Charlotte from our Conservation Department explains.

One of the objects which we hope to display in the new gallery is this shirt, from the Cree people of North America. The shirt is more than 200 years old. However, it needs significant conservation before it can go on display.

The shirt is possibly made of brain tanned deer hide.

The intricate rosettes and bands are made of dyed porcupine quills. The lack of bead work and the naturally-dyed quillwork indicates that it’s possibly from the late 1700s / early 1800s and quite an old example of a shirt.

The quillwork on the shoulders was probably dyed with "modern dyes" which suggest these bands were added at a later date.

Quite a lot of quillwork is lifting off the hide, so we need to secure that. Also, the hide is really stiff and crunchy!

We're going to try and introduce some flexibility by carefully applying moisture to the hide, which we'll then manipulate until it's dry.

Hopefully this technique should help the hide regain some suppleness!

There are also tears that need structural repairs so it can go on display in our new Anthropology gallery.

It's quite a complex project and we'll keep you all up to date as we treat it.

Pearly King goes Down Under

After a good year of planning the Pearly King suit has gone on loan to Western Australian Maritime Museum in Perth, as part of their fantastic Lustre exhibition.

The Pearly King suit being installed

The exhibition is in partnership with Nyamba Buru Yawuru, an organisation which represents the Yawuru people, who are the native title holders of Broome.

The Pearly King suit in his case

Broome was once the Pearling capital of the world and the exhibition is looking at the intriguing stories behind northern Australia’s unique pearling tradition, weaving together intersecting strands of Aboriginal, Asian and European histories to reveal an insight into one of Australia’s oldest industries.

Delicate conservation work taking place on the suit.

Mother of Pearl has become valued across the world, and been used in many innovative ways for hundreds of years. The Pearly King suit (which was kindly donated to the Museum by Fred Booth’s family in 2011) is an integral piece in the exhibition to illustrate the diverse uses across the world.

Packed and ready to go

Along with the suit are beautiful personal adornment and status objects, carved pearl shells, art deco decorative insects, carvings with pearl shell inlayed, all from Aboriginal, Asian and European cultures.

A lot of work has been involved removing the suit from display, conserving it and packing it up before it went on its long journey across to Australia. He had his own specialist crate built for him, a quite a bit of TLC and a clean from Conservation, and some carefully created padding to keep him in good shape ready to go straight on display.

It has been such a fantastic opportunity to work with two amazing organisations and share an iconic part of London life with the other side of the world!

The Pearly King suit will be on display at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Perth until 25th October 2015. 

Re-homing the Slow Loris

Another blog post from the Conservation Department today, as Conservator Charlotte lets us know how she went about re-homing one of the fluid-preserved specimens from the Natural History Collection.

Part of our work in Collections Conservation and Care is to preserve the museums fluid specimen collection. 

This slow loris needed a better home; its original jar was much too small for it. Our curator Paolo wanted the loris in a larger jar with its arms spread further out so that we could get a better view of its face.

The specimen had to be rehydrated in a solution of detergent and water - at a warm temperature - to allow me to manipulate its arms. The loris’s limbs were gently massaged while resting in this warmed solution and gradually its arms opened up.

The loris was then placed in a vacuum pump to remove air bubbles...

As the specimen was a small dense mammal I decided to re-fix it in formalin. Formalin is a chemical that reacts with the proteins in the body, 'cross-linking' them, which stops the specimens from decomposing.

I gently tied the loris to a glass backing plate so that it could be presented better in the jar and gradually 'stepped' the specimen up in alcohol. Fluid specimens are kept in a preserving solution of 80% alcohol in water but they have to be stepped up to this percentage. If the specimen goes from a weak solution of alcohol to a strong solution of alcohol its cells can swell and this damages the tissue.

We felt that the jar for the slow loris was too heavy to be transported with the specimen and the fluid inside, so we decided to complete the treatment at our museum store. Our loris was wrapped in polyfelt soaked in the high alcohol solution. For transportation a container was created using two photographers development trays sealed together with cling film. This container was then placed in a crate for added protection. The loris’s new glass jar was transported separately.

At the store we finally repositioned the slow loris in his new jar and topped it up with 80% IMS in water.

Our slow loris is now housed in a large ground glass jar in fresh alcohol. It has more space, fresh alcohol and it is much more visible – all in all, a much happier specimen!

Read more about the work of our Conservation team in our Conservation Case Studies.

Keeping Food in our Collections

Many of the objects in our Anthropology Collections are actually made of food. You might have already seen some of the cheese or bread figures shared on Tumblr.

Conservator Bronwen has been working with the food in our stores for the Collections People Stories project, and stopped by to answer some of the pressing questions we've been getting about these unusual objects.

Why does it survive?

The food used in objects in our collections is different to the food you eat. It’s mostly dried out when it’s made. This prevents micro-organisms from eating it, and causing it to rot. This means that objects, such as the cheese horse, survive much longer than you would expect.

Could you still eat it?

Possibly, but you wouldn’t want to. Although they’re made of food, they were not supposed to be eaten and were mostly for decoration. Objects like the bread chicken are so dry they would be difficult to eat. They would also taste horrible, although they may not make you ill.

Why doesn’t it go mouldy?

We control the temperature and humidity (the amount of water in the air) in our collection stores and exhibition galleries. We can prevent mould growth by stopping the environment from being too damp. Because most of our food objects are dried out, they’re less likely to go mouldy than the food we eat. We keep food objects that were meant to be eaten, such as chocolate skulls, in a fridge with silica gel (which removes water from the air) to prevent mould growth.

How come we have food in collections when you are not allowed to eat in the museum?

This is because eating in the museum encourages insects that eat our collections, whereas, objects made of food don’t. There are several reasons for this:

  • Insects can survive once they get into the museum if there are crumbs or drink spills around for them to eat.
  • Insects are not able to get to the food in our collections because of the way we control what comes into areas where museum objects are.
  • The food we eat is very tasty to insects but usually, the food in our collections isn’t.

How do we preserve food in our collections?

We use preventive conservation to ensure our objects last as long as possible. We monitor and control the environment (light, temperature and humidity) and only use stable materials in storage and displays. We also carry out research and testing on materials. In 2010 we acquired votive offerings made of rice paste from Bali; sacrificial pieces were also acquired and tested to find the best way to conserve them.

How long will they last?

It’s difficult to predict how long objects will last. Ideally, we want our objects to survive indefinitely, for future generations to enjoy and learn from. To do this, we’re always trying to learn more about our objects, and we use this knowledge to decide how best to conserve them.

Taxidermy Treatments

Some of our taxidermy specimens have been getting some special treatment ahead of our upcoming Amazon Adventure exhibition.

Charlotte, our conservator, has been working with our Scarlet Macaw and Toucan specimens, to get them looking their best.

Even when objects have already been on display in the main galleries, moving them gives our Conservation team the perfect chance to check them over. Our Macaw and Toucan needed a bit of a spring clean and a few repairs before they were ready for their next public appearance.

These two beautiful birds are now preened, prepared and ready for their reappearance in our latest temporary exhibition.

Charlotte's also written some Conservation Case Studies, so you can find out more about how the Scarlet Macaw and Toucan were treated (and when it's appropriate to give a Macaw a blowdry).

Training Week at our Study Collections Centre

Before embarking on Phase 2 of the Collections People Stories project, over 20 Horniman staff members took part in a week long training programme at our Study Collections Centre.

For some participants this week presented a whole new set of skills and for others it was a helpful refresher.

Each morning we began with a dose of data management, with training on our collections database, called MIMSY.

It may seem easy to describe an object, but each object has so many elements to it, all which need to be documented thoroughly:. where it is from; what it is made of; who collected it; whether or not it has been conserved or indeed if it could be hazardous to your health!

The training week was also packed full of hands on training, skills that will be applied by our teams throughout the Collections Review.

We were shown how to pack the ideal box - who would have known that there are 4 legitimate ways to scrunch up that perfect paper wodge?

We also learned how to pack flat art for transport and storage and how to make our own Corex boxes for oversized objects.

Our Conservation staff held a session on textiles outlining the special care that needs to be taken when packing and storing costumes.

At other times during the week, we learnt how to accurately mark and measure objects. Physically marking stored collections is essential so objects can be tracked if they were to lose their attached labels. Accurate measurements are of course a must when planning for museum displays.

Although all Horniman staff pride themselves in always being on high alert for insects in the cases and cabinets around the museum, conservation staff gave us a Pest Control Refresher to keep us one step ahead of the critters.

One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that we will be taking photographs of every reviewed object. Our museum photographer did a sterling job in setting up the cameras and tents so that we can take excellent photographs. We learned simple tricks to improve the light, focus and texture when taking pictures of museum objects.

On the last of day of training our packing skills were put to the ultimate test in the all-important Egg Tossing Challenge. Eggs packed in a variety of materials found themselves being hurled with force through the stairwells. If the egg didn’t break, it was packed well!

I am happy to announce that only 2 out of 15 eggs did not survive the journey! 

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