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West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The British Library has put together a new exhibition on the power of the word – written, spoken and sung – in West Africa, and the Horniman has contributed by lending items from both the Anthropology and Musical Instruments collections.

The exhibition opened to coincide with Black History month earlier this year, and is exploring a range of fascinating stories from the region’s 17 nations. Focusing on West African history, life and culture over the last three centuries, it covers from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to the cultural dynamism of West Africa today.

Using a range of collections they have looked at text, story and writing and how words can be used to build and change societies, to challenge and resist, and sustain life and dignity. The exhibition highlights the rich manuscript heritage of West Africa and the coming of printing, as well as oral genres, past and modern.

The Horniman has loaned a talking drum and lamellaphone from our Musical Instruments collection and a Bwa plank mask, Gelede mask and divination board from our Anthropology collection to help bring the printed and written works to life.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is on at the British Library until Tue 16 Feb 2016

About the Art: Helen Marshall

We chatted with Helen Marshall, one of the artists who co-created our new exhibition: Project Tobong, which includes the stunning photograph, 'Airport'.

How did the collaboration for Project Tobong come about?

This was a very personal project for me, I met Risang whilst on holiday in Indonesia and he introduced me to Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya, from this chance encounter came this wonderful story.

What is the meaning behind this photo?

The point of this exhibition, or one of them, is for you to make up your own story; there's no one way of interpreting these images. 'Airport' makes you think of beginning and end, old and new. This is a rapidly changing city, with new stories constantly being made, hence why there's no one narrative to follow.

Many viewers do think of the AirAsia crash which happened after this photograph was taken. It didn't inspire the shot, but it has now become part of the story if that's what it evokes for you. There are all sorts of questions in the image to make your own story

How did the composition for Airport come about?

Risang and I often take shots at the same time so we can then select the best ones to use. We also collaborated on the ideas, settings and poses. This one was more my idea as I was inspired by the airport and how close you could get to the planes; it's totally different to an airport in the UK.

Project Tobong also features images and materials from our archive and objects from our collections.

How long did you have to wait for the shot?

Long! It was very hot and uncomfortable and we kept trying different things, with the bow pointing different ways, waiting for the plane.

“We worked with imaginations, costumes and place to tell the stories”

Project Tobong is open and free to visit in the South Hall Balcony, more information on the project can be found here.

Horniman soil at the Tate

I was contacted in the summer by the Project Manager of this year’s Turbine Hall installation at Tate Modern - who lives in Forest Hill.  He explained the basic premise of obtaining soil samples across London and seeing what grows from them.  It all sounded very interesting and the Horniman Gardens team were really keen on helping out.


We have over 16 acres of gardens, perfect for soil harvesting

Empty Lot features a grid of 240 wooden planters filled with compost and over 23 tonnes of soil collected from parks and gardens all across London from Peckham Rye to Regent’s Park, and of course the Horniman Gardens. 

By the end of the summer we had supplied over two tonnes of the Horniman’s finest soil.  Spread across the site it was easy to supply that quantity without leaving gaping holes in our shrub borders. In September the artist Abraham Cruzvillegas visited the Horniman Gardens to see first-hand where the soil came from.  It was great to meet him and get more of an idea of what he was planning.


Our celebrity soil being used by seedlings in our nursery

Last night (12.10.15.) members of the Horniman Gardens team were invited to the opening at the Tate and were blown away by the installation, which fills almost all of the Hall.  The first seedlings could already be seen germinating and it will be fascinating to see what grows over the next few months - growing conditions have been artificially created using grow lights and hand watering the soil.


Sacks of Horniman soil packed up for the exhibition

Despite a few aching backs in the team from bagging up over two tonnes of soil it has been great to contribute to such an iconic art installation at Tate Modern.


For more information on the exhibition click here

Javanese collections at the Horniman

The Collection

Objects from Java were among Frederick Horniman’s earliest collections. By 1901 there were model boats, horn hookahs, wooden cattle bells, a bronze sheep bell, an opium pipe and several knives from Java. 

In 1923 the Museum purchased a group of Javanese objects from a Mr. E.T. Campbell. These included a set of carved wooden chessmen, 22 shadow puppets, four rod puppets and four very striking masks. 

In that year, Fredrick’s son Emslie travelled through Bali, Java and Sumatra. From Java he brought back some photographs, and his letters to the curator were very evocative of his journey in an open top touring car. 

In 1949 a collection of more than 75 shadow puppets was purchased from William Oldman, a dealer. In 1958 six more Javanese masks were acquired, this time purchased from Sotheby’s.

A small collection of masks, drawings and paintings collected in Bali by Beryl de Zoete in the 1930s was passed to the Museum after her death in 1962. More important than the objects was the enormous collection of photographs and film now held in the Museum’s library archive, which included some from Java.

It was not until 2001 that the Indonesian collections really began to develop again. This began with the acquisition of five rod puppets, made by puppeteer Pak Asep Sunandar Sunarya of Bandung and purchased specifically for display in an exhibition of puppetry.

A variety of other material has come in over the years from various sources, including examples of batik from Dr Minter-Goedbloed, Ann Douthwaite and the late Christopher Scarlett, formerly Chairman of the Anglo-Indonesian Society.

The Museum has recently been expanding its collection of batik from Java in preparation for a forthcoming display. In 2013 I made a study visit to Java, supported by a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant, and filmed the process for the Museum.

Project Tobong

Project Tobong is a new exhibition featuring Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya, one of the few remaining ‘Ketoprak’ theatre troupes in Indonesia.

This community of travelling players performs traditional musical dramas through spoken soliloquy, dialogue and singing, using a ‘tobong’ - a portable bamboo structure.

Interest in traditional storytelling is lessenging, and audiences for Ketoprak are dwindling.

Project Tobong explores the players’ predicament by presenting a series of living pictures which use the language of Ketoprak (the costumes and postures of performance) to reference its own threatened status. 

The Horniman in other museums

All this week, we've been taking part in #MuseumInstaSwap - swapping our instagram with Royal Museums Greenwich.

It got us thinking, what of the Horniman can you find in other London museums? We did some searching, and here's what we found.

This great poster for the Horniman dates from 1938, and is one of four in the London Transport Museum's collections

In the Imperial War Museum, we found two photographs of Jack Gold's Variety Orchestra playing music on our bandstand during World War 2.

The British Museum holds many objects from Mexico, which were previously displayed at the Horniman in 1977 as part of an exhibition of popular arts of Mexico. Here is one, a servilleta, and the poster of our exhibition.

The Museum of London holds this impressive group of stone statues. It was manufactured by Eleanor Coade, stood above the entrance to the Pelican Life Insurance Office on Lombard Street - and was, for a time, displayed in our Gardens.

Finally, in the V&A Museum's collections, there are many wallpaper samples donated by Frederick Horniman's son Emslie - like these two by Walter Crane, Seed and Flower and Peacock.

About the Art: Edward Chell

This work is very like taxonomies, the grids of butterflies, beetles and shells; it’s like a museum in itself”

Two of Edward's pressed specimen pieces 

What inspired you to create these pieces? 

I have always been interested in habitats, there’s always something going on in the vegetative world; I started by looking at your herb and functional gardens and documenting the specimens.

All the plants on white backgrounds are living specimens I found, while all the  ones on the dark are pressed specimens, but all come from the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The striking blue and white display

How did you decide on this style and colour scheme?

I was inspired by the 18th century decorative arts, playing with psyche and style and there was a strong appeal of the aesthetic silhouette.

Seeing the four volumes of Anna Atkins' work that you have in the library made me land on the blue and white theme. She was a collector of specimens as well, specimens that have now become artefacts. Her volumes are an obsessive work that is extremely exquisite and very beautiful.

Would you say this is one piece of many images or a series of images?

Well, I suppose both - together and apart - a set of grouped individual pieces, like  those collections of artefacts in a display cabinet reflecting a kind of  ‘cabinet of curiosity’. The cabinet of curiosity allows you to trace loose narratives with seemingly disconnected objects getting a new meaning, creating strange stories, like a box of delights.

A Horniman cabinet of curiosities

How do you feel these pieces look, displayed in our Natural History Gallery?

They reflect upon acquisitive culture, ‘stuff’ being given value when it is collected by museums. This museum and gallery contains a lot of ‘dead stuff’ but when collected they gain a slightly different value. Collecting in this manner is tantamount to a kind of ‘contemporary commodity fetishism’.

Using NFC tags in our displays

A new display of artwork by Edward Chell opened in our Natural History Gallery last week.

Along with painted plant silhouette panels, the display features objects from our collections with inspired Edward's art.

One of these is a book of cyanotypes by Anna Atkins. Only one page of the book can be displayed at a time (due to light sensitivity and also practically). There is also a large porcelain dish from China.

We wanted to show more pages from the book, as well as show our visitors more details about the dish.

Our website gives us the tools for that. We have:

Earlier this year, we blogged about putting QR codes into our new Natural History Gallery displays as a way of testing these out. So for Edward Chell's display, we thought we would try another option: NFC tags.

NFC tags are small chips with information that can be read by smartphones simply by touch (they work in the same kind of way as London's Oyster cards). Our two tags bring visitors to the two links above.

We're displaying these tags along with a short cut web address - for those devices that don't use NFC technology.

Like QR codes, there are pros and cons to using NFC tags (pros: they're cheap, easy to implement, nifty; cons: do people know what they are, they don't work on all phones).

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

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. 

Creating the Anatomy of a Flower

Hello its Apprentice Gardener Ian again, it’s been a while but I have been hard at work creating a carpet bed with a lovely flower bed of the anatomy of a flower.


In case you haven't seen it yet (Where have you been??) it is a carpet bed with a flower display in the pattern of the anatomy of a flower. Its 3 metres in diameter with 7 different varieties of plants featuring: Alerbabthera's, sedums, sempervivums, etc.

Myself and one of the other gardeners Kevin created the bed for it but the plants were cultivated and designed by a company called Instaplants. They were the ones that grew the plants to the correct size and height and arranged them. If you wish to know more about how the design was done I recommend you visit their site http://www.instaplant.co.uk/

The creation of the bed was not as easy as it looks and it took a lot of planning and team work to create. The idea of a carpet bed that it is meant to lie at an angle so the image can be seen by standing in front rather then over.

The bed took a solid week and a half of hard work to create and I am quite proud of it. We started by cutting out a perfect 3 metre circle then digging out around the circle for the posts to go in.

After that we trenched out around it to get a great depth for the posts. Two days was spent cutting 62 posts to get a angle as they came down. The next phase was to put the poles in the ground. Progress started slowly but once we got the first ones in place it was plain sailing.


Once all of the posts were in they were cemented down, the middle was lined with geo-tech and filled with organic matter then top soil, the edges were given lovely white shingles and Tah-Dah the bed was made.


The flower display came in trays and it was just a matter of getting them in the right place like a puzzle. We put them all out and it was finished.

I have just given a brief summary. It was a lot harder then it sounds, trust me.

We ask that (just like you do with the rest of the garden) when you visit to treat it with respect as we put our heart and soul into making the bed and we are proud of it and don’t want it messed up. I hope you have enjoyed this blog and learnt something and if you do visit you’ll love the carpet bed as much as me and the gardens team do. 

The Horniman horses

We were recently visited by Livingstone and Finsbury, four legged members of the Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch. The horses (and others) donated 7 tonnes of manure to the Horniman Museum and Gardens that we have used on our Plantastic Gardens.

Inspector Katherine O'Brien commented that although "Police horses might seem unlikely gardeners" they were very pleased to see manure, that would otherwise go to waste, being used.

The horses helped us with our Planting for Pollinators garden which was planted in April. This bed contains species that will be very attractive to bees and butterflies when in bloom.

Wes Shaw, Head of Horticulture here at the Horniman, pointed out that "horse manure is an excellent way to provide great food for plants". This pop-up garden will look fantastic when in bloom, with Californinan Poppies, Fairy Toadflax and Cornflowers creating a beautiful display overlooking the London skyline.


Our Plantastic Gardens will be blooming throughout the summer and you can also visit our Plantastic exhibition within the museum.

Pictures taken by Sophia Spring.

Donation of manure made possible by Veolia Environmental Services (UK) plc.

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