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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.

Introducing Mark Fairnington

We began a fundraising appeal last week so we could stage an exhibition of Mark Fairnington's art.

We really want to bring Mark's art to the Horniman, as many of his paintings are inspired by our collections.

But in case you don't know him, we thought we should introduce his excellent artworks.

We hope you'll love Mark's art as much as we do - to help us stage his exhibition, visit Art Happens to donate.


Romanian Layouts

On 4 October, a new exhibition exploring the folk art of Romania will open at the Horniman. The end product, which will be free for all to visit on our Balcony Gallery, is a result of almost two years of hard work by staff across many museum departments.

One of the most exciting stages of this process occurs when the objects chosen by the curator for display are brought out of storage and laid out in the museum in an early mock up of the final exhibition. Staff from all over the museum have a chance to take a look at the planned displays and work out what they need to do to get them ready.

Prior to the physical layout, our Graphic Designer Stew uses database photographs of each object to produce an initial paper layout matching designs by the curator, the precise measurements provided by the Documentation team allowing him to get this as accurate as possible without seeing the real thing.

The chosen objects are then laid out in positions as close to how they will be be displayed as possible on a 2D surface.

The measurements of each display case are marked out with string, so everyone can see clearly how the objects will fit in the space.

Having the real objects laid out is an important step, allowing the curator and Exhibitions team to compare the 2D plan with the real thing, and for our technicians to get a good look at the objects they will have to mount in a 3D display.

Some of the objects in Revisiting Romania provided a challenge for our Technicians, who needed to devise a way to mount large textiles without altering them in any way - meaning creating holes to attach them to walls.

Our Conservation team were on hand to advise on the best way to care for the objects while putting them on display, as well as to pick up on any necessary treatments.

In this case, it became obvious at the layout stage that a belt intended for display was too stiff to be mounted, prompting the Conservation team to step in with a treatment to soften the leather prior to display.

These technical considerations mean there are always small adjustments to be made to the way the objects are positioned.

Once finalised, each part of the layout is carefully photographed so that an up to date plan can be printed for the installation teams can refer back to, and more detailed shots are produced for the technicians to use when building mounts.

The size of some displays requires a high vantage point.

Long arms can be helpful, too.

The photographs and notes made during the layouts help to produce an up-to-date plan, which the installation teams can refer to when getting the objects on display.

To take a look at some of the Revisiting Romania installation in progress, check out our Twitter feed or the #RevisitingRomania hashtag.

The Revisiting Romania exhibition opens on 4 October on the Balcony Gallery. We're celebrating with a weekend of free Romanian-themed entertainment.

The Case of the Missing Polar Bear

A large taxidermy polar bear stands proudly in our family-friendly Extremes exhibition at the moment.

Its arrival here caused quite a flurry, but it wasn't the first time a polar bear had been on display at the Horniman.

In the early 1890s, Frederick Horniman bought a polar bear from a man called James Henry Hubbard. The polar bear was first displayed in the Canadian Section of the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, along with many other Canadian animals including our famous walrus.

The polar bear is first mentioned in local newspaper articles as 'a polar bear realistically attacking a seal'.

It was one of the big stars of the Museum for over 60 years and was very popular with museum visitors. Over the years, the polar bear and other animals were moved several times. It was stated that it took five men to move each one.

However, in the late 1940s, the polar bear was sold.

There were many reasons for this: the fur of the polar bear may have become dirty and the mount itself may no longer have been in good condition; staff in the museum began to research new themes for display based on the latest scientific ideas and developments and there would have been very little space to store large animals at that time. Also, by the 1940s tastes and attitudes towards taxidermy had changed significantly and it became increasingly unfashionable to display large animals in museums.

The polar bear was sold on 17 September 1948, to a Mr T Allen, a local ‘scrap’ merchant. The polar bear's fate is a mystery.

At one time, there were rumours that the polar bear had been bought and put on display in Selfridges, but this has never been confirmed.

In 2006, we set upon a search to find out if the polar bear still exists somewhere out in the wider world, but were not able to find anything concrete. We learned that it had been sold on by Mr Allen in the 1950s to a photographic studio in Southend-on-Sea, but unfortunately have not found any evidence of what happened to it after that.

Do you live in Southend-on-Sea or have visited in the past and remember having your photograph taken with a polar bear? We'd love to hear from you.

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