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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.

Horniman collections on display at Tate Britain

Five objects from the Horniman's acclaimed Anthropology collection are currently on display at Tate Britain, as part of the exhibition British Folk Art.

We asked curator Martin Myrone to introduce the exhibition and tell us why our objects are on display.

British Folk Art brings together inventive, strange and wonderful objects from collections across the country, made by people outside the artistic mainstream.

Displaced from their contexts in social history or regional collections, they are being shown as examples of everyday, sometimes idiosyncratic, creativity.

These are objects with multiple lives - as functional objects, decoration, cherished artworks or historical curiosities.

The objects being borrowed from the Horniman are wonderful examples of the invention applied to the craft of creating trade signs in the past.

The strange and brooding Chimneysweep's Sign, for example, is both a fantastic piece of figurative sculpture, and a rather alien, even 'ethnographic' artefact.

What was once an everyday piece of street signage has been transformed by time and by re-display into a compelling artwork.

British Folk Art is at Tate Britain until 31 August 2014. Later this year, the exhibition will be at Compton Verney from 27 September to 14 December.

Bernie Krause introduces his Great Animal Orchestra

Bernie Krause's new installation of the Great Animal Orchestra opens at the Horniman this Sunday. Here the sound designer shares the history behind this stunning soundscape of natural habitats.

The new Horniman soundscape, The Great Animal Orchestra, is based on concepts within my book of the same title in which I describe how animals taught us to dance and sing. From my musical background and field observations of natural sound, my installations express how we discovered the origins of music which emanated from the world’s wild places.

The installation features the beautiful biophonies (the collective sound produced by all living organisms in a given location) from four different habitats: Borneo, Costa Rica, Sumatra, and Zimbabwe. Simultaneously, the installation projects the graphic images of these recordings called spectrograms.

The dramatic images, like orchestral musical scores, illustrate the organization of sound from which humans living amongst these animals mimicked, adopting the acoustic structure, melody, rhythm, harmony, texture and performance. One of my favourite moments is the magical call and response of two duetting gibbons in the recording from Camp Leakey, Borneo which really does sound like a musical duet.

The recordings at the Horniman hold special meaning for me and have been selected as prime examples of the many thousands I have recorded around the world. My fascination with biophonies began following my first field trip to Kenya in the 80s. When I returned home I created simple spectrograms from the recordings I’d made. Just as photographic images appear on photo paper, unmistakably clear patterns materialized showing the audio sequences I’d recorded. This was far from the chaotic random expression I and others perceived it to be; it became unmistakably clear that creatures vocalize in distinct kinship to one another, occupying their own bandwidth in order to hear their own species just as each instrument of the orchestra has a different range.

And so a lifetime’s work began.

The communal sound arrangement described above is still produced in the few remaining undisturbed places of the wild. Unfortunately many of my soundscape recordings are of habitats that no longer exist due to human intervention or natural disaster.  For example, the impact of population and mining has had a devastating effect on the Borneo habitat you can hear in the installation, and the habitat you hear from the Aceh province in Sumatra was destroyed in the 2004 Tsunami.

Great Animal Orchestra: Natural Soundscapes by Bernie Krause opens in the Horniman's Music Gallery on Sunday 27 July. Join us to celebrate the launch of this new exhibition at The Great Animal Orchestra Party.

Building the Extremes Garden

Wes, our  Head of Horticulture, lets us know what went in to creating our new outdoor showcasing exploring plants with some amazing adaptations to extremely arid environments.

The big challenge to build our Extremes Garden was to find suitable plants to display, as they are not the type that can be picked up in your local garden centre, and we needed something especially striking as a centre piece.

Fortunately my old mate David Cooke, manager of Kew Gardens' Temperate House helped us out, and loaned a Giant African Cycad, Encephalartos altenstenii.

Cycads are amazing plants that survived when the dinosaurs inhabited the planet; they actually predate the evolution of flowering plants and produce cones rather than flowers as reproductive structures.

Glasshouse manager Kate Pritchard from Oxford Botanic Gardens also kindly loaned us two lovely Organ Pipe Cactus that have also made a big visual impact on the garden.

Other plants came from Southfields specialist cacti nursery; gold medal winners at Chelsea this year. The amazing Architectural Plants Nursery in Horsham also provided us with a nice selection.

We paid a visit to a private nursery/collection owned by Cacti expert John Pilbeam (Connoisseurs' Cacti) to source the remaining smaller specimens.

After a lot of deliberation we positioned the plants. They were planted in their pots because they are only going to be on display until September (when they will need to be moved inside for the Winter) so it saved disturbing their root balls which cacti in particular don’t appreciate.

We then laid a weed-suppressing membrane around the plants and over the surface of the bed, creating a patchwork between the plants.

We then mulched with 5 bulk bags of decorative stone, to give the display its arid/desert look.

The display only really took the highly skilled Gardens team 2 days to install, and we are very pleased with the results.

Desert inspiration for an Extreme Garden

If you've visited our Gardens this week, you may have noticed a new display near the Animal WalkExtremes Garden showcases the amazing adaptations plants have made to survive some of the most extreme conditions on earth, with cacti and succulents from exceptionally hot environments.

Wes, Head of Horticulture at the Horniman, has shared some of his American inspiration for creating this new display.

In April this year I travelled to the Mexican peninsular of Baja California with a friend and self-confessed cacti freak. This would be Part 2 of an expedition begun in June 2013 when we travelled through the Sonoran Desert in the South Western States of the USA looking at species of cacti and succulent plants growing in their natural habitat.

The Sonoran Desert also covers areas of Northern Mexico, and is home to an even broader range of desert plants that we had yet to see, so we felt we had unfinished business and headed back earlier this year.

The plan was to travel the length of the peninsular as far as the town of Loreto, looking at various locations that my travelling companion Andrew Gdaniec, Curator of the Alameda Botanic Garden in Gibraltar had researched and found locations for.

The first highlight was to find the closely guarded location of the hedgehog cactus Echinocereus lindsayi. Andrew had acquired GPS coordinates of this very rare plant, and we had to travel off-road to the foot of rocky outcrop where we spotted flowers from our jeep. In the end we only found 12 or so of these plants so were very lucky.

Desert landscapes can be quite varied. While most people think of rolling sand dunes, the North American deserts are quite different.

We also saw some truly monster plants. One that dominated much of the landscape was the Giant Cardón Cactus, Pachycereus pringlei, which is only found in Baja. It is the world’s biggest cactus, growing up to 20m in height and weighing 20-25 tonnes. These are very long lived species and some of the large ones we saw were probably 500 + years old.

Succulents are plants that sometimes look like cacti, and they have similar water saving adaptations, but because of botanical differences (cacti have structures called areoles, which succulents do not) they are not classed as cacti. But they are no less impressive!

Along with amazing plants, there is also a lot of animal life to look out for in the desert. Highlights we came across include rattle snakes, big scary looking spiders, lizards, scorpions, vultures and coyotes. Grey whales also overwinter in the lagoons off of the coast.

This trip and our earlier one proved to be inspiration for the new display that the Gardens team have just finished installing. It is designed to complement the temporary Extremes exhibition in the Museum, and is designed  to show visitors how plants can survive in extreme habitats through some amazing adaptations. We hope you like it!


Extreme Animals Arrive

This week has been an exciting one at the Horniman Museum and Gardens as we prepare for the opening of our new family friendly exhibition, Extremes.

There have been quite a few taxidermy animals to settle into their new home. It was exciting to see them all arriving.

Extremes offers a chance for us to loan some larger taxidermy specimens which are rare in the Horniman collections. Can you guess who these claws belong to?

There is also an opportunity for some of our own collections to come out of storage and get some well-deserved attention on display. The Exhibitions team have been busy preparing and mounting a wide variety of objects.

It's been fantastic fun testing out some of the interactives, too.

For the last few weeks, our #ExtremeCurator has been experiencing the enviroments explored in the exhibition, and looking at how well-adapted some animals are compared to humans. You can catch up on Paolo's adventures on Youtube.

Today, Paolo took a tour around the exhibition itself. Keep an eye out for the last #ExtremeCurator video, where he'll introduce you to some of the animals featured in Extremes.

Extremes is open to the public from 12.30pm on Saturday 15 February. You can buy your tickets online in advance.

Extreme Curator: Dark

In Paolo's fifth and final #ExtremeCurator challenge, he found himself trying to navigate the Natural History Gallery here at the Horniman in complete darkness.

One of the environments explored in our Extremes exhibition, opening this weekend, is extreme darkness. Many animals live their entire lives without sunlight, and have adapted to survive without relying on their sight.

During his challenge, Paolo tried to adopt some of the techniques used by these animals to navigate his way to a ringing phone. He discovered that, in total darkness, even familiar places become strange and confusing.

Watch the video to see Paolo attempt echolocation, and hear him talk about some of the animals that are far better adapted to extreme darkness.

Paolo's #ExtremeCurator challenges have seen him face cold, heat, aridity, low loxygen levels, and now darkness. Watch all the challenge videos on Youtube or follow all the updates on Twitter.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

Extreme Curator: Dry

After the humid heat of his hot yoga class, Paolo's next Extreme Curator challenge was to face the dry heat of the desert.

To experience the extreme environment of the Sahara Desert, we travelled to the Centre for Air Conditioning and Refridgeration Research at London South Bank University. Their environmental chamber can be brought down to an arid 20% relative humidity, while the temperature is cranked up to a toasty 43°C.

Once again, the human body's ability to sweat came into play, although this time in the dry air made it a far more effective strategy for keeping cool.

Watch the video to see why sweating isn't always such a good idea, and find out how other animals cope with dry desert conditions.

Spending a short time in these conditions wasn't too hard on our Extreme Curator, which hints a little at the fact that the human body is actually quite well-adapted to cope in the heat. This is in part due to the fact we as a species evolved in Africa, and have not lost our adaptations which allowed us to thrive in the continent's hot climates.

There is still one Extreme Curator challenge for Paolo to face before he has experience the full range from our upcoming Extremes exhibition. You can keep up with his adventures on Twitter or subscribe to our Youtube Channel to see the latest #ExtremeCurator updates.

Extremes opens at the Horniman on Saturday 15 February 2014. Tickets can be booked online.

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