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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.

Extreme Curator: Hot

With his cold and low oxygen challenges complete, this week it was time for our Extreme Curator to feel the heat.

Paolo bravely agreed to join a class at Hot Bikram Yoga, near London Bridge, in his Extreme Curator 'uniform' to experience some of the effects of heat on the human body.

The poses weren't the only challenge in the class; the room was heated to around 40°C, which encourages the body to relax and stretch further. Of course, it also encourages the human body to sweat, allowing us to see a very human adaptation to extreme heat.

Watch the video to see how Paolo coped with the heat and find out how other animals have adapted to extreme environments:

Paolo still has two more extreme environments from our upcoming Extremes exhibition to experience. 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.

Extreme Curator: Low Oxygen

Yesterday our Extreme Curator completed the second of his challenges, this time venturing into The Altitude Centre to experience low oxygen concentrations.

Animals living at altitude have had to adapt to as little as 9.5% oxygen in the air they breathe, compared to around 21% at sea level. At the Altitude Centre that environment is replicated to help mountaineers acclimatise to conditions at Mount Everest’s base camp, as well as athletes who train at altitude to improve their performance under normal conditions.

Paolo's challenge involved him breathing air with an oxygen concentration equivalent  to what you would experience at almost 6,000 metres (over 19,000 feet) up some of the world's hgihest mountain ranges.

Watch the second #ExtremeCurator video to see how Paolo coped with 9.5% oxygen.

Click for a close up of Paolo's heart rate and oxygen levels during the challenge:

There are a few more environments featured in our upcoming Extremes exhibition which Paolo will be experiencing over the coming weeks. 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.

Extreme Curator: Cold

Last week our Extreme Curator Paolo Viscardi ventured into the sub-zero temperatures of Icebar London to experience firsthand some of the challenges faced by animals living in extreme cold.

Icebar is the UK's only permenant bar made entirely of ice, with powerful air conditioning units which keep the temperature below freezing. For Paolo's challenge, Icebar was at a chilly -7°C.

Usually, Icebar's visitors are wrapped up warm and provided with a waterproof cloak. Paolo had no such luck, as he's completing all his extreme challenges in his shirtsleeves (don't try this at home/Icebar, folks).

Watch the video to see how our Extreme Curator got on in the cold.

Click on the image below for a close up comparison of Paolo's tiny label-writing at 21°C and -7°C:

Over the next few weeks, Paolo will be exploring other environments featured in 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.

8 Amazing Amazon Animals

This Summer you can visit our Amazon Adventure exhibition and take a trip down the world's largest and most biologically diverse river.

Here are just a few of our favourite fascinating facts about some of the animals to be found there.

8 Amazing Amazon Animals

Visit Amazon Adventure to learn more about exotic pink dolphins, piranhas and anacondas, meet live stingray and tetra, and even experience an electric eel's zap! It's also an opportunity to learn about the environmental dangers facing the Amazon today.

The exhibition is open at the Horniman until November 2013. You can book your tickets in advance online.


Rosanna Raymond, prominent artist of Samoan decent, explains here an ‘activation’ of the Poutokomanawa figure, recently de-installed from the Body Adorned exhibition at the Horniman.


Pou - post        Toko - to support, prop up        Manawa - the heart of a person

I first met the Poutokomanawa at a meeting with George Nuku and the Wellcome Trust. We had been brought in as cultural advisors for their exhibition on Skin, and he had been in the Wellcome Collection but now resided at the UCL Anthropology teaching collections.

He was to be displayed for his fine Tā Moko (tattoo). They had planned to exhibit him lying down, this we explained was highly inappropriate, akin to having him laying in state; he was used to standing, an ancestral figure, once supporting the central post for the Whare Tipuna (Ancestral house). Māori meeting houses are the embodiment of the ancestor, they are spaces for tribal gatherings, important meetings, funerals, celebrations, the poutokomanawa bears the weight for the tāhuhu (backbone). He is the heart, as each physical component of the house relates to a part of the human body.

Having worked with taonga (cultural treasures) for many years in museums, I was still stunned by this striking figure. He also brought out feelings I thought I had grappled with by working with museums, but he brought them all to the surface again. Therewas a real sense of violence and loss with him, you could see the saw marks, he seemed so isolated, naked, all we knew is who had bought him and where he resided now.

He would have once stood, the centre of his universe, fully adorned, most likely feathers and human hair in a top knot, which had been lopped off, along with his penis, maybe a piupiu (a type of kilt) or a korowai cloak to keep him warm, showing his status, and when I saw he had holes in ears I knew would have had something dangling from them. This is the moment I knew I wanted to help readdress him, re adorn him, show him someone cared, not so much an intervention but an acti.VA.tion…creating a space where we could came together activating the Va.

Va: Samoan term for space. It adheres time to space, this space not a linear space, or indeed an empty one, the Va is activated by people, binding people and things together

For me the real ‘art’ of my work is in the activation of the Va relationship with me and the collections, reinvigorating and revibing the taonga or measina through my body, they can live through me, the past and present sharing the same time and space, allowing the works to go, or be ingested outside the confines of the museum space or enclosure.

We've also shared the poem Rosanna wrote for the ceremony, A Poutokomanawa Bypass, on the blog.

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