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Inspired by Anna Atkins

Today is Ada Lovelace day when we celebrate women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

Our Librarian, Helen Williamson, is here to tell us about her work with our community partners creating beautiful cyanotypes inspired by Anna Atkins.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Shaftesbury Clinic, Springfield Hospital.
    Cyanotype made by Shaftesbury Clinic, Springfield Hospital.

‘We have written about Anna Atkins before on Ada Lovelace day but it’s a great opportunity to talk about her again, the beautiful book we hold in the library and the wonderful process of making cyanotypes.

The cyanotype was invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842. He was a family friend of Atkins and a regular visitor at the family home in Kent. Atkins was a keen artist, as well as an enthusiastic botanist, and recognised that Herschel’s new invention, which required only a few chemicals, water and sunlight, offered an opportunity to approach botanical illustration in a different way.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Aisling from the Horniman Youth Panel.
    Cyanotype made by Aisling from the Horniman Youth Panel.

In 1843, she started work producing the cyanotypes that would make up Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. It is considered to be the first ever photographically illustrated book and we are very lucky to have a copy in our library which was previously owned by the museum’s founder, Frederick Horniman.

To make a cyanotype, objects are placed on a sheet of chemically treated paper and then exposed to sunlight. The length of exposure depends upon how bright a day it is. Once exposed, the paper is washed in water and dried, with the colour fully developing when dry.

The process of creating cyanotypes is almost unchanged since Anna Atkins was making her book, and it creates remarkably stable prints. Most early photographic prints have deteriorated completely by now or need to be kept in strict, environmentally-controlled storage. Cyanotypes, on the other hand, have endured amazingly well. The colours in our copy of her Photographs of British Algae are beautifully vivid and the paper is robust enough for handling and display.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by David Quan from Redstart Arts.
    Cyanotype made by David Quan from Redstart Arts.

Over the summer the library and the learning team ran an engagement project with a number of our community partners who were challenged to make cyanotypes of their own, inspired by Anna Atkins and using the botanical world around them. This is some of the beautiful work they produced.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Eliot Bank Museum Club.
    Cyanotype made by Eliot Bank Museum Club.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by Esther and Maya from the Horniman Youth Panel.
    Cyanotype made by Esther and Maya from the Horniman Youth Panel.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by L.G, Arts Network.
    Cyanotype made by L.G, Arts Network.

  • Inspired by Anna Atkins, Cyanotype made by the Stroke Association.
    Cyanotype made by the Stroke Association.

A book of all of the cyanotypes made during this project is available to view in the library, alongside other material about Anna Atkins.

Visit one of our Library Open Days on the first Sunday of every month, or book an appointment.

Celebrating Women in Science

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths. The annual even is named in honour of Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer, and we'd like to take the chance to introduce you to a pioneering female scientist whose work we hold in the Horniman Collections: Anna Atkins.

  • Anna Atkins in 1861, Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
    , Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1799, Anna grew up as the daughter of scientist and secretary to The Royal Society. This put her in place to hear about and learn some of the newest scientific developments of the 1800s. She was a keen botanist and scientific illustrator, and when photography began to emerge as a new technique, she was one of the first to put it to good use.

Using an early photographic method known as cyanotyping, Anna began producing photographic plates of British algae, using specimens from her collection. Eventually she completed three volumes, which are now recognised as the first books ever to be published with photographic illustrations.

Anna Atkins is also widely recognised as the first woman ever to create a photograph.

During a recent review of the Horniman's collection of historic books, Librarian Helen uncovered the Horniman's own copy of this important work.

As the volumes were self-published, and the plates each made by hand, each version (and there aren't many left) is slightly different. Ours has a total of 457 plates bound in four books which were originally owned by Frederick Horniman.

We're very proud to have such an important work by a female scientist in our collection. It has inspired Helen and our Aquarium staff to work together to research and discover more about Anna Atkins and her work, which we hope will lead to a future exhibition where we can showcase some of Anna's beautiful images.

Design and Technology Week at the Horniman

Last week was Design and Technology Week, so, in partnership with STEM London East, Key Stage 3 pupils from schools across London East visited the Horniman to take part in an Olympics-inspired activity.

We asked the pupils to design their own Olympics logo, mascot and products using our Natural History collection and Aquarium as inspiration.

Our Natural History keeper Paolo and Aquarium keepers Jamie and James entertained and amazed students with stories of extraordinary athletes in the natural world. Did you know that a cheetah is as fast as a car on the motorway? If a flea were the size of a human, it could jump straight from the Museum to Forest Hill station?

All the students did a fantastic job, showing a real eye for design and drawing. With the help of a few staff members as judges, the students' work was presented on a mood board, with the following winners selected from each school:

Monday, 25 June - Haberdashers’ Askes’ Hatcham College

First place: Proud

Second place: Team Roo


Monday, 25 June - Little Ilford School, Ilford

First place: Sabrina Rocks

Second place: The Incredibles


Tuesday, 26 June - Our Lady’s Convent High School, Hackney

First place (tied): Courage the Fox

First place (tied): Synchro


Tuesday, 26 June - St. Paul’s Way Trust, Mile End

First place: Gorilla and Frog

Second place: Diverse


Friday, 29 June - Eltham Foundation School

First Place: Going 4 Gold

Second Place: Dizzy Doughnuts (Big Cats)


Friday, 29 June - The Chafford School, Rainham, Essex

First Place: Peregrine Falcon

Second Place: Ostrich


Science Week at the Horniman

As part of our STEM London East activity, we celebrated Science Week here with secondary schools across London East. Key Stage 3 pupils went behind the scenes of the Natural History Gallery and the Aquarium to see science in action.

Our keepers, Paolo, James and Jamie, entertained and amazed students with stories of their travels in exotic places, and fascinating insights into their research. 

  • Science Week at the Horniman, Keeper Paolo talking to pupils
    Keeper Paolo talking to pupils

During the visit to the Aquarium with James, students were in awe of the aquarium creatures, especially the mysterious poisonous cuddle fish that lurks behind the tanks.

  • Science Week at the Horniman, Pupils looking into aquarium tanks
    Pupils looking into aquarium tanks

The highlight for many was meeting a real-life palaeontologist and handling some of our impressive fossil collection.

  • Science Week at the Horniman, Keeper Paolo showing a fossil
    Keeper Paolo showing a fossil

Students also participated in a practical activity - dissecting owl puke! Every day, Barn Owls produce pellets filled with fur and bone - leftovers from last night’s dinner. After much poking and prodding, skulls and skeletons of rodents and shrews were found. One student discovered over 70 bones!

  • Science Week at the Horniman, Pupils dissecting owl vomit
    Pupils dissecting owl vomit

  • Science Week at the Horniman, Pupils looking at taxidermy owl
    Pupils looking at taxidermy owl

Students and teachers alike had a fantastic time and the week was a great success! A big thank you to Paolo, James, Jamie and Emily for volunteering their time to help create such an exciting week!

STEM Ambassador Networking Event at Eastlea Community School

Our STEM Ambassador networking event at Eastlea Community School was a great success with nine teachers from five different schools in attendance. Teachers had a chance to meet seven ambassadors with backgrounds ranging from the film industry to civil engineering, share ideas, and work together to design activities. One teacher mentioned: “It was such a great evening, really informative! It was great being able to meeting ambassadors from such a variety of backgrounds and understand the range of expertise STEM ambassadors have to offer. I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it.”

Some the great activity ideas that came out of the evening include:

  • Inviting students on trips to the ambassador’s workplace
  • Facilitating STEM insets for students
  • Assisting classroom investigations, and providing work-based examples of how the activity is used in the workforce
  • Bringing maths to life with games and puzzles

If you weren't able to make it, we will be hosting another networking evening on 27 March at Loxford School of Science and Technology in Redbridge. Hope to see you there!

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