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Anahita in Sharjah

Horniman volunteer, Anahita, tells us how her experiences in Forest Hill have helped her in her new role in the United Arab Emirates.

My name is Anahita and I volunteer at the Horniman Museum. I recently left London for Sharjah, an Emirate in the United Arab Emirates, for a three-month professional internship at Sharjah Art Foundation.

I thought this would be a great chance to try out living in another country and to learn more about Middle Eastern art. So far I have been to a few exhibitions in both Sharjah and Dubai, and have met lovely artists, curators, and arts administrators.

At the Horniman, I was involved in many different areas across the Museum such as Engage, World of Stories, and Community Engagement. I have been able to use my experiences with Community Engagement in particular for my work here in the Education Department.

I am currently putting together the Autumn Disabilities Education Programme and planning art workshops for disabled young people in the community. Although my work is mainly office based, I am looking forward to working with local people at nearby art centres and the Urban Garden in Sharjah.

I am starting to get used to the heat - it is pretty similar to the temperature and humidity in the butterfly house. I will be back at the Horniman in mid-December, and look forward to seeing everyone then.  

  • Sharjah, The Sharjah Art Museum.
    The Sharjah Art Museum.

The Horniman wins big at volunteer awards

Gemma Murray, Engage Volunteer and Family Learning Volunteer supporting Busy Bees sessions, tells us about the recent London Volunteers in Museums Awards Ceremony 2017 which she and her fellow volunteers attended to recognise their huge contribution to the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On Friday evening a couple of weeks ago, Horniman staff and volunteers made their way into Central London. What was the big draw? The London Volunteer in Museums Awards at City Hall. 

The London Volunteers in Museums Awards have been running annually for the past nine years with the aim of celebrating the contribution made by volunteers to museums throughout the capital. In previous years, Horniman volunteers including Peter O’Donovan and Ricky Linsdell have been winners, but could we repeat our successes? 

Upon arriving at the awards that were being held at City Hall, the first thing most of us did was to head out onto the balcony. There we found stunning views of Tower Bridge and the river bathed in the evening sun after what had been a long day of drizzle. There is nothing like seeing the Thames to make you really appreciate the fact that you are in London.

Once the awards got going, two things struck me. Firstly, quite how many diverse and fascinating museums there are in London. I like to think I've seen a lot of what London has to offer, but I still have so many places to check off my site seeing list. The second thing was the number and diversity of roles which are filled by volunteers. Listening to the winners was fascinating, but I also felt like I'd never really appreciated how many and various the roles played by volunteers at the Horniman really are.

Seher Ghufoor was a deserving winner of the Youth Award for her huge contribution to the Horniman Youth Panel and work involving young refugees, asylum seekers, and new arrivals. 

  • LVMA 2017 award winners including Seher in the centre of the shot - smaller (002), LVMA 2017 winners, including Seher Ghufoor (Centre)., Marie Stewart
    LVMA 2017 winners, including Seher Ghufoor (Centre)., Marie Stewart

The Engage ‘Discovery Box Project Volunteers’ were runners-up in the Best Team award for all their hard work making their mini-museum. Jane Beales was runner-up in the Developing in a Role award for her huge enthusiasm and hard work over at the SCC. I was runner-up in the Going the Extra Mile award for her proactive and sensitive support to our under-5’s Busy Bee programme, and Michelle Davis has finally been recognised for her sensitive and positive support of volunteers in the Aquarium after years of working tirelessly behind the scenes.

  • Members of the Engage Discovery Box Team at the awards ceremony (002), Members of the Engage Discovery Box Team at the awards ceremony.
    Members of the Engage Discovery Box Team at the awards ceremony.

So many roles – and this is before mentioning all those in the Butterfly House, Animal Walk, on the touch table and in the gardens, supporting weekend stories and events…

As the evening drew to a close, those left from the Horniman team swept Volunteering Manager Rhiannon onto the stage to thank her for her efforts in organising the proceedings -and to strike a pose on the winners' podium. With the massive pool of talent here at the Horniman, I'm sure next year we will sweep the board!

 

 

How to be a curious entomologist

Our volunteer, Helen, tells us how an afternoon with the nationally renowned Richard Jones helped her catch the entomology bug. 

The Devonshire Road Nature Reserve tucked away in the middle of residential Honor Oak is a real gem of South East London and only a stone’s throw away from the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On 22 July, Richard Jones, the nationally acclaimed entomologist, led a group of excited wannabee entomologists into the meadows of the reserve armed with nets, magnifying glasses, collecting pots and test tubes to boot.  

Richard explained the right technique for using the nets, sweeping across the flora and grasses casting our nets far and wide to ensure a good catch to put in our test tubes.  We were advised to let go of species that had already been identified, particularly Bumble Bees and Butterflies and take back to the lab those insects useful for education and research that could be identified and ultimately added to the national database.  We were already feeling like debutante entomologists.

We were shown how to humanely kill our specimens with a form of ether, ethyl acetate, and to prepare and focus our microscopes so we could do the curatorial bit of mounting and labeling our bugs.

Picking up the array of micro pins with tweezers, a vital bit of kit used for spiking the smallest of insects required a great deal of care, patience, and a steady hand when working with the microscope.  For the flatter specimens, mounting them on card with a gum glue was the preferred method before adding data labels to our specimens. We had now become real citizen scientists.

As I left the nature reserve, with a spring in my step and renewed interest in plant bugs, leaf bugs, tortoise bugs, green shield bugs, the soldier beetle, picture-wing flies, and hoverflies – their facts and figures buzzing inside my head, I couldn’t help but feel that life just got a whole lot more curious!

 

How a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection can help modern science

Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.

I'm Katie, and I'm three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.

The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.

  • Herbarium Volume, Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
    Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
 

The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant's scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database. 

Once it is all in one place, it then becomes possible to spot some trends within the herbarium data - for example, who the main collectors were, which amateur societies or organisations they were linked to, what they collected, where and why. This information then enables us to begin to understand the herbarium within its historical context and uncover the interesting stories surrounding Victorian plant collecting. Through documenting the herbarium we will also be able to make it an important resource for botanical researchers today. 

  • Mimsy Database, An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy
    An example of a herbarium sheet recorded on Mimsy

So why would a hundred and fifty-year-old botany collection be relevant to modern science? Well, due to the work of these plant-collecting Victorians we know what grew where and when in the period they were collecting. For example, this herbarium sheet includes the name of the specimen - Potentilla reptans - and where it was collected - Thame in Oxfordshire - and when - July 1843. This information can be used to compare the known locations of Potentilla reptans today with where it was collected in the past, using examples held in this herbarium and others held elsewhere.

  • Potentilla reptans, Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott
    Potentilla reptans looking glamorous on a herbarium sheet, Katie Ott

In doing so, it is possible to track the spread or decline of individual species - its distribution - through time. Species such as Potentilla reptans, also known as Creeping Cinquefoil, viewed by many gardeners as a slightly annoying weed, may not be such a cause for concern, but species that are rare and declining due to habitat loss, climate change or disease, or species which may have become invasive through their ability to thrive due to recent climatic changes, can be tracked by comparing data from historic herbaria with their contemporary counterparts. We only have to think about how much the British landscape has changed from the places familiar to someone like John Constable or Charlotte Bronte in the first half of the 1800s, compared to what is there now,  to understand how plant populations and diversity have changed over time. 

Not only is the herbarium useful in ecological terms, it is also interesting for us to see how plants have been named over time. Luckily, the name Potentilla reptans is still used today as the scientific name for Creeping Cinquefoil, but in other species, this may have changed many times between the mid-1800s and 2017. A single plant species may, at different points in time, have been attributed many different names. Potentilla reptans itself has around 17 synonymous names which are no longer in use or may previously have been used to describe a plant that was actually Potentilla reptans, but that botanists thought a different species. 

All in all, working with the herbarium has been great fun so far. It is interesting, as a museum studies student, to see the differences between collections care then and now - mercuric chloride, a form of mercury, may have made a super pest repellent in 1843 but now we go for less toxic methods - and after a while you do feel a bit of a connection between yourself and the plant collectors. Perhaps it is the nature of decoding the idiosyncrasies of someone's handwriting, but it is easy to feel as though you know the collectors through their work, which is, as you can see from the pictures, often not only scientifically valuable but beautiful.

In my next blog post, I hope to talk a little more about some of these collectors, as well as give an update on how the documentation is going.

Catch up with the Horniman Youth Panel

As they take a break for the Summer holidays we catch up with the Horniman Youth Panel to see what they've been up to this year.

We are the Horniman Youth Panel and we create fantastic events for people of all ages in the local community. Here is a review of our experience of organising and running some events at the museum in the last year.

Last November, we hosted our ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ youth event which proved hugely successful with 470 attendees. The event featured live music from local young talent, fortune telling, and much more.

To bring this project to life we had to work as a team. We designed posters and distributed them to local schools to raise awareness of the night, and on the night created a rota to ensure that everyone had a role to play on the night.

To celebrate the opening of the Robot Zoo in March we ran an event for families: ‘Cogs + Claws’.

We used African drums, masks, and puppets from the museum’s Hands on Base to tell fables full of animals, acting out stories with the children. The event also featured a near-impossible buzzer challenge, which one amazing child managed to complete winning a chocolate prize. Children also created the ultimate beast in a messy, but creative, arts and crafts challenge – we rushed around frantically with glitter and pom-poms to help them finish their creatures in time.

Keep an eye on the Horniman’s twitter account on 11 August as we are put in control for Kids in Museums ‘Teen Twitter Takeover’.

Everything you need to know about butterflies

As we get ready to open our Butterfly House, our Horniman volunteer Karen shares some of her best pictures and favourite facts about butterflies with us.

Like many, I adore butterflies, but I seem to see them all too rarely these days. As a child, growing up in Liverpool, I was totally smitten by butterflies. Summer after summer butterflies would appear in abundance in our garden and back then we didn't have mobile phones or tablets, so I would excitedly look them up in reference books I'd borrowed from my local library; from the humble cabbage white to the more exotic looking red admiral, and beautiful tortoise shell.  But these days, maybe because I spend most of my week either in an office or on the underground heading to the office, I’m in relatively few situations where I get the chance to see them. 

I am very fortunate to have a balcony attached to my flat; a small outdoor space of my own where I've tried to create my very own miniature wildlife oasis for insects and birds. I eagerly and regularly buy plants from my local flower shop in the hope that I might attract bees and butterflies, but sadly my gardening skills leave a lot to be desired and invariably my plants die, leaving me seeing very few, if any, of these visitors to my balcony. 

So in order to get my butterfly fix, I've recently been making an annual trip to the Natural History Museum's butterfly house. This was, in fact, the only place locally I knew where I could be close to and enjoy the company of these astonishing little creatures.  But that was until now, as this is about to change.

I have to say that I could barely contain my excitement when I heard that the Horniman Museum was building its very own butterfly house! So in anticipation of this summer’s opening, I would like to share with you some facts I have learned and pictures that I have taken of our colourful garden friends. It’s difficult to do them justice, but I hope you like them.

There are 4 stages in the life of a butterfly and in each stage, the butterfly is completely different:  

They start their life as egg 

  • Butterfly Eggs, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

They then become a caterpillar 

  • Caterpillar, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Then a chrysalis in which the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly and emerges

  • Butterfly Emerging, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King
 

The butterfly then looks for a mate to reproduce and the cycle begins all over again

  • Courtship, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King
 

Butterflies are diurnal

They are active during the day whilst sleeping at night, hiding away under leaves, or between rocks. 

  • Butterfly 1, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Butterflies hibernate

It may come as a surprise but some butterflies actually hibernate over the Winter months and some survive this period either as a caterpillar or pupa. 

  • Butterfly 2, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Butterflies don't have noses or lungs

Adult butterflies, as well as caterpillars, breathe through a series of tiny openings along the sides of their bodies, called "spiracles." From each spiracle, there is a tube called a "trachea" which carries oxygen into the body. Butterflies smell using their antennae.

  • Butterfly 5, Image: Karen King
    Image: Karen King

Thank you for reading. And just for fun, can you find out which species of butterflies are in the pictures above?

Muddy Bees is back

With our outdoor play session returning Wednesday 5 July and Tuesday 26 September, volunteer Gemma Murray provides us with some great ideas how you can have some messy but manageable fun at home.

Muddy Bees is an outdoor play session for under 5s run by the Horniman throughout the summer months and there are two more sessions left for this year: Wednesday 5 July and Tuesday 26 September.

Since we are lucky enough to have our wonderful Gardens at the Horniman Muddy Bees takes place on a grand scale. With a massive water butt, several tables, and tonnes of pots and pans, we can offer you sand, water, mud pie making, and lots of messy fun.

However, often parents will ask us for ways to replicate our games in the more confined spaces of their own homes and gardens. So here are my top five outdoor game ideas, be warned though, there's always bound to be a little mess.

Plant Sprayer Shootout

Set up a series of targets around your garden, this could be anything from plastic cups and bottles to something as simple as a sheet of paper with a target drawn on it. Arm each child with a plant sprayer and see if they can hit the targets. Older kids will have to stand further back than younger ones in the interest of fairness. Watch out, there's a high chance that this could spill over to a fully fledged water fight.

Water Drawing

Another one that makes use of plant sprayers, but a clean set of paint brushes and a pot of water works just as well. This one couldn't be simpler, just let your little ones loose on whatever surface they can find. Fences, patios, and walls will all become blank canvases for them to express themselves on, and you could end up with a clean patio for their troubles too.

Chalk

Chalk can look rather tasty so make sure nothing ends up in your kids' mouths, but, like water, chalk offers a chance for children to express their artistic sides with minimal cleanup so drawing on pretty much anything goes. 

Water Trays

Make your own paddling pools with just a tub of water. This works very well with babies but big brothers and sisters will probably want a piece of the action too. Adding food colouring to the water can prove an interesting experiment for older kids who want to see what colours they can mix together but can lead to bright blue fingers leaving their mark. 

Potions

Gather up ingredients to brew a 'magic' potion in any waterproof container you can find. Sticks, mud, leaves, petals, stones, or whatever your kids can get their hands on are sure to result in something as magical as it is messy. Last year, my kids were delighted to discover that their concoction made in a chocolate tin has transformed into a viable pond full of growing grass and little wriggly things. I was a little less thrilled when it came time to clean up.

The bees are back

Engage Volunteer Shelagh is celebrating the return of the bees to the Nature Base.

If you go down to the bees today, you're sure of a big surprise.

We are so pleased to see the new colony of bees in the Nature Base, and the great thing about a young colony is that, because there are fewer bees, you can really see what's going on. We have been able to watch lots of key moments in the bees' world.

We've seen young workers actually hatching out. First, you notice a tiny hole in the top of some of the wax caps in the brood frame. Then, as the wax is chewed away from the inside, a young bee starts to emerge head first.

  • Young workers actually hatching out, A young worker bee hatching out, Barbara Hornik
    A young worker bee hatching out, Barbara Hornik

Sometimes, an older worker comes to communicate with the emerging young bee - seeming to 'wipe' its face with antennae. One hatchling seemed to be 'stuck' for ages, with a 'collar' of wax round its neck. We were waiting for an older bee to come and help!

We also noticed two or three 'premature' white hatchlings that seemed to have been pulled out of their cells, and were being carried around by older bees. Had they decided that perhaps these young were not viable? How could they tell? Presumably, these would be consumed by other hive-members, so as not to waste any of that precious protein. Yet more bee questions for us to ponder.

  • Bees in the Nature Base, Bees in the Nature Base, Connie Churcher
    Bees in the Nature Base, Connie Churcher

As it was windy and raining outside, it was not surprising that there weren't any bees coming back into the hive with full pollen baskets on their legs. But there was plenty of activity inside the hive - evidenced by what seemed to be a warmer than usual feel to the surface of the glass when you put the back of your hand against it. Bees in the upper frame were working hard on building new wax cells.

All this was very exciting for visitors and volunteers to witness. A Polish visitor with her daughter said her dad was a beekeeper, so she grew up with bees. She told us about a project in Poland called Pszczelarium which helps people living in cities to set up and look after their own beehives.

Before they go, a great question we ask visitors is:

If bees were paid the minimum wage, how much do you think a jar of honey would cost?

The answer is...

.

.

.

£143,000, which works out as roughly $182,000 or €166,330!

This great bee-fact comes from a brilliant little book called Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker. It makes you think about all the bee-hours takes for one jar of honey, and how we take for granted their "free" labour. Respect!

Farewell Armadillo

Our Engage Volunteer, Gemma, is reflecting on one of the objects she has enjoyed working with over the last few months.

One thing working on the Engage table has shown me time and time again is that there is always more than one way of looking at things.

As of 29 April there have been new objects to handle out in the Museum at the trolley next to the Natural History Gallery. While I am really looking forward to working with them, I’ll be sad to see the back of the things we have been using for the last couple of months.

All the most recent batch of items had bags of personality.

The python skin has been a real winner. Kids and adults alike never seem to tire of unrolling its massive 4m length - so I’m sure it will be back! The duiker has been stroked and petted as we’ve cooed over the idea of tiny antelopes the size of bunny rabbits.

The wonky turtle has kept us guessing about the life it led before ending up at the Horniman and, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how keen you are to meet one), I never did come across a single visitor who had seen a longhorn beetle in the UK.

There was also an armadillo carapace.

The handling has darkened it a bit, but it was not particularly well preserved in the first place having been badly bent and stuffed with bits of newspaper. The old newspaper kept the Engage team entertained as it has fallen out piece by piece providing snippets of news about a driving ban, the number 1870 and some sort of warning about German girls (I have no idea what they are alleged to have done).

The carapace has great links to the rest of the Horniman. Armadillos have traditionally been used in the Andes to make music. With its lumps and ridges, I’d pictured something like a guiro – a percussion instrument which you would rub with a stick or brush, but apparently it’s usually made into a stringed instrument called a charango. Sort of like a lute.

As a lovely example of animal adaption, it makes a good introduction to The Robot Zoo exhibition. There are also a couple of armadillos in the Natural History Gallery, but actually, one of those is not all it seems…

One of the things the Engage staff were told about armadillos is that only the three banded armadillo can curl completely into a ball. However, at the far end of the Natural History Gallery, there is another armadillo carapace. It’s a nine banded armadillo like the one on the trolley. It is very much curled into a ball.

According to the Curator, this may have been the work of an over-enthusiastic Victorian and is not a fully accurate reflection of the abilities of nine banded armadillos. Then again, when most of your audience wouldn’t have seen an armadillo in action, it gets the point across that they are bendy when they need to defend themselves and is no more misleading than our much loved (but very overstuffed) walrus.

As anyone who was around in the 1990s will tell you, the armadillo has links to the café too. Anyone for a certain smooth on the outside and crunchy in the middle chocolate snack? Or you can just eat it. I am told it tastes like pork.

So goodbye to our lovely, intriguing armadillo with all its great uses and links.

Or, as one American visitor said to me lately, "yuck, it’s just road kill."

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