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Homes for Bats and Birds

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Jim, who works for The Conservation Volunteers, has been updating us on the latest work being done on London's oldest Nature Trail.

This January, the conservation volunteers put up the new Woodcrete Bird and Bat boxes purchased by the Gardens team.

These boxes are used by most conservation organisations as they are tough, durable and easy to clean. They are made of a mix of wood pulp and concrete, so are impervious to attacks from woodpeckers, crows, jays and magpies who will attempt to raid the nests for eggs and fledglings.

We have put up four bat boxes down around the Nature Trail meadow. This is a good area for bats (probably pipistrelle bats) as the pond is nearby, and this along with the meadow is a good source of insects - the bats main food.  The bats can roost in the boxes and come out to feed from dusk onwards.

Bats live in colonies, so the boxes are all put close together, unlike boxes for birds, which have separate territories.  

Four blue tit boxes have also been put up along the trail to join the other six great tit boxes that are already there. The difference between the two boxes is that the blue tit box has a smaller hole, thus excluding the larger great tits, who will oust the smaller blue tits given the chance.

All of these boxes will provide very useful nesting and roosting sites for birds and bats, and they will help to increase the overall biodiversity and educational value of the Nature Trail.  

Extreme Curator: Dark

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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.


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We've posted a lot about the Bioblitz project, but while the Natural History team have been busy sorting through thousands of specimens, our librarian Helen has been tackling her own review of the Horniman Library's historic books.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens has always had a library, which used to be in the room now taken up by the Hands On Base before it got its own dedicated building.

Librarians have continued to add to the library right up to the present day, focusing on books which have strong connections to the collections - Natural History, Anthropology and Musical Instruments - and to the Horniman itself.

Now, the Horniman Library is regularly used by staff for research purposes, and is open to the public by appointment on Thursdays and Fridays (email enquiry@horniman.ac.uk to arrange a visit). You can also browse the library catalogue online.

The library's oldest volumes were donated when the museum was founded, including many by the Horniman family. Some volumes are centuries old, while others tell stories from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is this historic collection which has been the focus of Helen's 'Bookblitz' for the last year.

The reasons behind carrying out this review are similar to those behind Bioblitz and Collections People Stories. By examining each volume on the shelves closely, Helen is able to establish exactly what we have, and whether anything is particularly special or needs extra attention, either from researchers or our Conservation team.

One of the most important tasks is checking that the numbers assigned to each book in the original accession registers and modern catalogue, and those attached to the books themselves all match. Just like in the object collections, these unique numbers allow us to track the book's history and everything we have learnt about it.

With the other collections reviews running alongside, the Bookblitz has offered a fantastic opportunity to make new links with other Horniman collections. We even have some books which tell the story of how our own museum objects were collected.

Just like Bioblitz and Collections People Stories, people with specialist knowledge have thrown new light on some of the library's collection. Judith MaGee, Special Collections Curator at the Natural History Museum, joined Helen to look over the fantastic Natural History volumes.

We'll be blogging about a few of the discoveries Helen has made when making her way through the library's catalogues, so stay tuned to see more fascinating historical books.

Bookblitz blog posts:

Crocodile Hunting in Central America

Japanese Fairy Tales

Man: His Structure and Physiology

Another Frederick Hornemann


Tales of the Unexpected: Peculiar Pipes

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The Collections People Stories project is moving on through the stores, checking and photographing thousands of objects. Collections Assistant Clare has updated us on some of her team's favourite discoveries.

Since moving on to our current theme of Health and Healing the review teams have explored and processed some truly weird and wonderful objects. However none have been so varied in type and style as those in our pipe collection.

First started back in August, this part of the review has been slowly working its way through 2 Bays and over 1900 objects to date.

Having briefly investigated the bays before setting to work on the Narcotics and Intoxicants section, it appeared that a significant amount of the collection came from Europe, and particularly England. Therefore, we were expecting the vast majority of the section to be pipes, and especially clay ones. We certainly have a few.



Fortunately the collection has, as always, surprised us and the review teams have been on a whirlwind adventure around the world. From trying to work out exactly how these pipes from New Guinea would have been used...

...to figuring out how hookah pipes fit together, and why there are so many animals decorating pipe bowls across the globe.

We were also excited to find some truly beautiful and intricate objects. 

Even if this does mean that occasionally our conservator needs to work out where a wolf has become detached from.

Extreme Curator: Dry

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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.

Cleaning the Hands on Base

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Christine from the Learning Team has sent us an update explaining how the handling collection here at the Horniman is kept clean and free of dust. 

Have you ever vacuumed a duck?

The Horniman's handling collection has over 3700 objects all kept in the Hands on Base. Many of these objects are used weekly for school and community sessions and they all need to be cleaned.

The learning team and volunteers must carefully take down all the objects from the tops of the cabinets in the Hands on Base and set about cleaning them. It is quite a challenge as the objects can range from old and new, come from all over the world and are made of many different materials.

To clean the objects we use a special conservation vacuum cleaner with low suction which is very useful for cleaning taxidermy ducks and other birds as well as the fox.

The big clean also gives us a chance to check the objects for any sign of pest damage and to see if any need repair. We aim to do this twice a year and are very grateful for help from volunteers and the facilities team which makes the job much easier.

Want to know more about the handling collection? The Hands on Base is open every Sunday until the 23 March 2014 from 2-3:30pm for Discovery for All.

At Home with Music gets ready to open

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This week sees the launch of the Music Gallery's new display, At Home With Music.

A few weeks ago we shared a behind the scenes look at the new display being installed.

A lot has changed since then, and the new display cases are now home to an array of beautiful instruments.

At Home With Music will tell the story of the keyboard instruments we have invited into our homes over the centuries, as well as displaying a range of instruments and looking at how they produce such fantastic sounds.

Some of the largest keyboards will also be displayed outside the glass cases, allowing visitors to get even closer to some of their exquisite detail.

Some of the final steps toward the launch involve curator Mimi giving some of the Horniman staff a guided tour of new display.

The star of the display is a late 18th century English harpsichord by Jacob Kirckman. At the launch event, Composition Competition winners Adam Stafford and Tim Watts will have their pieces performed on the harpsichord, which has been painstakingly restored to playing condition.

At Home With Music will be open to the public from Thursday 30 January 2014. You can find it along the first wall of the Music Gallery, to the left as you enter.

Extreme Curator: Hot

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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.

Five Go Collecting: An Update from India

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As part of the Horniman Collecting Initiative, Gorby Jandu aims to gather turbans from the Sikh diaspora. In his previous update, he gave us an introduction to this religio-cultural item of clothing, and now returns to report on his fieldwork experiences.

In a recent field trip to Punjab, India, I spent two weeks looking at the material culture associated with the turban in the daily lives of Sikhs in rural areas of Northern India.

Seechewal, located some 50 kms Southwest of the city of Jalandhar was the location of this particular ethnographic study. The Parish town and its closely knit hamlet villages have a population of about 800 people, a number decreasing as younger people go overseas to find work, leaving behind a majority of elderly people, children and women.

The annual trips the men make back to the town normally coincides with significant lifecycle events such as births, deaths or marriages. If not then the trip coincides with vaisakhi – the harvest festival, an annual highlight of the Sikh calendar and a time of song, dance and of course, lots of food.

The research took in the daily routines of the few remaining male farmers who work on large tracts of verdant landscape in this semi-rural set town that supplies the raw commodities of milk and seed. These are sent to the city’s factories for processing into finished goods like paneer, a local cottage cheese used in luxury food dishes, and roti, the staple chapatti foodstuff eaten everywhere.

Whilst there, the research also happily coincided with a wedding taking place in the family of the town’s administrator-general (traditionally called sarpanch). This was a matter of high-importance as his son was marrying the daughter of the neighbouring village’s sarpanch! The wedding lasted a week, during which all non-essential activities in many villages around the town were ceased, the village the sarpanch was from sent their cows to a neighbouring farmer during the wedding as they would be too busy to milk them for the duration of the family’s wedding celebrations – all two weeks of them!

This is a picture of the groom, Ranjit, 24 years of age.

The bulk of the research took place around the lifestyles of the land-working class, such as that of Harinder’s family: he is pictured below taking a dip in what he jokingly called a ‘Punjabi swimming pool’. It is in fact a open water pump tank, called a khua in Punjabi. The khua itself has an iconic status in Punjabi folklore and is romantically linked to a place the famous forbidden lovers Sohni and Mehival and many after them met. It is more likely that the scarcity of water in Punjab before the Green Revolution contributed to its high regard in a region that is considered to be India’s breadbasket.

The town operates a traditional occupation caste system that meant that Harinder and his family have worked the same plots of land for over four generations. Harinder, now 24 years of age, is a self-employed carpenter in Dubai who only helps with land-tending when free. He has no wish to continue the family tradition and is hoping to be able to purchase the land that his family’s homestead stands on.

Harinder’s situation and many like them all over East Punjab are interesting examples of the changes that were conceptualised by Emile Durkheim, the 19th Century sociologist, about the changes that societies like these that transform from mechanical to organic solidarity.

Extreme Curator: Low Oxygen

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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.

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