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Back to books!

One of our Volunteers, Chiara, tells us about her experience in the Horniman Library.

‘I’ve been working as a Librarian in a public library for ten years, back in Italy.

When I moved to London, I lost contact with what had meant so much to me: dealing with the public (especially kids, since I was mostly working in the library’s children section) handling books everyday (the smell of paper...and dust! How wonderful!) and being in daily touch with local communities. At the beginning of my time in London, I felt a little bit lost.

So when I had the opportunity to join the taster session for Volunteers at the Horniman, I was very excited. Somehow I felt I could be again part of something special.

  • Back to Books!, Discovering books in the Horniman Library
    Discovering books in the Horniman Library

I volunteered with Engage for some months and this reminded me of the brilliant curiosity of children. I also took part in the Half Term activities and I could breathe again the happy atmosphere of families playing and learning together. But there was still something missing for me.

Anytime I could, I started sneaking into the Library to help Helen, the librarian, mending the children’s books. When a volunteering role for a library project arose, I couldn’t resist applying. Then the magic happened, I was working again in a library in the reclassification project!

Now, anytime I go to the shelf, pick a book, browse through it and discuss with Helen the most suitable place for visitors to find it, I feel the ‘librarian thrill’ again.

When I handle the ancient books of the special collection, touching them very gently to respect their age and fragility, I feel again as if I was in one of the ancient libraries I used to attend in Rome.

  • Back to Books!, Examining books in the Horniman Library
    Examining books in the Horniman Library

I feel a little bit homesick, but also home again, because if home is where your heart is...well, my heart has always been beating for books.

I have had experience of various different volunteering roles at the Horniman, having also spent some weeks in administration. It has been amazing to experience different and sometimes surprising opportunities, but in the end I’m so very glad that this way took me back to books.

Find out more about volunteering at the Horniman.

About the Art: Misja Smits

Our European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is running until 15 January. Here, we chat to Misja Smits about her work and her stunning photograph ‘looking for shelter’.

  • About the Art: Misja Smits, Looking for shelter, Misja Smits
    Looking for shelter, Misja Smits

Tell us the story behind ‘looking for shelter’.

Looking for toadstools is not always easy. Sometimes I look for days and find nothing worth shooting. However, in the autumn of 2014 on the Wadden Island Ameland this scene asked for my attention. Without even looking through my macro lens I recognised these photogenic toadstools. I like to play with sharpness versus softness and this setting was just ideal.

How did you go about getting that shot?

The setting was already there, all I had to do was to keep the toadstools that were situated in bright sunlight, in the shadow. To do this I used a white umbrella.

I did a little bit of 'gardening' with the soft moss in the foreground. A little pressing of the vegetation here and there makes a great difference when shooting with the macro lens flat on the ground.

The toadstools that I put into the shade turned a little bit blue. The background however which was lit up by the sun turned into a warm light yellow colour. It was obvious for me to focus on the little toadstools and let the big toadstools in the front be a soft sort of 'filling'.

  • About the Art: Misja Smits, 'Me working on Ameland with the toadstools. This is a similar situation to the awarded picture of the photo contest. Often I use my umbrella to keep away the sunlight from my main subject. Then the tripod is there to prevent my umbrella from walking away', Misja Smits
    'Me working on Ameland with the toadstools. This is a similar situation to the awarded picture of the photo contest. Often I use my umbrella to keep away the sunlight from my main subject. Then the tripod is there to prevent my umbrella from walking away', Misja Smits

Did you use any particular equipment?

Like almost always when shooting macros, I used my viewfinder because of the low shooting point. Since I have no tiltable screen on my full frame Nikon D610, I am forced to do so. Also, I used a white umbrella to keep my toadstools out of the sun.

  • About the Art: Misja Smits, My equipment: Nikon D610, Tamron macro lens 90mm 2,8, Nikon 24-85mm, Tamron 70-300mm, viewfinder, umbrella, flashlight, knee pad, tripod., Misja Smits
    My equipment: Nikon D610, Tamron macro lens 90mm 2,8, Nikon 24-85mm, Tamron 70-300mm, viewfinder, umbrella, flashlight, knee pad, tripod., Misja Smits

What are the difficulties of wildlife photography you face?

One thing is on the creative level. I have to keep myself innovating. This is not always easy since I am very critical about myself. When I notice myself repeating a way of shooting, it is not good enough anymore. This can be quite frustrating, especially when I have no new ideas left at that time.

The other thing is a more practical difficulty. It is hard to find natural areas that are not yet discovered by other photographers. I prefer shooting alone or with my boyfriend Edwin Giesbers. When there are lots of people around, I am unable to concentrate.

What would you like people to think about when they see your work?

I hope they will be surprised and inspired.

  • About the Art: Misja Smits, 'A Silver Studded-blue with the last sunlight of the day in the background. In front of the lens there is some vegetation which causes the extra bokeh effect.', Misja Smits
    'A Silver Studded-blue with the last sunlight of the day in the background. In front of the lens there is some vegetation which causes the extra bokeh effect.', Misja Smits

How long have you been a photographer and how did you get started in your career?

Photography has always been a part of my life. I started with black and white photography in my early twenties when I developed and printed everything myself.

In 1992 I started at the Art school in Den Haag. In 2002, I started to focus entirely on nature photography and I gradually shot more and more macro photography.

My favourite subjects to photograph are toadstools, flowers and insects. Independently of the subject, I prefer to play with lots of soft bokeh and only a little bit of sharpness in the pictures. It is a challenge for me to 'paint' with light and forms.

  • About the Art: Misja Smits, 'Me sitting in a flower meadow in Italy last summer. Often I forget to take off my backpack when I am so focused to act soon in case of an insect posing for me.', Misja Smits
    'Me sitting in a flower meadow in Italy last summer. Often I forget to take off my backpack when I am so focused to act soon in case of an insect posing for me.', Misja Smits

What would you advise someone wanting to start taking photos of wildlife in their local environment?

Learn where your heart goes to and try to develop yourself in this one subject. Go back and back to the same subject.

Also, look for pictures from other photographers whenever and wherever you can to get inspired. Enjoy the work of others, but don't envy it.

What have you been up to since the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 competition? What projects are you working on now?

Last winter I worked on my printed portfolio. In my opinion, this is so important. Nowadays, we are used to seeing our digital files on a screen and we forget what the files look like when printed. These prints are important for me to stay in touch with my photos. Also, in case of a digital 'disaster', I still have my prints to look back at.

Now it's winter again, I am sorting out and processing my work shot in the past spring and summer. I have no big projects going on but I am just enjoying the subjects that appear in front of my lens...

See Misja’s work in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition until 15 January.

Send us your own wildlife pictures using the hashtag #horniman.

About the Art: Louis Pattyn

Our European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is running until 15 January. To celebrate, we chat to the runner-up of the under 14s category, Louis Pattyn, to talk about his photograph, 'Soaring above the Ice'.

  • About the Art: Louis Pattyn, Soaring above the Ice ,  Louis Pattyn
    Soaring above the Ice ,  Louis Pattyn

Tell us the story behind your photograph ‘Soaring above the ice’.

I visited Gemmi Pass in Switzerland with my father hoping to see a lammergeier (a bearded vulture) for the first time in my life.

We spent long days waiting for one to appear. When it finally did it was much larger than I thought.

We had to wear many layers of clothes as it was bitterly cold at high altitude in winter and I had to try not to get freezing fingers. I had several pairs of gloves over my hands and when we saw the bird approaching in the distance I had to quickly remove the gloves to be able to take a photograph.

What does your close examination of wildlife tell you about human nature?

Despite all the bad things in the news today, this lammergeyer shows that we can do good – it was reintroduced to the Alps after being wiped out by us.

I hope that this photo can show people how beautiful these birds are and maybe it could help to better understand and protect the remaining wildlife

How long have you been a photographer?

About 4 years now.

What would you advise someone wanting to start taking photos of wildlife in their local environment?

Just look at and enjoy your subjects first, then photography will follow.

What have you been up to since the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 competition?

I only take pictures occasionally because I have to attend school but last summer I was lucky enough to photograph different lemur species in Madagascar while travelling there with my parents and brother.

What are your favourite animals to photograph?

I love all kinds of animals but one day I hope to photograph orangutans in the wild in Borneo before they have all disappeared.

See Louis' work in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition until 15 January. 

Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer

Christmas is drawing near and we are thinking about the sounds of the festive season. Nothing says Christmas music quite like sleigh bells. We have some wonderful sleigh bells in our Musical Instrument collection that once belonged to the musician Joan Stonehewer.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, The sleigh bells belonging to Joan Stonehewer, now in the Horniman Musical Instrument collection. Object number M5-1987.
    The sleigh bells belonging to Joan Stonehewer, now in the Horniman Musical Instrument collection. Object number M5-1987.

Joan made her living as a ‘concert artiste’ by playing the saw and other novelty instruments including the sleigh bells. Her variety theatre performances were of a type that was very popular from the turn of the twentieth century up to WWII.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Joan Stonehewer is seen on this postcard at the height of her popularity with her sleigh bells, saw and cello bow and a zither. The inscription in black ink reads, 'with love from Joan'. The saw was specially made for her in c.1930 by Jedson, England. The sleigh bells, made at about the same time, are probably from France.
    Joan Stonehewer is seen on this postcard at the height of her popularity with her sleigh bells, saw and cello bow and a zither. The inscription in black ink reads, 'with love from Joan'. The saw was specially made for her in c.1930 by Jedson, England. The sleigh bells, made at about the same time, are probably from France.

Joan appeared at the Royal Variety Hall and the BBC, performed at dinners, receptions and cabarets and her repertoire included songs such as the "Waltz" by Victor Herbert.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, With Europe teetering on the brink of war, this New Year's Eve 1938 dinner party programme evokes the ambience of a passing era. Held at the Chiltern Court Restaurant NW1, Joan Stonehewer provided the entertainment together with Mahomed Ali. Lending an air of daring exoticism to the evening, he was billed as a Magician, Hypnotist, Pickpocket and the World's Fastest Act. Both Artistes highlight the fact that they have performed before Royalty. The French names for the various dishes camouflage their essential Englishness.
    With Europe teetering on the brink of war, this New Year's Eve 1938 dinner party programme evokes the ambience of a passing era. Held at the Chiltern Court Restaurant NW1, Joan Stonehewer provided the entertainment together with Mahomed Ali. Lending an air of daring exoticism to the evening, he was billed as a Magician, Hypnotist, Pickpocket and the World's Fastest Act. Both Artistes highlight the fact that they have performed before Royalty. The French names for the various dishes camouflage their essential Englishness.

Joan was an extremely successful self-publicist. She had many professional business cards that she would give out to drum up her own publicity and was determined to succeed in her career.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Four of Joan Stonehewer's business cards. She lived at the given address in Wimbledon from 1939 until 1956 when she moved next door. Clearly enjoying the company of children, she had two of her own for whom she wrote stories. These were later published and read, at her suggestion, on BBC radio. On the back of one of the cards she advertises to perform at children's parties.
    Four of Joan Stonehewer's business cards. She lived at the given address in Wimbledon from 1939 until 1956 when she moved next door. Clearly enjoying the company of children, she had two of her own for whom she wrote stories. These were later published and read, at her suggestion, on BBC radio. On the back of one of the cards she advertises to perform at children's parties.

She made it very clear that she would not stop working when she got married – which was quite an extraordinary thing to do in the 1940s – when she had her wedding photos taken holding her musical saw.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, On her wedding day, Joan Stonehewer and her husband, Henry Townsend, are surrounded by friends and relatives. She married during WWII which explains the number of men in uniform. The presence and prominence of the musical saw conveys her determination to continue in her chosen career: an aim she realised fully.
    On her wedding day, Joan Stonehewer and her husband, Henry Townsend, are surrounded by friends and relatives. She married during WWII which explains the number of men in uniform. The presence and prominence of the musical saw conveys her determination to continue in her chosen career: an aim she realised fully.

After her wedding and in the years to come, variety theatre started to become less popular. As television became more readily available and tastes changed, work was harder to come by.

In the Horniman archives, we have letters Joan received from the BBC showing that she had contacted them about future work – an offer which was politely declined.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, A letter from the BBC responding to Joan's request about future work. The letter also mentions her children's stories she sent in, which were read out on BBC radio.
    A letter from the BBC responding to Joan's request about future work. The letter also mentions her children's stories she sent in, which were read out on BBC radio.

Joan retired from the stage in the early 1960s but she still appeared in a list of The Concert Artistes’ Association in 1968, the year before died.

Much of what we know about Joan was found in documents given to the Museum with the sleigh bells in 1987 by her son, Francis Townsend. It is wonderful to know the story behind the instrument and to learn more about this talented and engaging musician.

  • Playing the sleigh bells: the story of Joan Stonehewer, Listen to Joan Stonehewer play the musical saw in our Music Gallery
    Listen to Joan Stonehewer play the musical saw in our Music Gallery

Visit our Music Gallery to hear a recording of Joan playing her musical saw.

About the Art: Anna-Liisa Pirhonen

Our European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition is running until 15 January. To celebrate, we chat to Anna-Liisa Pirhonen about her photograph, 'Eurasian blue tit'.

  • About the Art: Anna-Liisa Pirhonen, Eurasian Blue Tit,  Anna-Liisa Pirhonen
    Eurasian Blue Tit,  Anna-Liisa Pirhonen

Tell us the story behind your photograph ’Eurasian blue tit’.

The winter in Finland is very cold, the sunlight hours are very short in winter and we have lots of snow and ice. These are the reasons why many people in Finland feed the birds in winter.

Winter feeding provided by humans helps many overwintering birds survive into the spring. For example, the blue tit has to eat several times its own weight in food in order to survive the frosty night.

I have my own feeding place in the woods to help birds survive the winter in South Karelia, where I live. This winter I bought two hundred pounds of sunflower seeds and about ten pounds of fat and nuts for the birds.

I visited almost every day in the woods with my camera and took the photos. When I took this photo it was a sunny day but also snowing a little.

How long did you have to wait for this shot?

About five years. Suddenly everything was right. The light was beautiful, I saw the colours of the rainbow in the bird’s wings and it was snowing.

What would you like people to think about when they see your work?

All the beautiful nature is very close to us. You can see examples of beauty in the birds, flowers and insects in your backyard or in the nearest park. Nature is all around us.

What would you advise someone wanting to start taking photos of wildlife in their local environment?

Go to the nearest woods and start taking photos of your local birds, squirrels and flowers. And then continue to experiment your photography with other animals.

I love to take pictures in my home area in South Karelia, south-east of Finland. I live very near to the Russian border. Interesting animals always appear across the border, for example, yesterday the Siberian accentor (Prunella montanella), which is a small passerine bird in northern Siberia, arrived in South Karelia.

What have you been up to since the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 competition?

I graduated from Helsinki University where I studied Geography and now I am a freelance journalist. I write nature articles for magazines and take the pictures to accompany my articles.

Visit Anna-Liisa's website and see her work in the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition until 15 January. 

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

We delve into the festive traditions and mythology surrounding mistletoe.

Mistletoe, or Viscum album, is a curious plant. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Don’t worry though, it causes very little, if any, damage to its host. In fact, it has real value to wildlife - six species of insect are specialist mistletoe feeders, including the rare mistletoe marble moth Celypha woodiana and mistletoe weevil Ixapion variegatum. 

It was often seen as a mystical plant because it seemed to appear from nowhere, with no roots, and stayed evergreen when its host tree dropped its leaves in winter. We now know that its seeds are germinated to its host tree by passing birds and its roots are entwined with its host tree. But this small plant must have seemed magical to people long ago.

The earliest account of mistletoe is from the Roman author and naturalist Pliny the Elder. Writing in his Natural Histories in the first century AD, he described how Druids thought mistletoe taken from oak trees was sacred. Many modern Pagans still use mistletoe today.

However, mistletoe is seldom found on oaks. It is more likely to grow on trees such as apple, hawthorn, poplar, lime or conifers.

It is a festive tradition to hang up mistletoe around Christmas and New Year and plant a kiss on anyone you find yourself standing next to while beneath it. But why do we do this?

It is said the roots of this tradition stem from Norse mythology. According to legend, the Norse goddess of love and fertility, Frigg, made all living things promise not to harm her son Baldr because she wanted to protect him. However, she overlooked the mistletoe plant because it was so small. Baldr was then killed by an enemy using an arrow made from mistletoe. In some versions, Frigg’s tears land on the mistletoe and turn its berries to white which brings Baldr back from the dead. In gratitude, Frigg reverses the mistletoe’s bad reputation and kisses anyone who walks underneath it as a sign of gratitude.

It wasn’t until Victorian times that this tradition seems to become popular. It is said that a berry would be plucked for each kiss until all the berries were gone.

  • Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?, A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).
    A hanging bough of mistletoe ,  creativecommons, Loadmaster (David R. Tribble).

Five tonnes of mistletoe are sold in the UK every year, most of which are imported from France. Much of the wild mistletoe in the UK grows in the west Midlands around the English/Welsh border. It is not very common in London but we do have some here at the Horniman, in our Gardens. Our boughs are high up in a tree on Meadow Field and our Gardeners are looking into growing them lower down on the trees so they are more visible.

Visit the Gardens and see what other plants you can spot.

About the Art: Andrew George

Our new exhibition, European Wildlife Photographer of the Year, runs until 15 January 2017. Here we talk to photographer Andrew George about his work. 

  • About the Art: Andrew George, Dancing with the Moon on display at the Horniman,  Andrew George
    Dancing with the Moon on display at the Horniman,  Andrew George

You have two pictures in this exhibition, 'Dancing with the Moon' and 'Umbrella'. Start by telling us a little about your winter scene with the dazzling northern lights. How long did you have to wait to capture the light in the way you wanted for ‘Dancing with the Moon’?

I only had to wait between one to two hours. I’ve examined the weather and aurora forecast carefully and all the signs where very promising. Since I often travel to Iceland, I know the best spots to photograph the northern lights. At the time, I was not far from Reykjavik and on my way to the airport when I knew I had a good chance at taking pictures at a nearby non-tourist spot by some mountains which would block the city lights.

  • About the Art: Andrew George, The northern lights in Iceland, March 2016,  Andrew George
    The northern lights in Iceland, March 2016,  Andrew George
To get my shot, I used a sturdy tripod and a wide-angle lens with a fast F-stop (Nikon 14-24 F2.8) on a Nikon D800 and a cable release. I also wore very warm clothing and snow boots. The weather can be very extreme in 'special' conditions such as these. It is a very difficult task to stay dry or warm in cold regions of the earth. Also, the equipment sometimes needs protection from severe weather.

  • About the Art: Andrew George, A picture of Andrew George taking photographs in the High Fens, Belgium Ardennes,  Andrew George
    A picture of Andrew George taking photographs in the High Fens, Belgium Ardennes,  Andrew George

What would you like people to think about when they see your work?

I hope they get inspired and have a new respect for nature.

What would you advise someone wanting to start taking photos of wildlife in their local environment?

For wildlife photography, you need to do research, observe and gain knowledge about your subject. You also need to have perseverance.  I love to photograph landscapes in any form. I also like to photograph small and common subjects in an artistic way. But it’s getting harder and harder to create natural nature and wildlife photography. I always need to recompose to not have the human element in the frame.

What have you been up to since the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015 competition? What projects are you working on now?

I always get new inspiration through nature close to home and photograph with an open mind. So I often get surprised and sometimes I work on one thing for only a short period of time with a creative perspective. But recently I’m working on a project 'Dances with Trees' in the Speulderbos, Veluwe, The Netherlands. The beech trees in this forest are curved and long. But also trees in general really attract me.

  • About the Art: Andrew George, A selfportrait in the Dutch forest (Speulderbos, Veluwe, The Netherlands) from the 'Dances with trees' project 2016 ,  Andrew George
    A selfportrait in the Dutch forest (Speulderbos, Veluwe, The Netherlands) from the 'Dances with trees' project 2016 ,  Andrew George

I also try to get out of my comfort zone and I just started to work on a project 'Inspired by Van Gogh', The Dutch painter, as I live close to the scenes Vincent van Gogh has painted in The Netherlands (Nuenen, Noord-Brabant) both natural environment and buildings which Van Gogh also has painted.

  • About the Art: Andrew George, Umbrella on display at the Horniman,  Andrew George
    Umbrella on display at the Horniman,  Andrew George

Read more photography tips from Andrew.

About the art: Jazmine Miles-Long

We chat to ethical taxidermist and artist, Jazmine Miles-Long, about her new display 'Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy'.

  • Woodcock, Woodcock detail − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Woodcock detail

Your new display takes its inspiration from the Horniman collection. What made you want to mirror an historic collection in this way?

The pieces I have chosen from the Horniman's collection all have their own eccentricities, even though they are not the most beautiful and striking works that I could have picked. I wanted to show some of the objects from the collection that would not necessarily have the chance to be put on public display as others within the collection do outshine them. I wanted to show that each piece of taxidermy has a history and charm that should be appreciated.

By creating replicas of the works, I wanted to focus attention on the details of the objects, from the decisions made by the taxidermists, to the labels added over time by museums. 

Through the use of white cases and delicate porcelain, I have created ghostly monuments of the originals. Silhouetting my own specimens to commemorate their beauty and fragility in life and now as objects representing their species.

  • Ceramic case, Building the ceramics into the case − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Building the ceramics into the case

What do you want people to think when they see these artworks side by side?

I want them to be drawn into the makers behind the works and notice the taxidermy throughout the museum. Seeing the works as intricately crafted objects rather than simply preserved dead animals.

Taxidermy is such an unknown craft that I think it is often misunderstood. Through this exhibition, I hope to challenge perceptions and present the many skills taxidermists need to create work.

  • Woodcock, Painting the woodcock's leg − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Painting the woodcock's leg

I hope to portray taxidermy as a heartfelt art form that shows compassion for the natural world and its importance as an evolving craft still used today.

I only work with animals that have died from natural causes or as the result of road casualties. And although many pieces within historical museum collections would have been hunted, it does not mean we should dismiss these objects as they are useful educational tools that speak of a different time and are part of our cultural heritage.

  •  Rabbit, Horniman and Jazmine's rabbits next to each other. − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Horniman and Jazmine's rabbits next to each other.

How did you decide which pieces to include in this exhibition?

When taxidermy is donated to a museum, information such as the name of the taxidermist, the collector and time and mode of death of the animal is not always recorded. So over time the story behind the work is often lost. This lack of information creates an air of mystery behind the work and this influenced my decision in choosing these five specimens. For instance, the magpie has obviously been lovingly made, in the groundwork of the piece even false rocks have been sculpted out of paper. But there is no information about the artefact apart from that is was presented to The Horniman in 1961. And so the story behind this magpie and its creator is most probably lost forever.

For instance, the magpie has obviously been lovingly made, in the groundwork of the piece even false rocks have been sculpted out of paper. But there is no information about the artefact apart from that is was presented to The Horniman in 1961. And so the story behind this magpie and its creator is most probably lost forever.

  • Magpie, Magpie in process − ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Magpie in process

What is your favourite piece of taxidermy from our collection?

I love all of the work in the collection by Edward Hart, his ability to create such vast scenes in small cases and his attention to detail is astonishing. My favourite is probably the two European Robins in a winter scene. The case is as picturesque as a christmas card, but it has a sinister twist. One of the robins is singing or possibly calling a warning, as the other looks inside of the brick bird trap that he is perched upon. The story within the case pulls you into a seemingly quaint scenario, either the robins know what this trap is or everything is about to go wrong.

  • Robins, Two robins from Edward Hart's collection at the Horniman− ©  Jazmine Miles-Long
    Two robins from Edward Hart's collection at the Horniman

See Memorial. A Tribute to Taxidermy on display in our Natural History Gallery until 1 May 2017.

Forest Hill Scarf Festival

The Horniman Walrus inspires Forest Hill’s sixth annual Scarf Festival.

A haberdashery and craft emporium local to the Horniman, Stag & Bow, is holding their sixth annual Scarf Festival this week.

  • Forest Hill Scarf Festival , The Forest Hill Scarf Festival, Stag & Bow
    The Forest Hill Scarf Festival, Stag & Bow

Every year they invite customers to join in their celebration of making based on a different theme. The subject of this year’s theme is the Horniman Walrus.

The designs people have sent in are displayed in the shop window all week until Saturday 10 December.

Business owner Pascale Spall says ‘The Horniman Museum is a south London institution and a key Forest Hill landmark. We wanted to pay homage to its most famous exhibit. Having grown up in the area the museum holds a special place in my heart; my parents took us there as children and now we take our kids. We know it’s just as special to other lovely locals, so it was an obvious choice as a subject for this year’s festival.’

  • The Horniman Walrus, The Horniman Walrus, inspiring the local community
    The Horniman Walrus, inspiring the local community

The festival will culminate in a joint sixth birthday celebration for Stag & Bow, and a prize-giving event for the most inspiring creations.

This year’s guest hosts will include our very own Kirsten Walker, Director of Collections Care and Estates and Timothy Spall, patron of the Horniman and local national treasure.

Why not pop down and join in the fun at Stag & Bow where celebrations will be held throughout the day on Saturday 10 December.

Specimen of the Month: an un-iconic icon, the robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Emma-Louise Nicholls, our Deputy Keeper of Natural History, is looking at the robin, and its associations with Christmas, for her Specimen of the Month series.

'Robins are well known to be one of the traditional cover models of Christmas card multipacks. An icon of Christmas in the UK, the robin is only meant to appear when the festive lights are up, The Grinch is on TV, and the shops become a hostile habitat visited only by the brave, followed a week later by the disorganised.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*
    The robins, delicately painted background and realistic looking snow make our diorama by Edward Hart a picture perfect Christmas scene*

But robins live in the UK throughout the year. Why then do we associate them with Christmas? There are a number of theories…

According to the RSPB, robins spend December roaming around the neighbourhood, looking for a mate to settle down with in the New Year, a resolution that’s mirrored by many humans. This extra movement around Christmas time, and presumably, the extra effort they put into showing off their musical talents, simply makes them more visible to the untrained human passer-by.

Following on from this line of reasoning, robins are also more ‘in your face’ around Christmas because they are one of the only birds that don’t suffer from Seasonally Affected Disorder** and thus continue their cheery singing even though the clocks have gone back and going to the toilet in the middle of the night is a race against frostbite.

In the winter, robins are also one of the earliest to start singing in the morning and one of the last to stop singing at night. They sound like neighbours from hell.

  • Specimen of the Month blog category, Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain
    Robins sing to attracts a mate and to let other robins know this is its territory,  Wikinature, 2005, image in public domain

An entirely different theory is that the association comes from the first postmen in the UK, who used to wear bright red waistcoats. They were, for obvious reasons of visual association, therefore nicknamed 'Robins'. Whilst the festive season is certainly a busy time for these robin-people, surely it’s not the only time of year in which they were employed? Personally, I find this association somewhat tenuous. However if you’d like a challenge, I will happily eat my blog if sufficient evidence is produced to support this claim.

Maybe the question should really be, would they be better off representing a different holiday? Unlike Father Christmas who is categorically absent for the rest of the year (supermarket shelves in October aside), the robin clearly raises its family with a staycation mentality. They may remind you of a time when everyone is obliged to be happy to see their extended family, and be nicer to fellow commuters, but the robin is an aggressive bird that when required transforms into a small, vicious, wing-ed nightmare that will fight other robins to the death if needs be. Call me a traditionalist, but that’s not very Christmas spirit-y. So in short, next time you’re selecting Christmas cards, perhaps you should go for the snowman.

  • Specimen of the Month: an Un-iconic Icon: The Robin (Erithacus rubecula), The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain
    The robin is widely used as a pin-up for Christmas cards,  Hisgett, 2010, image in public domain

*This diorama is just masquerading as a beautiful Christmas scene. If you look closer, the bricks the robin is standing on are actually a Victorian sparrow trap. If the robin went for the seed inside, the little stick would budge and BAM. Lights out Christmas robin.

**It is unknown if SAD affects any avian species.'

References

ARKive. (No date). Robin (Erithacus rubecula).

Horniman Museum and Gardens. (No date). Zoology: Edward Hart Collection

RSPB. (No date). Birds and Wildlife: Robin.

RSPB. (2009). Birds and Wildlife: Ask an Expert.

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