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Five Go Collecting: Chinese influence in Cuba

Martin is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative. Here he blogs about the commission of a new object for our Anthropology Collections.

I first applied for the RAI Horniman Collecting Initiative so I could work with a Cuban priest of Chinese descent who is, among many other things, a gifted Lucumí bead artist.

Lucumí (also known as Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha) is one of the most prominent religions in Cuba. It is characterized by its recognition of both Catholic saints and West African (Yoruba) deities known as orishas.

My research has shown that there is not only Catholic or European elements to the orisha, but also significant Chinese ones.

Like other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba recruited more than 125,000 young Chinese men through indenture following the collapse of slavery. They began arriving from 1847 to work on the sugar plantations. By sharing the same living and working spaces with people of African descent and mixed-race heritage, their cultures met and mixed. Many stayed permanently and intermarried.

I am interested in how these Chinese immigrants and their Afro-Sino Cuban descendants influenced Afro-Cuban religions. These Chinese influences have not been subject to any serious academic attention before. My research explores the lives of contemporary Afro-Chinese priests and practitioners, their collective memories and related material culture.

Many of the orisha priests I interviewed of Chinese-Cuban descent are also skilled artisans. They produce captivating religious artifacts that blend West African and Chinese art forms and crafting techniques. Stunning wooden sculptures and beadwork pieces frequently adorn orisha shrines and altars in the Lukumi religion.

José Francisco Ung, Omi Atorunwa, also known as ‘El Chinito de Regla’ lives in Havana and is has been initiated as an orisha priest for more than 47 years. I approached José and had asked him what item he would like to make for the Horniman’s collection.

I wanted José to decide what object he felt he would like to contribute. He decided that he would like to make objects related to his protective orisha, Yemaya, a deity of the sea and of motherhood.

Over a couple of days, José sketched out a few designs for possible items. Among the candidates, one of them was a beaded and lidded urn. The vessel is used to house the consecrated emblems of the orisha following priesthood initiation. It is also is the focus of worship and sacrifice.

José came up with four different designs, each distinct, and whose symbolism is related to the worship of Yemaya.

Unfortunately, the beads needed to complete such a project are not available in Cuba. After I left, I purchased the beads and they have now made their way back to José so that he can finish his piece for the Horniman’s collection.

I am returning to Cuba this summer and will further document the process of making the piece selected for the museum, as well as delivering it to the Horniman itself.

My next post will follow after my trip to Cuba. I look forward to sharing with you what José has crafted.

Stag Beetle Rescue

It's not every day you get to handle rare wildlife, but a few of our staff members got to do just that as they helped an impressive male stag beetle out of a sticky situation.

Our troubled insect was first spotted crawling between the cacti in our new Extremes Garden display.

Stag beetles spend most of their life as larvae, hidden in dead wood while they mature for up to 7 years. We already know they live in our Gardens, as larvae and adult beetles have been spotted down on the Nature Trail although it is rare to see them out in the open.

If you look closely at the picture above, you can see the beetle is trailing a piece of matted hair or cotton. Although we didn't notice at first, the material was tangled around the beetle's legs.

It wasn't long before he found himself attached to one of the spikey specimens planted in the gravel, leaving him vulnerable to any passing predators. Animal Assistant Rhianna jumped in with some scissors to cut him free.

The material was firmly attached to the beetle's joints with dried mud, tying its legs together and making it impossible to walk. Rhianna carefully picked it off piece by piece to avoid damaging the delicate legs underneath.

Having the beetle in our hands meant an excellent opportunity for some passing visitors to get a close look at this rare animal, and talk a little about the species.

After making sure he was now able to walk freely (and after everyone managed to get their photographs) we planned to leave beetle in a safer spot with a little more cover.

However, he had other ideas, and quickly took himself off in the air.

Hopefully to stay away from sticky mud and dangerous human rubbish.

If you think you've spotted a stag beetle in our Gardens, or anywhere else in London, be sure to fill in London Wildlife Trust's Stag Beetle Survey. The trust provides lots of information about how to recognise these beetles, their importance to wild habitat in Britain and what's being done to protect them.

Community Symposium 2014: Families and the Museum

Last month the Horniman's Community Learning team held their annual symposium, this year focusing on what we offer to local families. Rachel updates us on what went on.

The idea behind our Community Symposium is to invite local service providers and community organisations to come in and find out more about what the Horniman currently does, while we get some ideas about what we could do to support their work.

This year we wanted to concentrate on building links with organisations that provide services for families. We had a good turn out, with representatives from organisations such as Homeless Families Support Team, The Children’s Society and Parental Mental Health Team.

To start the day we introduced the family programme at the museum. This is a busy and popular public programme - the majority of it free - that includes all the regular holiday and term time session such as Nature Trail Discovery, Art Makers, Hands On sessions, storytelling, the Busy Bees group and much more.

We hope there is something to interest everyone, and you can check out what's coming up next in our Calendar.

We also ran 3 workshops giving an overview of the museum. Julia took people around the galleries to see all the family-friendly displays available, such as Nature Base, while Rose introduced the Gardens and demonstrated the variety of family learning activities you can enjoy here.

Participants also got to go into the conservation studios and meet members of the Anthropology department – Robert , Fiona, Tom and Sarah.

The curators had selected objects that they felt represented the experience of families around the world, and used these as the basis for a discussion about the way these experiences resonate with local families today.

A particular favourite was the Inuit Sealskin Parka (Object no. 6.12.65/594). Robert pointed out how the hood has enough room to carry a child aged up to 3 years old on the mother’s back whilst she went about daily work.

This led to discussions about our own cultural ideas of ‘attachment parenting’, of childcare and working mothers and of the different resources that cultures put in to bringing up healthy and happy children.

We hope that everyone who attended this year's Symposium learnt something about how their group can benefit from our work.

Art Attacks with a Mosquito Kite

Alejandro is one of the five modern-day collectors selected by the Royal Anthropological Institute to take part in the Horniman Collecting Initiative.  His fieldwork is concerned with alternative health campaigns against dengue fever, especially those which employ art as a medium. Here he explains his work with a mosquito-shaped kite in Medillín, Colombia.

Myself and my colleague, Andrés Ramírez Valencia, had grown tired of the boring public health campaigns against dengue fever, with their poorly designed cartoon books and posters. One afternoon, we asked ourselves: how can we produce a non-conventional public health campaign?

We asked ourselves what might happen if we designed a mosquito-kite? Mosquitoes have been seen as symbols of disease for thousands of years, and the visual nature of kites can break down cultural and linguistic barriers.  A mosquito-kite might help people think about dengue (and its prevention) in new ways.

The dream became reality with the project ‘A Couple of Wings in Mind’. We travelled with our first mosquito-kite to some kite festivals in America and Europe, and carried out interventions in Medellín and its surrounding areas.

We wanted to go beyond the critique of the traditional discourse of health campaigns, re-thinking how mosquitoes and dengue are understood to interact with people as well as how kites interact with people.

Based on our early experiences and knowledge from five months of fieldwork in Medellín, Colombia, Andrés and I re-designed the kite to reproduce the form and movement of the mosquito, known as ‘zancudo’ in Colombia, which carries dengue fever (Aedes aegypti).

With this second version of the kite, we are trying to reach a wider audience and encourage a greater number of participants. We have recently started something that we call ‘mosquito art attacks’ - a series of art interventions in different parts of Medellín city.

When Andres and I began this project, we wanted to ask people to make drawings on the kite’s surface about what dengue, health campaigns or mosquitoes mean for them. However, once we finished the kite, we realised it was very beautiful and we thought that it would look better without drawings all over it.  Instead, we held kite-making workshops where the participants were able to paint their own kites.

As a strategy for involving children in our mosquito art attacks, we designed small kites on acetate.  

These were excellent at recreating the form and movement of the zancudo.

Mosquitoes are connected with ideas such as sleeplessness, dreams or nightmares. However, mosquitoes are not as harmless as people used to think; in Colombia they are also symbols of death.

As Myriam, who is a farmer that sells her own products at the streets of Medellín, commented:

“A zancudo is not as harmless as you can imagine, because it can bring death to some people, is it true or not? If you just look at it, you will say: nothing will happen, but it’s not true, because it does happen.”

Our next move was to take the kite to a cemetery located in the north of Medellín. Besides the symbolic idea of ‘death,’ where else would you see more flowers, vases and water containers together – a perfect breeding ground for the zancudo, as shown by previous public health campaigns.

We were unsure how people would react to our kite in this setting, but after flying it for some minutes, taxi drivers, children and even mourners approached us to play with the kite. They also made comments about mosquitoes, dengue and the poorly designed campaigns that health authorities have produced in the past.

In Colombia, cemeteries are not only places that keep ‘loved ones alive’; they are appropriated by the living for other purposes, and our intervention also shows different ways of perceiving them.

Our latest ‘art attack’ did not go quite so smoothly. Although we knew Medellín was a city full of inequality and social conflict, we were surprised to learn we needed to ask permission to fly a kite in a public park of the city. Security officers identified our mosquito-kite as a ‘dangerous weapon’, at first not allowing us to fly it.

However, we felt this intervention was an important one, and the kite was a perfect tool for interacting with people in different socio-cultural contexts. After a long discussion with five officers, and once security cameras had taken many photographs of the kite, they realised we couldn’t do anything dangerous with it. We were finally allowed to fly the kite for 10 minutes.

As you can see, this art attack quickly drew an audience.

This project would not have been possible without the economic support of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and the Horniman Museum and Gardens through the Horniman Collecting Initiative. An example of this kite will be presented to the Horniman at the end of the project.

Watch a film made with people in Medellín as part of Alejandro’s fieldwork.

To learn more about this project, take a look at Alejandro’s website and blog.

Horniman Inspiration: Cheryl L'Hirondelle

Back in April, Canadian singer and sound artist Cheryl L’Hirondelle spent a few weeks at the Horniman as an artist in residence. We blogged about her work and final performance in May. Now, Cheryl herself has written for us, looking back on her time working with our Music collections.

As an Indigenous community-engaged singer/songwriter and interdisciplinary artist whose creative practice investigates the nexus of Cree worldview and contemporary time-space, my time at The Horniman Museum and Gardens was particularly engaging.

Invited by Professor Helen Gilbert (Royal Holloway, University of London) to conduct an iteration of my SingLand/SongMark project, I set out to sonically map the physical location and develop a plan to work with the various rattles and drums from Indigenous Nations. The aim was to breathe life into the objects, capturing their story and essence in song.

I was very happy to visit the instruments I selected and sang to them a special ceremonial Cree song, befitting the occasion. Two of the instruments were particularly significant: a very old elk rattle and an equally old deerskin drum from the plains where my ancestors are from. I also added a couple more instruments to my visit thanks to access to the Hands On Base.

In the end I composed five new songs and three videos and presented them at the final performance at The Roxy and Millennium Bridge. One song sings the Pueblo drum as a victory or freedom song. I made a quicktime video from the drum’s point of view, showing what it sees as it lives in the Horniman's Music Gallery.

The final song is a very important part of my experience: the song from the elk rattle. During my visit with it, I used binaural recording gear, arranging two microphones to create a 3-D stereo sound which creates the sensation for the listener of actually being in the room with the performers or instruments. The elk rattle uttered a soft sound, the pebbles inside audibly moving. It was like the spirit of the rattle came to life, and the song it inspired is one I will continue to sing.

I am so very grateful to have had the chance to visit with and sing the instruments and spend time discussing the collection with Margaret Birley (Keeper of the Musical Instruments) and Mimi Waitzman (Deputy Keeper). Big thanks also to Marie Klimis, Program Development Coordinator for being my daily host over the three-week residency and to Helen Gilbert and her amazing team (Rose, Dani, Sergio and Melissa) for planning and facilitating it.

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.

The Making of a new Nature Base Display

Yesterday we announced a new Nature Base display, specially curated by young naturalist and blogger, Jake McGowan-Lowe.

After writing his own book on bone-collecting, Jake was a natural choice as a guest curator for this display, which aims to give children a close look at some of the bones they might expect to find locally.

Jake's first job was to select which specimens from our stored collections should be included in the case. His choices were all common species, many of which can be found in London's gardens, parks and public spaces. While skulls are often the most recognisable (and collectable) part of a skeleton, other common bones were included to help beginner bone-hunters recognise their shapes.

As Jake couldn't be at the Horniman for the entire process, it was then Paolo's job to take a close look at the specimens and decide how best to mount them ready for their installation in the Gallery.

The bird skulls needed to be mounted flat onto the board, while mammal skulls are better shown side-on, with the lower jaw attached separately. This offers the best view to people looking to use the bones to ID their own finds.

Stew, our Graphic designer, printed out the first draft of the display design, to help Paolo get the positioning right. You can see here some 'lorem ipsum' or placeholder text has been used to work around while Paolo waited for Jake's final draft.

Once everything was finalised, Stew could print out the final version of the display backing and technician Becs could get to work pinning the specimens in place.

Each bone was safely secured using thin wire with a covering of plastic to protect the specimens.

This is fiddly work when it comes to some of the tiny bones involved.

The whole display was put together behind the scenes, before being brought into the gallery and slotted into position.

There was just a final bit of dusting to do to get everything looking its best...

...before the glass was carefully slid back into place and secured.

If you want to see Jake's specially curated case of bones in person, be sure to visit Nature Base and look for it beneath the sign reading 'What can you find outside?'

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!


Bookblitz: The Oldest Book in the Collection

So far in our Bookblitz series, we've shared some fairly old volumes from our Library collections. However, not many come close to the age of this book.

De Materia Medica is a hugely influential early medical text, first written almost 2000 years ago, around 40-90AD. Our volume isn't quite that age, but is an edition of the last book (there 5 in total) printed in 1529.

The text is printed in its original Greek, accompanied by a Latin translation and a newer Latin 'interpretation', probably added in the 1500s.

Our copy was rebound in the 1800s, and is accompanied by an additional 1830 commentary on all 5 books in De Materia Medica.

There is lots of bookworm damage clearly visible both to the binding and throughout the pages, although the beetle larvae which caused this have long-since died.

Still, this elderly book is in better condition than many Victorian volumes which, while younger, were produced in greater numbers and at lower cost.

De Materia Medica remained in print for 1500 years, becoming the supreme authority for European medicine for centuries. It's author, a Roman physician of Greek origin called Pedanius Dioscorides, became known as the 'father of pharmacology' for his extensive advice concerning the creations and applications of medicines.

Today, digitised copies of De Materia Medica can be accessed online. It remains a prime source of information about medicines used by the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures.

Online Collections in Close Up

If you’ve been looking at our online collections recently, you might have noticed a 'Zoom' button in the top right of some of the images.

We have added new, larger images to our online collections and, if you press the button, you will be able to zoom in to really see our objects up close.

Once you've opened a zoomable image, you can move closer either by using the buttons at the bottom right, or scrolling with your mouse wheel.

At the moment, about 14,400 of our 23,400 online objects should have at least one zoomable image – and we’ll keep adding more, although processing so many large pictures into the necessary format can take some time.

The pictures really show off the skill of our photographer, Dani Tagen, and how well she's taught our Collections People Stories review teams.

None of them would have claimed to be expert photographers when they started work on the objects 17 months ago. In fact, Dani gave a paper on how she’s trained the review teams at the Association for Historical and Fine Art Photography conference last year, and several other museums were so impressed they have asked her to show them how she does it.

To whet your appetite, here are some examples of the level of detail you can see in the zoomed images:

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