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Romanian Layouts

On 4 October, a new exhibition exploring the folk art of Romania will open at the Horniman. The end product, which will be free for all to visit on our Balcony Gallery, is a result of almost two years of hard work by staff across many museum departments.

One of the most exciting stages of this process occurs when the objects chosen by the curator for display are brought out of storage and laid out in the museum in an early mock up of the final exhibition. Staff from all over the museum have a chance to take a look at the planned displays and work out what they need to do to get them ready.

Prior to the physical layout, our Graphic Designer Stew uses database photographs of each object to produce an initial paper layout matching designs by the curator, the precise measurements provided by the Documentation team allowing him to get this as accurate as possible without seeing the real thing.

The chosen objects are then laid out in positions as close to how they will be be displayed as possible on a 2D surface.

The measurements of each display case are marked out with string, so everyone can see clearly how the objects will fit in the space.

Having the real objects laid out is an important step, allowing the curator and Exhibitions team to compare the 2D plan with the real thing, and for our technicians to get a good look at the objects they will have to mount in a 3D display.

Some of the objects in Revisiting Romania provided a challenge for our Technicians, who needed to devise a way to mount large textiles without altering them in any way - meaning creating holes to attach them to walls.

Our Conservation team were on hand to advise on the best way to care for the objects while putting them on display, as well as to pick up on any necessary treatments.

In this case, it became obvious at the layout stage that a belt intended for display was too stiff to be mounted, prompting the Conservation team to step in with a treatment to soften the leather prior to display.

These technical considerations mean there are always small adjustments to be made to the way the objects are positioned.

Once finalised, each part of the layout is carefully photographed so that an up to date plan can be printed for the installation teams can refer back to, and more detailed shots are produced for the technicians to use when building mounts.

The size of some displays requires a high vantage point.

Long arms can be helpful, too.

The photographs and notes made during the layouts help to produce an up-to-date plan, which the installation teams can refer to when getting the objects on display.

To take a look at some of the Revisiting Romania installation in progress, check out our Twitter feed or the #RevisitingRomania hashtag.

The Revisiting Romania exhibition opens on 4 October on the Balcony Gallery. We're celebrating with a weekend of free Romanian-themed entertainment.

Dazzling Dawson's Heights

Local author John Grindrod reflects a little on the East Dulwich estate which dominates the view from the Horniman's Bandstand Terrace.

If you enjoy the view from Horniman Museum Gardens you may have been wondering about those blocks of flats. You know, the staggered brick ones with Wembley on one side, and St Paul’s Cathedral on the other.

This East Dulwich estate of almost 300 flats is called Dawson’s Heights. It was designed by young Scottish architect Kate Macintosh, and built between 1964 and 1972.

Its futuristic ‘streets in the sky’ design and stepped ‘ziggurat’ shape is unique. Kate Macinosh wanted both to echo the shape of the hill rather than build a typical square block here, and to create a landmark, rather like a castle.

Cutbacks at the time meant that all the flats weren’t allowed balconies, but Kate was determined to give each of them some outside space. And so as well as their communal garden she made sure each flat has a fire escape – which, for some, sneakily doubles as a balcony too.

Some people might begrudge Dawson’s Heights’ place on the horizon, but I love it. Not only is it a monument to space-age sixties cool, it’s a reminder of a time before London became such an expensive city to live in, and when the council were still trying to build affordable, imaginative and good quality homes for everyone.

To find out more about Dawson’s Heights I’d recommend tracking down the film Utopia London. You can find out more about Dawson's Heights on the Utopia London website.

John Grindrod is a Forest Hill local and author of the book Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain.

An Edwardian Play Day

Play Day is the national day for play in the UK, when thousands of children and their families get to play at hundreds of community events across the UK, including at the Horniman. This year, the Horniman's Play Day took on an Edwardian theme as part of our Big Wednesday series, and our Gardens were filled with an extravaganza of Edwardian games and entertainment.

The traditional Edwardian games were very popular, with kids trying their hand at Hoop and Stick, sack racing, skittles, giant pick-up-sticks (Mikado). 

The Giant Zoetrope by Matthew Kay and Heather Jones attracted many amateur animators creating cartoons and spinning them in the zoetrope in the display gardens.

You can see some of their work in this short film:

The Giant Zoetrope by Matthew Kay and Heather Jones @ the Horniman, London 2014 from matthew james Kay on Vimeo.

The day's star attraction was Sir Leopold Aleksander, otherwise known as The Mighty Moustache, Edwardian Strongman wowing the crowds with his ability to bend metal, smash watermelons and lift grown adults with ease.

As well as this raft of Edwardian entertainment children could get hands-on with some world games in the Hands on Base, follow the Selfish Giant story trail by Edwardian author Oscar Wilde, and get up close with some wildlife in our wildlife garden.

Play Day happens every year on the first Wednesday in August so we are looking forward to next year’s event on 5 August 2015. Visit the Play Day website for more information.

A Chung Tai Shan Visit

As part of the Collections People Stories our Anthropology team have been hosting various expert groups on visits to the Museum and our stored collections to help us learn more about the objects and share them with their source communities. Assistant Curator Tom has updated us on the latest.

Back in August we were honoured to host a visit from a group of monks and nuns, adherents of Taiwan’s Chung Tai Shan Monastery.

It was a very busy day at the museum and the group attracted quite a lot of attention in their elegant brown robes. At the reception, where we arranged to meet the group, things were particularly hectic, but the maelstrom of shouting children and harassed parents didn’t seem to faze our visitors. Instead they appeared to be pleased by their surroundings, responding to gawping faces with polite nods and benevolent smiles. One nun said to me - just audible over the din - “Here is a paradise for children”.

Our visitors, as well as being practicing monks and nuns held positions in the administration of Taiwan’s enormous Chung Tai Shan Monastery - home to over 1,500 resident devotees - or were involved in the running of the monastery’s daughter establishments, which are located at sites all over the world. Chung Tai Shan Monastery has a museum attached to it with an impressive collection of Buddhist objects and our visitors included the museum’s director, a curator, an exhibition designer and a conservator.

Faced with such an impressive array of expertise we did our best to show the group a representative selection of the different types of work undertaken by the Horniman. Their tour took in the curatorial, conservation and learning departments.

In Conservation, they were able to take a close look at a collection of Tibetan figures recently treated by the department.

While the team working on our upcoming exhibition, Romania Revisited, were able to give some insight into how the displays were developed behind the scenes.

We also took the visitors up to the Animal Walk to admire the baby alpaca. It was an inspired idea, the alpacas were a hit and the group even came up with a strong contender for the newborn’s name: Chuan Yang (傳羊) a title which combines Chinese for ‘sheep’ with the potential for eventual reincarnation as a Buddha.

Find out more about how the Horniman's Anthropology team are working to better understand our collections and share them with other groups on the Collections People Stories project pages.

Busy with Busy Bees

Busy Bees, our lively sessions for under-5s, are returning next week and it's important time for the Horniman's Learning team. Aaron, one of the Horniman's Learning Assistants, reflects on what everyone has gained from this regular event over the years.

Being a Learning Assistant for the Horniman Learning team is necessarily a hectic and unruly role, supporting across schools, community learning and volunteering sections. Change is as good as a rest they say but in our ever-developing department the familiar becomes endearing and is one of the reasons that our long-running Busy Bees sessions are a highlight in my otherwise hectic week.

We work with a wonderful team of storytellers, who are also authors, musicians and performers, and they have gathered a dedicated regular following and continue to surprise first timers. It has been a real pleasure to get to know some of our parents and watch their children grow up attending Busy Bees sessions over the years.

Everyone who comes has a great time whether they are under 5 or much much older, here is what they have told us recently:

Fantastic session for mixed age children – baby and toddler – feel so welcome, comfortable and entertained (and educated!) Thank – you.

Such an awesome resource! My eldest loves it – the songs and participation are just excellent

We love the busy bees sessions. I have been bringing my son since he was 8months old – he .... still gets joy from busy bees along with his 4year old sister. Great interactive sessions.

The girls and I always love busy bees, it’s always really engaging and fun for the girls... They  thoroughly enjoy the session as they re-enact  parts of the story they’ve heard afterwards. Thanks!

One of the strengths of this programme is how flexible it is but, as with all regular activities, it can be subject to changes so do please check the website for timings. Also, although we do not encourage early queuing with early years children, if you want to attend the first session you will still need to arrive fairly promptly to get a ticket.

The new season of Busy Bees gets underway on Tuesday 16 September with 3 sessions held every Tuesday and Wednesday (with some exceptions). Check the event page for more details.

Share your #HornimanMemories

This month at the Horniman we're looking for our visitors to send us their favourite memories of the museum and gardens, to create a collection of #HornimanMemories.

Whether it's the first time you laid eyes on the Horniman Walrus, discovering the view of the London skyline from our Bandstand, or getting your hands on real museum objects in our Hands on Base, we want you to share all your favourite Horniman moments.

To add your memories to the project visit Twitter or Instagram and share using the #HornimanMemories hashtag. You could share a story, a feeling, or even a photo from a previous visit. We'll be using the hashtag to find all the memories shared and collect them together using Storify.

At the end of the month, we'll be selecting our three favourites and offering their owners a year's free Horniman Membership, including free access to the Aquarium and special exhibitions, as well as plenty of other perks, so you can continue to create even more memories here at the Horniman.

We'll also be sharing some of our own #HornimanMemories throughout the project, using pictures from the museum archives to reveal moments from the museum's past. Look out for these on our Twitter account.

Modelling the Natural History Gallery

Things are moving along in our Natural History Gallery, which has been closed this week as we make way for the new displays coming in 2015. As we saw in our last post, most of the objects from the entrance to the gallery have been taken off display, and this week, some of the older, empty showcases have been removed.

Visitors to the Gallery in the near future will find they have a much clearer view of the Horniman Walrus than they are used to.

But much of the preparation that goes on to prepare for the new display happens behind the scenes, and our Exhibitions and Natural History teams have been hard at work making plans.

This begins with sketches, which our graphic designer turns into more detailed computer models using the high-quality photographs from our object database.

But 2D can only get you so far; sometimes the only way to see what will fit where is to create your own 3D model.

There are still many decisions to make about which specimens are best suited to telling the story of this new display, and where they can be displayed.

Fans of our Edward Hart bird cases will be pleased to know that many of them will be returning to display, with some new examples from the stores joining them.

The detailed measurements our Documentation team record for each object means they can be recreated exactly to scale in a 2D or 3D mock-up, so that we are able to tell exactly where they will or won't fit.

And can you guess which this plasticine model is representing?

The Natural History Gallery is re-opening this weekend, so you can see the recent changes for yourself. The next closure will happen in January, as we prepare the showcases for the specimens coming in.

Afghanistan and Empire in the Horniman Stores

Tom, Assistant Curator of Anthropology, reports on a research visit to the stores and a special behind the scenes event he has planned.

Earlier this summer three experts on Afghanistan visited our stores: Zia Shahreyar is an Afghan journalist who works for the BCC, Bijan Omrani is an author and a historian of Afghanistan and Constance Wyndham works with the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Together they are creating a special event for the Horniman called Afghanistan and Empire. The event will be held on the evening of the 9 of October: the plan is to offer audience members a chance to examine our fascinating and sometimes moving objects from Afghanistan, followed by a session where Bijan and Zia will use the objects to tell the story of conflict in Afghanistan from the early nineteenth century up to the present day.

At the stores I showed my visitors a selection of objects which I thought might interest them. Top of my list was a carefully decorated Afghan jezail, a sort of musket feared by the soldiers of the British Indian army for its accuracy at long range.

On the butt of the jezail was pasted a handwritten note explaining that it was a trophy of the storming of Peiwar Kotal fort, a skirmish between British troops and Afghan tribesmen that took place in 1878.

I was also keen for the visitors to see a very early example of tourist art from the Kalasha people, whose territory sat at the very edge of the British India. The Kalasha and their compatriots in Afghanistan followed a pre-Islamic faith which fascinated the British, inspiring Rudyard Kipling to write his famous, The Man Who Would be King.

Discussions with my visitors led to fresh ideas and we found new objects to be included in the event. For example to provide a suggestion of the richness of Afghanistan’s heritage we chose some of the Horniman’s beautiful Gandharan carvings. The Gandharan culture existed in a region that borders present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. For several centuries it produced beautiful Buddhist artefacts and architecture inspired by the classical Greek cannon.

It is always a great pleasure to examine artefacts with experts and it is inspiring to see how a single object can encapsulate so many different narratives and ideas. Afghanistan and Empire will provide an opportunity to share this experience with a wider audience.

Afghanistan and Empire is a special Behind the Scenes event at the Horniman on Thursday 9 October. Book your tickets (£5) online now.

The Case of the Missing Polar Bear

A large taxidermy polar bear stands proudly in our family-friendly Extremes exhibition at the moment.

Its arrival here caused quite a flurry, but it wasn't the first time a polar bear had been on display at the Horniman.

In the early 1890s, Frederick Horniman bought a polar bear from a man called James Henry Hubbard. The polar bear was first displayed in the Canadian Section of the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, along with many other Canadian animals including our famous walrus.

The polar bear is first mentioned in local newspaper articles as 'a polar bear realistically attacking a seal'.

It was one of the big stars of the Museum for over 60 years and was very popular with museum visitors. Over the years, the polar bear and other animals were moved several times. It was stated that it took five men to move each one.

However, in the late 1940s, the polar bear was sold.

There were many reasons for this: the fur of the polar bear may have become dirty and the mount itself may no longer have been in good condition; staff in the museum began to research new themes for display based on the latest scientific ideas and developments and there would have been very little space to store large animals at that time. Also, by the 1940s tastes and attitudes towards taxidermy had changed significantly and it became increasingly unfashionable to display large animals in museums.

The polar bear was sold on 17 September 1948, to a Mr T Allen, a local ‘scrap’ merchant. The polar bear's fate is a mystery.

At one time, there were rumours that the polar bear had been bought and put on display in Selfridges, but this has never been confirmed.

In 2006, we set upon a search to find out if the polar bear still exists somewhere out in the wider world, but were not able to find anything concrete. We learned that it had been sold on by Mr Allen in the 1950s to a photographic studio in Southend-on-Sea, but unfortunately have not found any evidence of what happened to it after that.

Do you live in Southend-on-Sea or have visited in the past and remember having your photograph taken with a polar bear? We'd love to hear from you.

Horniman Inspiration: Kate Mosse and The Taxidermist's Daughter

On Thursday 11 September best-selling author Kate Mosse joins us at the Horniman to celebrate the launch of her latest novel, The Taxidermist's Daughter. Ahead of this special event, she talks about some of the inspiration she gained at February's Taxidermy Late.

There's a moment in writing any novel when, suddenly, the book clicks into place. All the thinking and planning, the inspiration, the plotting, none of it matters until the story sparks into life. Anything can make it happen – reading a good piece of research, visiting the location about which you're writing, looking at photographs. For me, it was visiting the Horniman...

Picture the scene, a cold and dark night in February 2014. The event? 'Taxidermy Late', an evening dedicated to taxidermy in all of its glory, centred around the fabulous collection at the Museum. I'd been a regular visitor in the 1990s, when I lived in London and our children were little, but hadn't been back for some time.

It was, simply, a magical evening. For three hours I wandered around, on my own, spellbound. I watched taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long, I listened to Pat Morris talk about the history of taxidermy and Errol Fuller dazzle the packed downstairs lecture room, I joined the queue to have my photograph taken with a piece of taxidermy from the collection (a duck, as it happens) and stood tapping my foot to the music of the most exciting new band I'd heard for ages, Gabby Young & Other Animals. Their album became the music I listened to before sitting down at my desk each day to write the novel.

That winter's night, the Museum was alive with fun and light, with music and conversation, with women and men of all ages (and two life-sized, breathing, walking, talking kittens, as if they had stepped straight out of one of Walter Potter's tableaux).It was a true celebration of the history, of the craft, of the skill, of the beauty of taxidermy.

Most of all, though, what mattered was that the atmosphere and the passion was the final spark I needed for my novel. Because I was there on that damp February night, my lead character, Connie Gifford, became herself and the story took shape; I knew what I wanted to do and how the novel had to be written. A Gothic novel – set as the flood waters are rising in Sussex in 1912 – inspired by Walter Potter's Victorian Museum of Curious Taxidermy and brought to life by the Horniman Museum more than a hundred years later...

So, where better than the Horniman to launch The Taxidermist's Daughter. I hope to see you all there, in costume or not, for another evening of celebration.

Kate Mosse Talks Taxidermy is on at the Horniman at 6.30pm on Thursday 11 September. Buy your tickets online now (over 18s only).

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