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Exploring Baron Samedi

In preparation for our Queer Late event on 12 May, we have been exploring our collections, searching for objects that have connections to queer culture. Here we look at the dandy figure of Baron Samedi.

Have you ever noticed the Vodou shrine in our African Worlds gallery? We often get asked about the objects inside the shrine. What do the objects represent? What is the connection to Vodou faith? Why is the head of the baby from the Dinosaurs TV show in the shrine?

In the shrine you can see four objects placed here for ‘Baron Samedi’ – a Loa (or spirit) of Haitian Vodou faith associated with death and resurrection.

Baron Samedi is the leader of the Barons. He is often shown as a bisexual dandy or occasionally as being transgendered. He wears a top-hat and frock coat along with a women's skirts and shoes. Much of the time he is drinking rum and smoking a large cigar. He has been described as having ‘lascivious movements’ that cross gender boundaries. This is not unusual in Haitian Vodou, as the faith is very open to people of all sexual orientations.

These two flags are made from different-coloured beads and sequins and represent Baron Samedi. The left flag shows a crucifix sitting on top of a coffin with a skull and cross bones in the centre. On one side is a bottle and on the other, a candle. The second flag shows some of the other symbols Baron Samedi is often associated with, such as the playing cards shapes (heart, spade, diamond, and club) and anthropomorphised faces.

Beliefs, mythology and customs brought to Haiti from Africa mixed and fused with Catholic imagery to form the distinctive characteristics of Haitian Vodou we can see on these two crosses made for Baron Samedi. Also, more recent Vodou altars use imagery from the West including Barbie dolls and figures from TV culture to honour the spirits being represented – which might explain the baby dinosaur’s head.

You can see the Vodou shrine in our African Worlds gallery during our Queer Late event.

Art inspiration at the Horniman library

How the Horniman library influences local artists.

For the last 115 years the Horniman Museum library has been a resource for anyone wishing to research subjects related to natural history, anthropology and musical instruments.

This group includes not only academics, curators and students but also gardeners, textile designers, architects and artists. 

One such artist is Ian Robinson who visited the library in 2015 and spent time with some of the older anthropology books in our collection, which had originally belonged to Frederick Horniman. These resulting works were exhibited at the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea earlier this year.

For anyone interested in visiting the library, we are open by appointment on Mondays and Tuesdays, and on the first Sunday of every month (no appointment needed). 

Find out more information about the Horniman library.

More of Ian’s artwork can be viewed on his website.

Using WhatsApp to answer visitors' questions

Two years ago, we wrote a blog about an idea we had to use WhatsApp as a way of answering visitors questions.

At that time, we had run a very simple test to try the idea out, and had plans to do more. It took us a while, but we did eventually try something out.

Last September, around the annual Ask a Curator twitter event, we put posters around the museum telling visitors that they could ask questions either on twitter or by texting via SMS or Whatapp.

We put these posters in all our galleries, in the gardens and near the Animal Walk.

We initially had thought we would keep the posters up for a day or two, but, in the end, decided to keep them up for just under 6 weeks.

In that time, we received quite a few questions - though not as many as we do via Twitter or Facebook, or indeed as many as our staff in the galleries were asked.

Some of the questions we were asked are below - a mix of practical, easy-to-answer questions and more in-depth discussions.

Does the walrus have a name?

Why are the bees fighting?

Why do the African statues all have navels facing out of their body?

Why are the alpacas out in the rain?

Why have you labelled an object as being from a specific island and another as being from Papua New Guinea?

Are the miniature dogs real?

Their questions, and how and when they were sent, lead us to consider:

  • Where we placed the posters - we did not want these to obscure objects on display, but that meant they were not always in very prominent, visible postions.
  • The speed with which we were able to reply, particualry on weekends.
  • Our visitors ask fascinating questions, some of which we'd never have thought about.

Overall, this experiment was useful - partly to tell us that maybe our visitors' interest in this is not what we thought it would be. That, more than anything, has led us to wonder whether we should continue exploring this area or move on to something else, something our visitors will find more immediately engaging.

Introducing Favela: joy and pain in the city

Our current photography exhibition, Favela: joy and pain in the city, is a collaboration with the Observatory of the Favelas – a social organisation based in Maré, the largest complex of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

Jailson de Souza e Silva, Founder and Director of the Observatory of the Favelas, spoke to us about the three photographers who trained with the Observatory of the Favelas and are exhibiting here this summer.

When thinking about peripheral spaces, such as favelas, there are many prejudices. They are seen as places characterised by absence and deprivation deficient in decent facilities, services, order, education, culture and civic values. They are believed to be lawless and overrun by violence, representing the height of urban chaos.

These photographs allow us to judge favelas according to what they actually have: intense joy, pain, life, death, respect, violence, struggle, celebration, games, play, work, intimacy, complicity, complexity, simplicity and sociability among many other expressions of life.

Bira Carvalho, Elisângela Leite and AF (Adriano) Rodrigues all come from the favela of Maré – an important point of reference in their artistic work. They are all members of a vast contingent of young people from favelas and the peripheries of Brazil who refuse to be categorised as the “beneficiaries of social projects”, or mere documenters of their own daily lives.

We train the photographers to have excellent technique and an anthropological outlook. This seeks to recognise life where many see only death, invention where many see only deficit, beauty where many see only aesthetic compromise, and violence where many see only the inequality that has been normalised by the social system.

The work of these photographers allows the fluidity, richness and density of the life that is present in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas – and in all peripheral communities the world over – flow past your eyes.

Every day, by exercising their profession and their art, they show people can reinvent themselves, no matter where they come from or where they live. Because, for the person who sets out to find it, the world is never too far away, and life is never small.

“Favela: Joy and pain in the city” is realised through a partnership between The Horniman Museum and Gardens, Observatório de Favelas and People’s Palace Projects.

Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus

Our current exhibition Dinosaurs: Monster Families features an impressive Tarbosaurus skeleton. Author Dave Hone tells us more about the Tyrannosaurus and Tarbosaurus dinosaur species.

'Probably everyone has at least passing familiarity with Tyrannosaurus, but this is only one of some thirty species that make up the tyrannosaur 'family'.

This group of dinosaurs was around for 100 million years and became the dominant carnivores in North America and Asia (and perhaps Europe, though fossils here are scarce) in the Late Cretaceous period, from around 100-65 million years ago. Starting at a small size, the earliest tyrannosaurs were just a few meters long but they evolved to produce 12m-long, 5 ton giants.

Some of the Asian tyrannosaurs are the most interesting, including lightly-built fast runners with narrow heads and the huge Tarbosaurus from Mongolia (a specimen of which is on display in the Dinosaurs: Monster Families exhibition) which is one of the closest relatives of Tyrannosaurus.

Some of these bigger tyrannosaurs had numerous adaptations in their skulls to deliver a bone-crushing bite. The bones of their heads were especially thick, they had huge sites for attaching powerful jaw muscles and their teeth were much thicker than those of other carnivorous dinosaurs - to better resist the massive forces going through them.

Take a look at a Tarbosaurus and it is also clear that the giant tyrannosaurs were somewhat built around the head. The neck is short but very strong and the body is stocky - there's a lot of support there to help hold of that great skull.

And although the legs are long, the arms are very small because they probably got very little use. Even so, this was clearly a successful body plan which lasted for millions of years.

Had the mass extinction not hit, it is likely the tyrannosaurs would have endured and diversified further. We should be grateful that we have any record at all of them. This magnificent and fascinating group are a great example of what we can learn about the dinosaurs and their lost world.’

Dave Hone is the author of Tyrannosaurus Chronicles published by Bloomsbury.

The Redstart Arts Horniman project

Redstart Arts use a room at the Horniman once a month for a creative workshop. Their artist leader, Cash Aspeek, took part in our Community Worker Training Day and used what she had learnt to devise her own project at the museum for the group. Cash tells us what they have been doing.

The Horniman project was inspired by both natural figures and by ancient pieces of artwork found in the Horniman. Over a period of five sessions the Redstart Arts produced a series of figurative sculptures made from found materials that were neither human nor animal but a hybrid of the two.

My approach is to encourage the Redstarts to explore their own creativity rather than create a series of uniformed work. Thus, each of the works produced reflects the personality of its maker.

The structure of the sessions I run is similar each time. The members greet each other at the beginning by standing in a circle and creating a sign for their name, not Makaton but a sign or action of each individual’s choice. The group then copies the sign. This way of starting energises the group and creates a light environment in which the Redstarts are at ease.

The session then involves brief discussion about the journey they are on, looking at previous work and thinking about the next steps. I use a visual time plan to mark out steps and note opinions.

The starting point for the Horniman project began with the Redstarts immersing themselves into the gallery space. The Redstarts produced observational studies of pieces they found of interest in the galleries and then went on to realise their figurative sculptures through plaster bandage.

The Redstarts then set about exploring textures; they discussed how some animals are covered in fur whilst others have feathers or scales and that humans have skin. The Redstarts were very keen to explore the galleries using the collections as inspiration for the ‘skin’ for their figure.

One Redstart was fascinated by the scales of a Pangolin and so covered his figure in small pieces of grey rubber, each piece overlapped to form a scale like texture. 

Another Redstart covered his figure in compost and then carefully hammered nails into it after he was inspired by a Nkondi figure. 

Furthermore one of the Redstarts rather than covering her figure decided to use a black pen to meticulously cover her figure in drawings, she particularly enjoyed drawing from observation within the gallery.

Each Redstart produced a figure that was very representative of their personalities, likes and dislikes. They enjoyed the freedom of exploration and creativity that they were given. This was poignant for each Redstart, as they seemed extremely proud and happy of the work they produced. 

You can find out more about Redstart Arts on their website.

Cleaning a Persian Dhal

Conservator Charlotte talks to us today about cleaning a steel Persian Dhal to discover its intricately detailed decoration. 

This steel Persian Dhal (shield) is one of a number of objects to go on loan to Bucks County Museum as part of their “Art of Islam” Exhibition.

At some point in its history this shield had been covered in shellac lacquer that had, over time, discoloured and trapped dirt against the surface. The lacquer had also been applied over tarnished metal and both these issues were obscuring the fine engravings and gilt layer across the surface of the shield.  

We removed the old lacquer layer with solvents. This process had the added benefit of removing some of the corrosion product across the surface of the metal. We then applied museum-grade abrasion paste to remove the thicker areas of corrosion.

To protect the metal, we hot waxed the shield with microcrystalline wax. This technique involves carefully heating the metal and applying wax to the surface, which is then left to cool. Using a lint-free cloth we then rigorously buffed the metal to remove excess wax and create an even shine. 

The cotton textile on the back of the shield was detaching from the metal and had to be secured back down. To do this, we aheared small tabs of Japanese tissue between the textile and the metal to act as an “anchor” and to allow for easier treatment reversibility.

We then inserted thermoplastic adhesive, applied as a “dry film”, between the Japanese tissue and the metal and then heat activated to bond the two materials together. A “wet” adhesive was then applied on top of the tissue, with the textile pressed down on to the adhesive and clamped in place, while the adhesive dried. This technique was repeated around the edge of the shield until the textile was secured in place.

The resulting clean and corrosion removal allows us to see more intricate detail and securing the textile on the back of the shield should hopefully prevent any further damage to this material.

Roots and Branches: local memories from South London

From January to March 2016, we've been meeting each week with a group of people living in South London to explore their memories of the local area and further afield. 

Some of the people who joined us were our wonderful Healthy Walkers and others were from the Community Connections project. Routes and Branches built on our previous group work with Community Connections group members. 

Some of them have lived in South London for years and have seen the area changing dramatically. Others moved in more recently and feel they belong elsewhere.

This social history project recorded the changing face of the local community, bringing together past and recent memories of shops, bars and restaurants that no longer exist, street corners often gone unnoticed and landmark buildings that are still standing.

Participants worked together with storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton and textile artist Seiwa Cunningham on a multimedia project, which provided them with an outlet where they could share their knowledge and learn new skills. 

Below, look at the artworks and hear the people taking part in the project telling stories of south London. You can also explore their memories on HistoryPin.

Debbie's story

Roxanne's story

Michael's story

Ray's story

Sadat's story

Sandra's story

Phyllis's story

Nigel's story


Irene's story

Alan's story

Ibronke's story


Jilla's story

The Art of Islam

Objects from the Horniman's collection are on display now in a new major exhibition at Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury.

The exhibition, running from March 26 until September 24 2016, is part of the Art of Islam Festival and reflects Islamic culture and its links with Western Europe, 

Treasures on display will include carpets, paintings, furniture, metalwork, jewellery and splendid calligraphy from across the Middle East.

Among the objects from the Horniman's collection are this ewer, seal and baby cover.


This Bidri ware ewer is from India and dates from the late 19th century, when it was sold to Frederick Horniman.


This seal, dating from 1776, is engraved in Persian with a floral border. It belonged to James Peter Auriol of the Bengal civil service, who was secretary to the government of Warren Hastings in India in the late 18th century.

This cover from Sumatra is placed on the forehead of a baby (along with another cover for the baby's body) when visitors come to see it during the first forty days of life.

In addition to the Horniman's collection, exhibits will also be borrowed from the British Museum, Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery and from the private collection of Razwan and Sarya Baig.

About the art: Here, Now

Our current exhibition Here, Now is a collaborative project delivered in partnership with photographer Nana Varveropoulou and Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers.

Nana spent four months working alongside ten newly arrived migrants in the local area to produce a series of portraits. In this blog, we ask her about the story behind this portrait.

How did you approach this project?

The first step was to spend several days at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers, so that people got to know me and start to feel comfortable. I spent the first whole day approaching people, showing them examples of pictures and discussing the project idea.

Some people seemed interested, but most of them were understandably pre-occupied with their lives, their papers, their circumstances.

How did this particular photograph come about?

One day, I was waiting at Southwark Day Centre for Asylum Seekers to meet another project participant. While waiting, I approached this man.

OS didn't speak English, but luckily one of the many volunteers at the centre offered to help with translating. While we tried to work out a theme and a location for his portraits, he received a phone call from his caseworker who informed him that he was being moved to Scotland with immediate effect.

We were all slightly shocked - particularly OS. He kindly got back to me and told the interpreter, if you want to photograph me, you better do it here and now. I doubt that I will be here next week.

What was his reaction to this? 

He didn't seem angry or upset. He looked more resigned to the fact that he had no choice.

I asked him if he wanted to move and he said no, he didn't know anyone in Scotland. I realised that he was right - we had to do his portrait on the spot.

His experience really captures part of the reality of being an asylum seeker.

We looked around the centre to find the right spot for the portrait and came across a "Welcome" sign, which I found quite ironic. We took the portrait there.

Here, Now is on display at the Horniman until 6 June 2016.

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