Learning Assistant Siobhan Brown fills us in on the mammoth task of the annual Handling collection audit.
At the Horniman we have a fantastic, 3,000 object-strong Handling collection. We use the Handling collection in all our Learning programmes: with school groups learning about a huge range of topics, families visiting us on the weekends, community groups visiting the Horniman together, and with young people on our Youth Panel.
The Handling collection includes 3000 objects that you can interact with
The Learning Team have collective responsibility for the collection. The whole team clean the Hands on Base, the home of the Handling collection, four times a year and get together monthly to repair objects and update displays.
A major event in the Learning Team calendar is the annual Handling collection audit, which takes place at the start of January. This year, with the help of our colleagues from the Collections Management team, we checked all the objects in a record-breaking two and a half days.
We work in pairs to take each object from its location, check it against the record on our collections management system, and then record anything we need to know about its condition.
Anything that is where it shouldn’t be is put on the orange tables in the Hands on Base, and at the end of the audit we put our heads together to figure out where they need to be.
We also take photographs of all the cases to help us put everything back in the right place for the year to come.
Schools Learning Officer Shayna and Volunteering Administrator Vikki hard at work
Though most of the objects are in the Hands on Base, some are stored elsewhere. A particularly fun task undertaken by Schools Learning Officer Lucy and I, was auditing the objects in the freezer, which is kept in an unheated room, on what was one of the coldest days of the year.
Putting 52 chopsticks in the correct order or identifying 24 wood samples that all look pretty much the same, might sound like the sort of tedium you would hate to kick the year off with. But it’s a great time to get together as a team, rediscover our favourite old objects and share knowledge about new ones, all while eating the leftover Christmas chocolates.
Schools Learning Officer Lucy updates object records.
Keep an eye out on the blog this year for more on the Handling Collection and some of our favourite objects.
This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, has the pleasure of telling us all about herfavourite odd-toed ungulate, the rhinoceros.
Oh my goodness gracious, I get to write a blog about rhinos, my absolute favourite animal. Hold on to your hats and don't go anywhere folks, this is going to be exciting. Not only is this the penultimate Specimen of the Month blog to focus on each of the eight species of animal in our incredible Robot Zoo, it also happens to be World Rhino Day!
A feat of engineering
The rhino robot in our very popular Robot Zoo.
The robotic rhino grazing on the snazzy grey carpet in the Robot Zoo is made largely out of every day and household objects, this ingenious work of engineering manages to pick out all of the White Rhino’s most important features. It has a fly swatter hanging off of its rear end for example, as real rhinos flick away irritating insects with a swish of their hair-tipped tails - although only two of the five species of rhino have a particularly tufty tail per se; the White Rhino and the smaller, delightfully furry Sumatran Rhino. Microphones for ears, and large cones they called 'smell-inlets' for nostrils demonstrate the rhinos excellent senses of smell and hearing. Armour plating represents their thick skin and bright purple rubber takes the place of thick grass-gripping lips. It even uses a crane to lift the head, demonstrating how strong their neck muscles are.
A tale of two rhinos
Southern White Rhino at Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park in South Africa. Very few people can tell the difference between a Northern and a Southern White Rhino by eye, in case you were wondering.
There are two subspecies of White Rhino; the Southern and the Northern. The wild population numbers of Southern White Rhino is a huge feather in the cap of conservation, and every one of these thick-skinned beasts hoofing about in sub-Saharan Africa is a testament to how humans aren’t entirely useless as a species. The White Rhino was down to just 100 individuals in the late 19th Century due to hunting in the colonial era. Due to intensive conservation efforts, the numbers have risen to over 20,000 and subsequently the (Southern) White Rhino is not currently listed as endangered.
In contrast, their friends in the North are not doing so well. There are three Northern White Rhinos in the world. Three. They are called Sudan, who is the only male, and Najin and Fatu who are both females. Unfortunately, Sudan is Najin’s father and Fatu’s grandfather, making repopulating the earth with Northern White Rhinos an awkward conversation. Further complicating things is that Sudan has to be under armed guard 24 hours a day to protect him from poachers who would target him for his horn, which is as medicinal as the metal cone on our robot.
A sixth rhino?
This is a female Northern White Rhino that used to live at San Diego Zoo.
There has been an argument put forward that the Northern White Rhino is not, in fact, a subspecies of the slightly larger White rhino but a distinct species in its own right. Personally the idea of there being six rather five species of rhino in the world means Christmas has come early in my book, but the proposed name of Nile Rhino may never make it into the history books as the rhino scientists of the world met the proposal with scepticism. Darn it. Still - as exciting as it would be on the one hand if Sudan and his family of two did represent a distinct species, on the other, it would mean we are on the verge of losing a much more genetically distinct animal than previously thought. I could explain in detail why having distinct species is important to the ecosystem (not just rhino enthusiasts), but I’m out of space so you’ll have to campaign for the Horniman to allow me more rhino airtime.
At the Horniman Museum and Gardens, we are in the throes of our most ambitious project for years – a redisplay of our designated anthropology collections, involving the closure and redevelopment of two galleries to create a new World Gallery and The Studio.
That’s 1,300 museum objects going into storage and 3,000 coming out – sounds like no problem, right? But what about the 18 months in between while the new gallery is being constructed, when all 4,300 objects need housing in an already full-to-capacity storage facility? You might think that calls for a TARDIS…
In lieu of The Doctor's command of space and time, museums call on their collection management specialists to work their own brand of magic. Adrian Holloway is the Horniman’s Collections Manager, based at the Study Collections Centre, home to the Horniman’s stored collections.
When the Horniman started working on plans to redevelop the anthropology galleries, its Study Collections Centre (SCC) was already full, wasn't it?
It certainly looked that way. Perhaps there’s a perception that items currently on display have a designated space waiting for them to go back to. If yours is a museum that continues to collect, you’re unlikely to have this luxury – we certainly don’t at the Horniman. Space is money, we don’t waste either.
Is the SCC, in fact, a TARDIS?
We keep increasing the storage capacity, so in a way yes. I’ve overseen five storage projects at SCC since 2002, all to increase capacity within the limited space available. We’ve been able to do this by redesigning layouts of the rooms and updating old storage systems with modern mobile racking. We do have some external storage for larger items too – if we kept everything at SCC that’s not on display then there’d be no room to work, and we’d struggle to provide access to our collections for researchers and others, which is part of our ethos.
But this latest, major redisplay still posed a problem. What did you do to prepare?
The point at which the two ‘populations’ of objects meet – those coming off display, and those destined for the new World Gallery – is the challenge. We had a designated ‘project room’ at the SCC, which was conceived to allow us space to process objects in and out of the stored collection, whether for acquisitions, loans or new displays. But at the beginning of discussions about the new gallery, the room was overrun with Hart birds with nowhere else to go. We needed to make more space – essentially to return this room to its original purpose – to manage the demands of the redisplay affordably. The other option, to put everything coming off display into external storage, was far too expensive. Thankfully senior management and curators recognised our proposal was not only necessary to the anthropology redisplay project, but would also benefit the care of and access to the stored taxidermy collections.
How successful was the project in ‘creating’ space?
We were lucky to have exactly the right person focused on the project – Justine Aw, who was with us for a full year of decanting the collections (temporarily, into a previously upgraded store), room refurbishment, upgrading racking and then repacking and re-shelving nearly 2,000 specimens. This allowed us to free up 60-70m3 of space. The plan was to fit the entire taxidermy collection – including all those Hart bird cases – into one storage room. We weren’t 100% sure it was all going to fit until it did!
How many more objects will SCC contain after decanting the current anthropology displays? Are you sure that it will all fit?
We’re dealing with the movement of around 4,300 objects – 1,300 coming off display, more being acquired, and the rest leaving their stored location to be prepared for display in the World Gallery. We’re using external storage for a small number of larger items and new acquisitions – even so, at the moment I’m about 75% sure that everything else will fit in, with enough space left for us to work! As the objects are moving to the SCC in batches we have some opportunity to assess as we go and have a couple of other options to avoid grinding to a complete halt. The objects should also take up less space in storage than when in the packaging required for transport, which will be another factor in our favour.
So soon SCC really will be full. Is there a moratorium on new acquisitions?
It depends on how you define ‘full’. There’s still potential to improve capacity in future – I’ve got my eye on at least two more rooms – but that’s funding-dependent of course. Also, there are objects identified for disposal from our collection, following a series of collections reviews – but there’s work involved there in finding new homes for them that ideally keep them in the public domain.
So for now, yes, we’ll call it full. There’s no moratorium on acquisitions for the new World Gallery – the planned displays need some additions to tell their full stories. But for the other parts of our collection? Let’s just say we’re using greater caution…
Watch a timelapse film of objects being removed from display in what was the Centenary Gallery.
 Hampshire taxidermist and naturalist, Edward Hart (1847-1928). Hart's collection of mounted birds is one of the very best in Britain and most of the surviving taxidermy cases and notebooks are housed at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.
We are carrying out some essential conservation and improvements to our Grade II listed Conservatory.
We host a range of events in our Conservatory, especially weddings and civil ceremonies, and the work will include the installation of heating beneath a beautiful tiled floor, interior lighting and better drainage.
The work is due to be completed in March 2017.
Did you know?
The conservatory was originally built at the Horniman family house at Coombe Cliffe, Croydon, in 1894.
Coombe Cliffe house had been the home of our founder's parents, and Frederick Horniman's mother lived there until her death in 1900. After being sold in 1903, the house later served as a convalescent home for children, college of art, education centre and teachers' hub.
Over the years, many voices spoke out for the need for preservation of the Coombe Cliff Conservatory, as the house was eventually left abandoned and suffered from neglect. In 1977, the building suffered considerable damage in a fire.
Eventually, it was decided that the best way to preserve this listed building was to dismantle and move it to another location.
The dismantled Conservatory was eventually moved to the Horniman in 1986, and its reconstruction began in June 1987. The ambitious restoration project was completed in 1989.
We hope, with these restoration works, we can keep the Conservatory in use for many years to come.
Robin Strub, our Anthropology Volunteer, has been looking into the Horniman's collection of charms.
Have you ever wondered how the Horniman got its objects?
Who brought them here, and why?
I’m here to help answer some of those questions! I volunteer in Anthropology’s collection of English charms and amulets, which has a lot of pieces from a man named Alfred William Rowlett.
He came from the Cambridgeshire town of St Neots and, between 1904 and 1933, he sold the Horniman dozens of items that he had found as part of his town’s rural culture.
What do you think of when you look at the objects in the Horniman’s cases? What do you imagine of the people who collected them?
Do you think of a Victorian, professorial man with a tweed jacket and pipe?
How about a Victorian dustman with a bin and broom?
From St. Neots The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, 1978
This picture is of Rowlett, who worked as a Dustman for the local government. Bert Goodwin, a historian and local of St Neots, remembers Rowlett, and wrote about him for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s 2011-12 winter edition, including this picture of Rowlett and his dustbin making his rounds.
When looking up Rowlett in the 1881 Census I found he was in work as a labourer by the time he was 13. He went on to become a businessman, as well as a Dustman, with an antiques shop, and worked with the Horniman in a professional capacity. He even had his own official stationery that he used to write letters and invoices to the Horniman! Here is how his letterhead looked:
We don’t know how Rowlett started working with the Horniman but as a local, he had specialist knowledge and access to his community. This was undoubtedly part of the benefit of the Horniman doing business with him. In a letter dated 6 May 1907, Rowlett noted that ‘my business is to find out and get all the necessary information I can get’ on objects destined for the Museum.
His research is still important for the Horniman, as the things we know about the objects he sourced came via his connections. The information would otherwise have been lost without his detailed descriptors.
Here is what he wrote about a ‘Spinning Jenny’ (object number 7.199) as an example, with a transcription beneath.
used at Easton Socon, Beds for Raffling oranges sweets & home made cakes at Holiday times & festivals with an original charm against the children in getting to high a number so as to benefit the owner of Spinning Jenny
used by Mrs Newton at home and village feasts in & Round Bedfordshire Cambs & Hunts
1856 half penny a spin
This is how the Spinning Jenny works:
You can see a piece of orange flint tied to the device - that’s the charm.
We know what that flint was for thanks to Rowlett, as well as precise details about how the Spinning Jenny is used. (I thought the owner would’ve been caught out by cheating, but my Curator figured out that if you keep the stone against your palm and hold out the Spinning Jenny, nobody can see that you have it in your hand!)
Rowlett would also make handwritten labels for artefacts that were entering the collection, and many of his labels are still stored with the objects. This is an example for number 9.41 in our collection, a wood pigeon’s foot that was used to ward off cramp.
A lot of the charms that Rowlett brought us are things from the natural world that people associated with various curative powers.
It may seem strange today, but the idea was that wood pigeons never get foot cramps. If I carry a wood pigeon’s foot, maybe that will protect me too. If you have ever heard of someone carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot, it’s not too far a leap from practices today.
Rowlett’s community of St Neots still remembers him as someone to go to for these kinds of all-natural remedies for health problems.
Local historian Rosa Young transcribed several adverts from a 1900 issue of a local paper for the St Neots Local History Magazine’s, which included an old advert that Rowlett had put in the paper for his own special patent medicine. It cured everything (naturally) but Rowlett’s neighbours did come to him seeking his medical expertise.
Bert Goodwin, the local historian who photographed Rowlett, recounts that when he was a child he had a wart on his knee cured by Rowlett,
He cut a small twig from a bush which he called ‘Joseph’s Thorn’, which he shaped into a spatula, and then made his mark on the wart X. “There,” he said, “it will be gone by the next full moon.” Strangely enough, I forgot about it, but when I next looked it had gone.
Because of Rowlett’s work at St Neots, the local historical society put up a Blue Plaque for him.
Thanks to Eatons Community Association
Like the wood pigeon’s foot above, many of the objects that Rowlett brought to the Horniman were considered to have health benefits. The charms I’m studying were used by real people who believed in them, and used them to solve a variety of different problems. Ironically, Rowlett – with his Joseph’s Thorn for curing warts – thought that some of the charms’ owners were ‘eccentric’!
I don’t know about you, but I have lucky charms. Millions of people all over the world believe in the power of objects and in 2018, the Horniman will open a new gallery where you will be able to find charms from all around the world, including those collected by Rowlett!
If you’d like to see what Rowlett brought to the Horniman, and 2018 is too long to wait, you can find all of Rowlett’s objects online.
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.
The front of shield before treatment.
The back of the shield before treatment â€“ the detaching cotton textile can be seen at the top left 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.
The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
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.
A photo posted by Horniman Museum and Gardens (@hornimanmuseumgardens) on
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 gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
The gilt layers became visible during cleaning and corrosion removal.
The back of the shield after treatment. The cotton textile is now secure against the metal.
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.
HwB is a charity organisation based at UCL and CHwB is an independent non-governmental organisation. Both are dedicated to rescuing and preserving cultural heritage affected by conflict, neglect or human and natural disaster.
For the last three-years CHwB have run a Regional Restoration Camp in Mitrovica, a town in Kosovo divided by the Ibar River. It is still an area of recent contention and the camps aim to bring communities together, as well as preserving cultural heritage.
Alex demonstrating using a microscope to investigate damage and how best to treat an object
Based in the Museum of the City of Mitrovica, the camp provides lectures on the theory of preventative conservation, collections management, remedial conservation and interpretation, as well as a lot of hands on practical work - including working with the museum’s own collections. The participants ranged from university students to local museum professionals and international heritage workers, largely from the Balkan region.
Two participants cleaning a leather miner’s bag from the museum’s collection
Alex was our fantastic Team Leader and made sure there was a brilliant range of content for the course, and also had to organise sourcing local supplies to make sure that there was real value in what we were demonstrating. The course is very practical, with sessions on marking artefacts, basic conservation cleaning and repairs, sewing covers for costumes, packing artefacts for storage and transport, and the ever popular egg packing challenge! In the mornings we would start with lectures to inform on all these subjects, and Alex led a number of sessions on ethics in conservation, pest monitoring, object drawing and material experimentation where the students got to try out a selection of conservation tools on some sacrificial materials which had had a few 'little accidents'.
Alex showing participants how to make Paraloid for marking objects
My role was focused on the importance of documenting collections – to truly understand what you have, how best to work with it and preserve it for future generations. I also discussed the ethical side of collecting, documenting and storing collections, taking in to consideration legal and sector guidelines, but also a variety of cultural factors. Along with this I was able to teach and assist with a variety of packing and handling techniques, practical documentation tasks and preventative conservation.
Hello! My name is Sarah, and I am the new student placement in Conservation. I have recently been spending a lot of my time treating a trailing war bonnet used in a Wild West show. You might be wondering what a trailing war bonnet is, well…
A Kiowa tribe war bonnet at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (2/8375). Photo by NMAI Photo Services.
A war bonnet is a form of ceremonial headdress worn by men of various Native American and First Nations tribes in the Plains area of the United States and Canada.
Traditionally, each feather was taken from the tail of a golden eagle, and was intended to commemorate an act of bravery performed in the wearer’s life. Sometimes the tips were dyed red to indicate a particularly significant act.
The war bonnet before treatment. It will be displayed in the redeveloped anthropology gallery.
The war bonnet that I am working on is a replica created as a prop. It was made of white goose feathers that were painted, with red feathers attached to the tips. Despite its beauty from far away, it is quite dirty and requires a lot of work before it can be put on display in the newly redeveloped anthropology galleries.
My current work with the headdress is focused on the condition of the feathers. Some time ago someone tried to make the feathers more stable by putting adhesive on them to keep them from moving. Unfortunately, after all of that time, the adhesive has started to peel off and become dirty.
Before the adhesive was removed from the feather (above) and after (below).
Sometimes this happens in conservation. Conservators can’t see into the future, and sometimes unexpected things happen to objects that we were unable to foresee. It can be a challenge, but we try to keep a close eye on our objects to minimize that risk.
Removing adhesive off of the inside of a feather using a homemade cotton swab.
My job now is to remove all of the dirty, peeling adhesive so that the feathers are in a more stable state. This involves me using a cotton swab (I make my own!) dipped in solvent, and gently rolling it over the surface of the adhesive until it lifts away. It takes a long time! So far, I’ve spent 14 hours delicately taking off the adhesive, and I’m not done yet! But the end result looks much better than before treatment, and the feathers are in much better shape.
After I have finished removing the adhesive, I will be repairing some of the feathers that have been bent or broken, and cleaning the dirt that has collected on the feathers over time.
Although our new gallery displaying our anthropology collections is still some years away, we have already started work preparing and conserving objects to be shown in the gallery, as Charlotte from our Conservation Department explains.
One of the objects which we hope to display in the new gallery is this shirt, from the Cree people of North America. The shirt is more than 200 years old. However, it needs significant conservation before it can go on display.
Cree shirt which is currently being conserved
The shirt is possibly made of brain tanned deer hide.
The intricate rosettes and bands are made of dyed porcupine quills. The lack of bead work and the naturally-dyed quillwork indicates that it’s possibly from the late 1700s / early 1800s and quite an old example of a shirt.
We think these quills were added at a later date.
The quillwork on the shoulders was probably dyed with "modern dyes" which suggest these bands were added at a later date.
Quite a lot of quillwork is lifting off the hide, so we need to secure that. Also, the hide is really stiff and crunchy!
Close-up of shirt showing the quillwork lifting which needs to be repaired.
We're going to try and introduce some flexibility by carefully applying moisture to the hide, which we'll then manipulate until it's dry.
Hopefully this technique should help the hide regain some suppleness!
There are also tears that need structural repairs so it can go on display in our new Anthropology gallery.
It's quite a complex project and we'll keep you all up to date as we treat it.
After a good year of planning the Pearly King suit has gone on loan to Western Australian Maritime Museum in Perth, as part of their fantastic Lustre exhibition.
The Pearly King suit being installed
The exhibition is in partnership with Nyamba Buru Yawuru, an organisation which represents the Yawuru people, who are the native title holders of Broome.
The Pearly King suit in his case
Broome was once the Pearling capital of the world and the exhibition is looking at the intriguing stories behind northern Australia’s unique pearling tradition, weaving together intersecting strands of Aboriginal, Asian and European histories to reveal an insight into one of Australia’s oldest industries.
Delicate conservation work taking place on the suit.
Mother of Pearl has become valued across the world, and been used in many innovative ways for hundreds of years. The Pearly King suit (which was kindly donated to the Museum by Fred Booth’s family in 2011) is an integral piece in the exhibition to illustrate the diverse uses across the world.
Packed and ready to go
Along with the suit are beautiful personal adornment and status objects, carved pearl shells, art deco decorative insects, carvings with pearl shell inlayed, all from Aboriginal, Asian and European cultures.
A lot of work has been involved removing the suit from display, conserving it and packing it up before it went on its long journey across to Australia. He had his own specialist crate built for him, a quite a bit of TLC and a clean from Conservation, and some carefully created padding to keep him in good shape ready to go straight on display.
It has been such a fantastic opportunity to work with two amazing organisations and share an iconic part of London life with the other side of the world!
The Pearly King suit will be on display at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Perth until 25th October 2015.