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The Great Hands on Base Audit

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.

  • B_HandsOnBase__002-PS, The Handling collection includes 3000 objects that you can interact with
    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.

  • Shayna and Vikki, Schools Learning Officer Shayna and Volunteering Administrator Vikki hard at work
    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.

  • Lucy (1), Schools Learning Officer Lucy updates object records.
    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.

The Mini-Museum of Travel

Helen Merrill fills us in on how our volunteers went about putting together their latest Engage Discovery Box, a mini-museum in itself.

In the run-up to the opening of the World Gallery later this year, many of us here at the Horniman have been trying to answer the question, What does it mean to be human?

As a part of this project, the volunteers from our Engage Discovery Box Project took the lead in creating new discovery boxes that will be used in conjunction with the World Gallery by visitors and groups for years to come. Discovery boxes act like mini-museums, containing objects that follow a theme chosen by the group.

A thirteen strong team was organised and a theme of 'travel' agreed upon to complement the vision of the museum's Founder, Frederick, J. Horniman – Tea trader, Collector, Philanthropist and Anthropologist. The team needed to search for Museum objects in the Horniman collection that considered this theme while taking into consideration a broad target audience of young families, outreach venues and other community groups.

The objects had to incorporate sight, colour, smell, sound, and touch. The catalogue of available objects was vast but the objects not only had to represent the theme but they needed to be the right size and shape to fit into the Discovery Box. Safe handling was also a key factor. Eventually, the list was whittled down to 8-10 suitable objects.

  • Saddled camel model
  • Horniman tea tin
  • Bike gear 
  • Compass 
  • Yugoslavian slippers 
  • Image of Dorothy’s shoes 
  • Indbanas head piece 
  • Masai milk gourd 
  • African head scarf
  • London tube map
  • Range of other maps
  • Monarch butterfly
  • Three smell pots out of a choice of cinnamon, nutmeg, curry, and coffee.

Once the objects were chosen, the next stage was trial and evaluation with visitors. A special session was run in the Hands on Base to gauge visitor perception. Questions and feedback focused on discovery, adventure, travel, transport, and nostalgia, giving a picture of how the objects fit into the theme of travel while some objects were potentially not so relevant.

On the whole, the experience was extremely positive and thought-provoking, and it was great to know that a whole host of specialist groups would benefit from the mini-museum. For their efforts the team were nominated for the London Volunteers in Museums Awards which took place in September 2017 at City Hall. The team were declared runners-up in the award for 'Best Team Contribution', clearly recognising the enthusiasm and hard work of this dedicated team.

The accolade proved that the Horniman Volunteer Teams certainly know what it takes to engage, inspire and enrich visitor experience.

Learning with Lucy

In our latest blog post, Lucy Maycock, Schools Learning Officer, at the Horniman reflects on her first few months in the post.

Having now spent two months as Schools Learning Officer here at the Horniman, I thought it might be time to share my early experiences of the role. I was truly delighted when my application for Learning Officer was successful. When I was offered the position, I’d already worked at the Horniman as a Learning Assistant for two-and-a-half years and really couldn’t see myself working anywhere else.

My first half term as a Learning Officer was a little overwhelming. The Schools Team here offer nearly 40 different school sessions on a wide range of topics, from ancient history to biology. With a background in music and humanities, I’ve really loved teaching ‘Ancient Egypt’ and ‘Musical Instruments around the World’. I’ve also been really surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed teaching ‘Prehistoric Britain’. I never learned about the Stone, Bronze, or Iron Age in school, but am now completely fascinated by the skill and ingenuity of people who lived during that time.

The really special thing about teaching at The Horniman is our department’s incredible, 3,000 object-strong Handling Collection. Each object is available for visitors to touch, investigate, and even smell. In our ‘Ancient Egypt’ and ‘Prehistoric Britain’ sessions, children handle real museum objects that are thousands of years old, not to mention the hundred-million-year-old fossils in our 'Evolution' workshop. There’s something incredibly special about empowering children to investigate and discover things for themselves - showing that we trust them to carefully handle such precious objects.

Although the amount of learning that I still have to do is a bit daunting, I’ve been surprised by how much I’m enjoying revisiting and revising topics that I haven’t thought about since school, including animal classification and evolution. I’ve learned so much from watching and talking to my experienced and incredibly patient colleagues and also from the school pupils in my sessions.

Terrifyingly, children and adult helpers really can ask you anything but constantly amaze me with their enthusiasm, ideas, and knowledge.

Goodbye to the Hands on Base fox

Learning Assistant Lucy Maycock says farewell to one of our fox friends.

The time has finally come to retire our friendly old fox after nearly twenty years of service. He has been a firm favourite of visitors to our Hands on Base - young and old alike. Poised by the entrance, our fox has warmly greeted every school child, family and community group who have walked through the door, totalling thousands of people.

Over the years, he has inspired artwork, taught children about habitats, and allowed visitors to see these beautiful creatures up-close. Unfortunately, after too many hugs, kisses and pats on the back, he has grown tired and threadbare and is in need of a well-earned rest.

We’ll be sending our old friend to a new home soon - rumour has it he’s looking forward to retirement! Don’t worry though, we’ve found another furry doorman. Just a few weeks ago we received an exciting delivery of a brand new fox. Here he is, carefully wrapped up with a badger from our Handling Collection.

Our lovely new fox has now settled into his new home and is ready to greet a whole new generation of visitors. We hope you’ll all give our fluffy new fox a warm welcome; be sure to carefully stroke his velvety ears and bushy tail next time you’re in the Hands on Base.

You can visit the Hands on Base every Sunday, 11am-12.30pm, during Open for All. Let us know what you think of him, and send us your selfies on Twitter and Instagram!

Museum Club wildlife photography

Children from Horniman Primary School come to our Museum once a week for an after-school Museum Club.

Last term they created their own photography inspired by our European Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

The children wrote their own labels which explain why they chose the animal and how they decided to photograph it.

Their photographs show a talent for composition. A lot of time was taken to think about the characteristics of the animals they were photographing and how the animals act in their natural habitats. 

Here are a few examples of these artistic photographs. 

'Midsummer Night breeze!' by Maisie 

  • Midsummer Night breeze!, A baby rabbit is called a kit, a female rabbit is called a doe and a male is called a buck. I chose this animal because I want people see what would have happened when the sun goes down. It makes a beautiful contrast with the mouse and the bird. The background makes the animals stand out
, Maisie
    A baby rabbit is called a kit, a female rabbit is called a doe and a male is called a buck. I chose this animal because I want people see what would have happened when the sun goes down. It makes a beautiful contrast with the mouse and the bird. The background makes the animals stand out , Maisie

'ΜΑΎΡΟ ΚΑΙ Ξ†ΣΠΡΟ ΖΩΞ‰Σ' (black and white life) by Sophia

  • Black and White Life, I took this photo of a badger because of its large size and secretive way of living. The background shows the pattern of the badger's fur. Badgers are short-legged omnivores in the family mustelidae, which includes otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, Sophia
    I took this photo of a badger because of its large size and secretive way of living. The background shows the pattern of the badger's fur. Badgers are short-legged omnivores in the family mustelidae, which includes otters, polecats, weasels and wolverines, Sophia

'Criaturas que Cazan' (hunting creatures) by Rosa and Angel

  • Criaturas que Cazan – hunting creatures, These animals circle in a fight for survival. The stoat, a wonderfully deft animal, edges away from the looming buzzard. We angled it so the elegant bird seems to look disdainfully down upon the lonely stoat, Rosa and Angel
    These animals circle in a fight for survival. The stoat, a wonderfully deft animal, edges away from the looming buzzard. We angled it so the elegant bird seems to look disdainfully down upon the lonely stoat, Rosa and Angel

'Awesome Elster' (awesome magpie) by Lucian

  • Awesome Elster – awesome magpie, I love the Magpie because he has a cute face.  I think he has a serious expression.  The feathers of a magpie are very soft.  Its feet are very small.  I angled it so it's looking you in the eye
, Lucian
    I love the Magpie because he has a cute face. I think he has a serious expression. The feathers of a magpie are very soft. Its feet are very small. I angled it so it's looking you in the eye , Lucian

'The Bird with Blue' by Livvy 

  • The Bird With Blue,  I was looking for an animal, then this one stood out like a shining star. I thought that it would look nice on a blue background. Blue jays are sometimes known to eat eggs or nestlings, and it is this practice that has tarnished their reputation
, Livvy
    I was looking for an animal, then this one stood out like a shining star. I thought that it would look nice on a blue background. Blue jays are sometimes known to eat eggs or nestlings, and it is this practice that has tarnished their reputation , Livvy

'The Semi-Darkness' by Caity

  • The Semi-Darkness , I chose to photograph the mongoose because it is interesting how it looks like a meerkat.  I like how pretty the fur is. I think the animal goes well with the background. I hope you like it too, Caity
    I chose to photograph the mongoose because it is interesting how it looks like a meerkat. I like how pretty the fur is. I think the animal goes well with the background. I hope you like it too, Caity

We had the Museum Club's photographs specially printed and they are now on display in our Education Centre.

Find out more about school sessions at the Horniman

Birds: myth, lore & legend

As Halloween approaches, we explore the myths and legends surrounding some of the birds in our Natural History collection.

Humans have always seen birds as having mysterious and magical powers. Maybe because their colours, songs and the way they fly can be so beautiful and intriguing.

We've been speaking to Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor, authors of Birds: myth, lore & legend to look at three of the most magical birds, and the different qualities and beliefs humans have associated with them.

Raven

  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Raven on display in the Natural History Gallery
    Raven on display in the Natural History Gallery

For many people in Britain, their first encounters with ravens are at the Tower of London. It is said that if ravens ever fly away from the Tower the crown will fall. Folklore says that wild ravens have always lived at the Tower, and fed on the bodies of those executed as enemies of the Crown.

Ravens pop up in mythology and legend all over the world. The god Odin, from Norse mythology, was accompanied by a pair of ravens called Huginn and Muninn. The birds, representing reflection/thought and memory, flew over the world each morning and on their return would settle on the god’s shoulders and whisper to him all that they had seen. Thanks to this Odin became renowned as the wisest of the gods. Norse sailors exploring the northern seas also used ravens but as navigators, sending them out from ships in search of land.

In the Bible, Noah first sends out a raven to look for dry land. It is when the raven does not return that he sends out a dove.

In North American folklore, the raven is seen as both creator and amoral prankster, and as such are often a central figure in Native American and Inuit creation stories.

Magpie

  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Magpie from our Handling Collection
    Magpie from our Handling Collection

In Britain, the magpie is the bearer of both good and bad luck – depending on how many are seen. Many are familiar with this old rhymes, differing according to region:

One for sorrow, two for mirth,

Three for a wedding, four for a birth,

Five for silver, six for gold,

Seven for a secret not to be told,

Eight for Heaven, nine for Hell,

And ten for the Devil’s own sell [self].

In ancient Rome, the magpie was associated with magic and fortune telling, while in Scandinavia some witches rode magpies or turned into them. In Germany, the bird was considered a bird of the underworld and in Scotland it was said that magpies had a drop of the devil’s blood on their tongues.

Outside of Europe, the magpie has a much more positive image. In Native American legends, the magpie was considered a friend of hunter-gatherer tribes. In Korea, the magpie is thought to bring good news and in China it is a symbol of happiness, foretelling and good fortune.

Owl

  • Birds: myth, lore & legend, Snowy owl on display in our Natural History Collection
    Snowy owl on display in our Natural History Collection

Across the world, few birds are as culturally symbolic – and contradictory – as owls. The sights and sound of an owl was linked to death in ancient Egypt and desolation in the Bible. In ancient Rome, owls were said to have predicted the passing of several Caesars. Fear and dread of the birds is similarly deep-rooted in Native American, African and several Asian cultures.

Yet in ancient Greece, subverting this trend, the Little Owl represented or accompanied Athene, the goddess of wisdom. The owl is also presented as a wise character in popular fiction, like Hedwig in Harry Potter or Archimedes in The Once and Future King, even when they are actually less smart, like Owl in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Owls are often associated with magic. An owl can fly without sounds, find its prey in near total darkness and rotate its head almost a full circle. Human attempts to harness this otherworldliness in magic is widespread. In Japan, owl images were used to guard against famine and epidemics, while in central Asia, owl-feather amulets were worn to ward off evil spirits. For some Native American tribes, wearing owl feathers signified bravery and brought good fortune. European owls were often the familiars of witches and wizards, such as Merlin's companion in the Arthurian legends and Harry Potter.

You can visit the raven and owls in our Natural History Gallery.

You can see our magpie in the Hands on Base.

How to make felt animals

One of our Volunteers, Genevieve, has been inspired by the Horniman collections to make her own animals. Her tiny harvest mouse has stolen our hearts. Find out how she went about making them look realistic. 

'Being part of the engage volunteer team, I have been able to encourage children to look more carefully at animals though the handling collection. I’ve also helped them learn by asking them questions and encouraging them to feel and experience the animal. I have seen the wonder and excitement at being able to touch the soft fur of a wild rabbit and the hard sharp teeth of a lion amongst other treasures.

I have also been learning myself about the animals in the Natural History Gallery and the Nature Base. From day one of my Volunteering, I fell in love with the live harvest mice in the Nature Base and rushed home to try and make one of my own.

  • Felt harvest mouse, The inspiration for this felt creation is the harvest mouse in the Horniman Nature Base
    The inspiration for this felt creation is the harvest mouse in the Horniman Nature Base

I learnt about their prehensile tails which curl around the straw or grass they live in. They make spherical nests which they weave out of dry grass. The lucky Horniman mice have a fantastic home with a couple of tennis balls to hide in, which you can see in their glass case.

I made my own mouse using a wire, felting wool and even some bits of an old brush for whiskers. I wanted him to look like the taxidermy examples in the Museum so I mounted him on some pieces of wheat!

  • Felt harvest mouse, By attaching the felt mouse to straw it makes it look like it is in its natural habitat
    By attaching the felt mouse to straw it makes it look like it is in its natural habitat

One of my favourite animals is the gecko. This is a picture of a family pet, a leopard geko, which I tried to copy.

  • leopard gecko, The pet family leopard gecko
    The pet family leopard gecko

I started with a frame made out of wire to get the general shape of the animal. Then, I wrapped it up with string to make a “bind” just as a taxidermist does. Wool is then wrapped around to build up the body then the process of needle felting helps to add details and definition to the limbs. The needle felting needle has tiny notches along it to help tangle and mesh the wool fibres together.

  • How to make felt animals, A wire 'skeleton' lies at the heart of the animal and is covered in felt
    A wire 'skeleton' lies at the heart of the animal and is covered in felt

I used glass beads as eyes. I tried to get all the spot patterns to match the photograph of the real gecko. I also used the exhibits in the gallery to check to see that I had the gecko leg shapes correct and found out about a gecko which can fly!

  • Felt geko, The finished felt geko
    The finished felt geko

  • Felt polar bear, Another felt creation - a polar bear
    Another felt creation - a polar bear

I have just been given a full fleece of Jacob’s sheep wool and will try to copy some of the skills of the nomadic people by wet felting the wool to make some slippers for winter! You can see some Inuit socks on the Horniman website which are made by wet felting. This fabric is still made into objects such as hats, clothing, tents, bags and rugs.'

  • Felt elephant, A felt elephant with a lovely long trunk
    A felt elephant with a lovely long trunk

Behind the scenes and brilliant bees

Behind the scenes and brilliant bees! One of our Engage volunteers, Shelagh, tells us her top five favourite things about being a Horniman volunteer. 

'I've been an Engage volunteer since April 2012, and besides working in the Nature Base and on the Object Handling Trolley, I have helped out at the Mud Kitchen with the Stroke Group, the craft workshops, and making bug hotels and bird treats with children.

I missed being a volunteer for nearly a year from Autumn 2013 due to cancer treatment and coming back has been an important part of my recovery.

The top five things I’ve learned from volunteering with Engage are:

1. Wonderful BEES!
The live bees are a unique catalyst for conversation and learning with visitors and amongst the volunteers. You can see the queen laying eggs, pollen-laden workers coming in and unloading their 'pancakes' of pollen and stacking them into cells, 'waggle-dancing', workers taking a disc of wax from between their own segments and moulding it on to the comb. When people are gazing in on this miniature world and all its goings-on, they (and we) are in a really opened-up and curious state, and the conversations can go in so many directions: the life of bees and our relationship to them, food, hierarchies, the environment etc. I often wonder what other catalysts for this kind of opened-up conversation we could create.

2. The Horniman is a fantastic community resource.
This needs a whole blog to itself! Not only are the museum and gardens a brilliant green space in SE London, but the Horniman proactively reaches out to the local community in learning and entertainment and attracts a wide diversity of visitors. Over the years my family and I have been frequent visitors to the Horniman for drumming and dance classes, 'Late' events, live music, watercolour and writing workshops and just to hang out in the cafe.

3. The Horniman is good to its volunteers.
When I was looking for voluntary work in spring 2012, I tried several organisations and the Horniman stood out a mile for being organised, friendly, communicative and offering good training before and after starting the work. As volunteers, we are also encouraged to contribute our ideas to enhance visitors' experiences of new exhibitions. The backstage and social events also help to create camaraderie amongst the volunteers.

4. Behind the scenes at the museum.
I was amazed to learn that only a tiny amount of the museum's objects are on display at any one time, and was fascinated by the visit to the collection at the Central Store early on in my time as a volunteer. The Engage Backstage events are a great way to learn more about the collections, their care and origins. Visitors often ask us questions about where the objects come from - in many cases, no one knows where, when or who collected the object. We have also had the chance to see new exhibitions being installed e.g. Plantastic.

5. Back to the bees.
Following my own curiosity about the bees has led me to find out more about them - who knew that they not only communicate information about food sources to each other through the 'waggle dance' but also by vibrating the combs, or that the temperature the larvae are reared at can influence what sex they turn out to be, or that the colony is not organised as a hierarchy with queen or "top bee" in charge? Biologists now believe that the colony can be seen as a "super-organism" i.e. the whole colony is equivalent to a single animal.'

Find out more about becoming an Engage Volunteer.

A Trip to the Taxidermist

Every now and then some of our handling collection objects need a bit of a spruce up. Maria from our Learning team has blogged about taking a few of our taxidermy specimens for some specialist treatment.

One of the things that makes the Horniman so special and enduringly popular with visitors, is that it is one of the few museums where you can actually touch museum objects.

If you’ve ever wondered the exact ratio of bushy to soft in a fox’s tail, (and frankly who hasn’t?) the Horniman is where you can come and find out. We are famous for our Natural History collection and the Nature Base and Hands on Base allow our visitors an opportunity to explore through touch, some of our taxidermy specimens, like those seen behind glass in the gallery.

With hundreds of hands stroking our foxes and badgers, smoothing the plumage of a mallard or two and exploring the knobbly notches of our caiman’s skin, it is little wonder that from time to time we have to spruce up and repair our current specimens, and sometimes even source replacements. While the Horniman has an excellent conservation team on hand, our taxidermy is repaired by a specialist taxidermist offsite.

It was on just such a mission that I found myself and a colleague driving over Battersea Bridge, in the company of not just an A-Z, but with a badger, tawny owl and chicken skeleton in the back. 

Derek Frampton, our taxidermist, can do everything from re-fitting a squirrel’s tail, to ethically sourcing and stuffing a replacement fox for the Handling Collection. He has also been known to spruce up the feathers of an owl, and to make models based on museum specimens and historical records, to recreate extinct species.

Come along to our Sunday Discovery For All sessions to explore some of our taxidermy for yourself, or meet select specimens in the Nature Base.

Communicating through Objects

Every year over 450 people suffer a stroke in Lewisham. The Stroke Association supports stroke survivors to attend weekly support groups where they can develop and practice communication skills and build their confidence. In the past few months, the Stroke Association has partnered with the museum to develop a series of workshops exploring issues relevant to the life of stroke survivors. Our sessions have taken place in the Hands on Base and complemented by a visit to the galleries.

In one particular session we explored the use of sound in non-verbal communication, looking at musical instruments that serve a similar purpose across the world and listening at some recordings, such as click languages from Africa and whistled languagefrom Europe. The group then visited the Music Gallery to draw cross-cultural comparisons.   

  • The Stroke Association group explores musical instruments, These talking drums are used in some part of West Africa to communicate across several miles.
    These talking drums are used in some part of West Africa to communicate across several miles.

Anne Jones, group member at the Stroke Association, has shared some thoughts with us:

I was saying it (the lilting) sounded Irish or Scottish, I did my Scottish accent for the group. When we were children we would go to Scotland on holiday with English accents and by the end of the holiday we would have Scottish accents!

  • Anne holding a large conch trumpet from India, These instruments are used in India as a communication tool.
    These instruments are used in India as a communication tool.

We looked at the music, we looked at instruments and the Horniman staff explained what they were. Then we looked at the music gallery.

We looked at the bagpipes, they were my favourite thing in the gallery.

Learn more about our work with groups like the Stroke Association on our Community Learning pages.

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