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Dinosaurs, crocodiles and sharks – oh my!

Our new Deputy Keeper of Natural History Emma-Louise Nicholls is obsessed with “big, toothy predators.” We spoke to her to find out how her obsession started and what she has discovered along the way…

What first got you interested in Natural History?

I have been fascinated with fossils since I was about five. My Uncle is really into science fiction and monster movies and we watched them together when I was growing up, so my love of dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties was probably originally his influence. But it was something I was serious about from a young age. I grew up in a small village called Oving and set up the Oving Dinosaur Museum in my bedroom. I charged my family 20p per person to come in and anyone who came to the house was obliged to visit the Museum.

When I was about ten, I sent an Ammonite I had found to Tring Museum for identification and when they wrote back the envelope was addressed to ‘The Oving Dinosaur Museum, C/O Emma Nicholls’. That’s proof it was a real museum.

How did you get started in your field?

I started with an MSci in Geology at the University of Birmingham, as in my day, that was the degree with the most palaeontology in it. My Masters’ dissertation focused on sharks, which I thought was fantastic. Next I pursued an MSc in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol studying fossil and modern crocodilians. Basically, I love big, toothy predators.

After that I embarked on a Palaeobiology PhD at University College London looking at 'Patterns in the Palaeoecology of Modern and Cretaceous Chondrichthyan Faunas'.


Essentially, I looked at patterns in cohabiting groups of sharks and rays.

It’s very hard to study prehistoric sharks and rays as their skeleton is completely cartilaginous meaning it doesn’t fossilise well, annoyingly, so most often palaeontologists only find their teeth. For my PhD I dug up and identified over 14,000 fossil teeth. Along with every known modern shark and ray, the fossil species were segregated into groups based on tooth type and predation technique, which was a novel approach in shark and ray ecological studies.

I then searched for patterns in cohabiting groups and not only confirmed that patterns do exist, but the results also showed that these patterns have remained constant over millions of years even when species within groups have gone extinct. This is something that no one had done before and I was really pleased with myself!

What bought you to the Horniman Museum and Gardens?

With a background like mine you can either go into academia or work in a museum, but it was an easy decision for me as I have wanted to work in a museum since the dawn of (my) time! While I was doing my various degrees I was always volunteering at at least one museum. I worked at museums such as Lapworth Museum of Geology, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, and the Natural History Museum.

I’ve also worked abroad. I had the opportunity to work on a shark exhibition at the Florida Museum of Natural History in the States, and was a shark scientist on a field trip in Kuwait with the Shark Conservation Society. Both were absolutely fantastic.

In my professional life, I spent three years at the Grant Museum of Zoology as Curatorial Assistant before going on to the British Museum where I was Curator of Science and Nature for a brand new museum being built in the UAE called Zayed National Museum. I was responsible for all natural sciences content of the Museum, and was Lead Curator for three of the eight galleries. Building a brand new museum is an incredible opportunity and a curator’s dream!

However, when the Deputy Keeper of Natural History post opened up at the Horniman I jumped at the chance as it’s a museum I have always wanted to work at.

What are you looking forward to doing at the Horniman?

The job, the Museum and the collections are incredible.

I am working on collating all of our shark material across the different departments. It isn’t just palaeontology and the Natural History collections that have shark and ray specimens here, the Aquarium has some live ones and the Anthropology collections have material too, such a sword lined with shark teeth. Ouch.

I will be going through the Bennett collection, which is around 175,000 fossil specimens. The information we have about the collection has been developed by a few different sources over the years so I will have to do some Sherlock Holmes-style thinking to piece it all together and get it accessioned so that it can become available publicly.

I love coming across specimens in the collections that make me go WOW. Specimens of species that have a special meaning for me, such as the Triceratops rib I found in the Study Collection Centre, make me go wide-eyed and waggy-tailed. Ankylosaurus is my favourite dinosaur but Triceratops is a special dinosaur from my childhood.

In the future I would like to publish on the collections and become a leading authority in the currently poorly known Bennett and Wyatt fossil collections. I plan to use the Museum’s collections combined with social media to raise the public profile of sharks and make everyone love them.

Secretly I also dream of discovering a new species in the historic collections. Very rare… but it has happened!

Thanks Emma! You can follow Emma on Twitter @ColPercyFawcett.

Celebrating Volunteer’s Week 2016 at the Horniman

This year, Volunteers’ Week was actually 12 days long, so we had extra time to celebrate all the amazing things our volunteers do!

We organised lots of exciting events for our volunteers: a tour of the Gardens with our Head of Horticulture, Wes; time in the Animal Walk with our Animal Walk team, Lara and Jo; a tour of our Study Collections Centre with Natasha; discussions about some interesting objects in our stores with Curator, Tom and not forgetting our Celebration Drinks Reception.

Our volunteers also wrote a wonderful range of blog posts – something that’s been so successful that we’d like to make it a permanent monthly fixture. They offer a brilliant insight into how both volunteers and our visitors engage with the museum and are excellent at showing the world what our volunteering team is all about.

Over the last year financial year, 272 volunteers have been involved with the Horniman Museum and Gardens – that’s 15,166 hours of interaction with our visitors and support for our work! Quite rightly, we are incredibly proud of these numbers and of our volunteer team more generally.

Our Head of Learning, Georgina Pope, said: 'As a Learning team, we are constantly thinking about the best ways to create happy and inspiring experiences for our visitors and project participants. Your support as volunteers is invaluable in enabling this - as facilitators on gallery, as programmers, supporting family or community engagement, on evaluation projects, as people who can influence our thinking, and in a myriad other ways. We are both proud and grateful that you are involved in the life of the museum, which simply wouldn’t be the same place without you.'

Our Volunteers make the Horniman the extraordinary, magical and inspiring place that we all know and love – thank you to all of our volunteers for their support, hard work and dedication. Here’s to another fantastic year together!

What does volunteering mean to Michael?

Our volunteers are a creative bunch!

One of our Engage Volunteers Michael has written this poem on what being a Horniman Volunteer means to him for Volunteers Week:


What does being a Horniman volunteer mean?

Being asked ten times a day (at least) “Where is the queen?”


Our beloved bees aren’t the only ones that questions are asked about.

“What’s in here?” “Harvest Mice,” we say, “But they haven’t yet come out.”


There’s our faithful stuffed fox, the Nature Base star, whom children love to hug,

And the microscope to see up close a beetle, wasp or bug.


For exercise, there’s paper to be picked up off the floor,

And it’s always time to sharpen those darned pencils just once more.


Quiet times, busy times, Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall,

Ask any volunteer, they’ll tell you - Half-term’s the worst of all.


There’s school groups, art groups, visitors young and old.

From the latter, many Horniman memories of yesteryear I’ve been told.


Friendly staff and visitors, a pleasant working atmosphere,

Are partly the reason I continue on, gladly, year by year.


That, and the friendship of the other volunteers, all trying hard to please,

And the reward of helping children learn-about nature and the wonderful bees!


Michael Viner, 2016


The Artquest research residency

Please note, applications for this residency are now closed.

Artquest in partnership with the Horniman are offering a research residency for one London based artist.

The award includes:

  • £3000 to engage with the work and collections of the museum
  • £850 towards a public facing event showcasing the thinking and research undertaken during the residency
  • Privileged access to museum objects and curators

We are particularly interested in developing relationships with artists who want to engage with people as well as collections. Applicants should consider in particular how their work might engage visitors with the museum’s displayed collection and encourage participation with these displays. Please note the African Worlds gallery and the Centenary gallery will both close in September 2016 for redevelopment until 2018 however this does not mean artists cannot engage with the anthropology collection.

Please note, that this is not a studio residency and applicants are expected to have their own studio / workspace to complete any work.

Find out if you are eligible for the residency and apply on Artquest by 10am on Monday 1 August 2016.

Five Things I’ve Learned Through Volunteering

For Volunteers Week this year, one of our Engage Volunteers, Catherine Miller, tells us her highlights of being an Engage Volunteer and why she keeps coming back to the Horniman: 

It’s been four months since I joined the small group huddled outside the staff entrance to the Horniman, waiting to be let in from the February cold to do our first Engage training session. Since then, I’ve manned the handling trolley, handed out colourful cloaks for Pitchy Patchy and gazed at bees on most Saturdays. It’s not exactly the usual way to spend a weekend - so why do I give up my time? Well, every week on Engage is different, and I’ve learned a lot about the Horniman, its weird and wonderful exhibits and volunteering in general. Here are my top five lessons:

1. Volunteers come from all walks of life. It’s fantastic to work alongside people from all over the world (India, Italy and New Zealand to name but a few) and all sorts of day-jobs. Everyone brings their own unique perspective and it’s also fascinating to find out how and why people got involved in the museum. For some, it’s a chance to sample a heritage career, and for others, it’s a rewarding hobby. Working as part of the Engage team is a great chance to meet new and diverse people.

2. Learning comes in many forms. As a teacher, I know how easy it is to get wrapped up in ‘levels of progress’ and exam results, but at the Horniman we see all sorts of people learning in many different ways - from feeling a snake skin for the first time to watching a jellyfish dance around its tank. There’s a moment when a visitor’s eyes light up and you know they’re intrigued by something. That spark makes our work worth it.

3. Each family is unique. During the week I work with teenagers, so interacting with younger children and families has been a fun experience for me. Something that has surprised me is how individual even the smallest visitors can be. Some are shy and wide-eyed, clinging on to their adult’s leg until someone demonstrates that it’s perfectly safe to touch the ostrich egg... others are brimming with knowledge and enthusiasm... and others just want to run around! Then there are the super stylish toddlers in catwalk-ready tutus and dinosaur onesies. Not that I’m jealous…

4. Taxidermy is a talking point - and surprisingly relevant even in today’s world. There’s something quite powerful in being able to view a once-living animal, not just in a virtual space or as a photo but in three dimensions in front of you. Being able to touch an example is even better, hence the delighted reactions to our Chicken Turtle. Taxidermied animals have also sparked off some interesting conversations about life and death with younger visitors, for whom the concept of preserving a body can raise many questions.

5. Bees are endlessly fascinating. I've learned lots of bits and bobs about all the objects on the handling trolley and some of the museum's other exhibits, but I have to say the bees are one of my favourite things. I can stand and stare at the Horniman’s hive for hours, watching the workers bustle to and fro or trying to spot the elusive queen. It was amazing to see the change in their behaviour from winter to spring as the group woke up from their slumber and began to collect pollen in earnest. I’ve been inspired to find out more about them and even read a fantastic novel, Laline Paull’s ‘The Bees’. I’ll never look at a common honeybee the same way!

Volunteering at the Horniman has given me such a valuable insight into the ‘behind-the-scenes’ workings of a museum, and allowed me to meet a wide range of interesting people, from staff to visitors to my fellow volunteers.

I hope to learn more as my volunteering journey continues!

Our Access Advisory Group

The Horniman's Access Advisory Group meets 4 times per year.

Its membership is made up of volunteers who have lived experience of disability and a keen interest in making the museum more accessible to Disabled people.

Here, Julia Austin – a member for over a year – shares what has been happening.

"I always look forward to our meetings: we cover so many different topics and everyone is so friendly and welcoming.

Examples of things we have fed back on include Equality and Diversity training, web design and content, accessibility of the museum gardens and volunteering schemes. Now we are working on a display about disability that will be shown in one of the main galleries.

We're introduced to staff from different departments and they sit in our meetings so we really feel part of the museum. We've also started doing a newsletter. Recently Brighton Museum Access Group came to visit us, and staff from the V&A Musuem and Shakespeare's Globe have also dropped in.

It's been really cool working with people who have different abilities. I've learned a lot about people's needs and it's given me fresh perspectives on a whole range of things, not least approaches to museum engagement! It's exciting to come together and develop a collective voice :)"

The volunteering experience at the Horniman

One of our newest volunteers is Bobby Ogogo. Bobby has a visual impairment and over the past few months he’s been helping us test out how blind and partially sighted people can deliver object handling in the galleries. He’s normally in on Wednesday afternoons, so stop by and say hello!

Bobby spoke with Beth, Youth Volunteering Co-ordinator, about his experiences  volunteering at the Horniman:

“The Horniman Museum is very nice and friendly. You can help each other with the objects. It is hard when it’s dark because they can’t switch the light on. Some people can’t see anything so when it’s dark it gets all blurry.

  “In my first week I went to the Access Advisory Group – I was speaking to staff about good lighting and not good lighting. In the second week I learnt object handling. I played with some toys and bells and learned listening, smelling and playing, and to be careful. After that, I have been in the gallery. I liked all of it but object handling is my favourite – I can be gentle with all the objects.

“My dream museum is a nice, light, colourful place. I’d have objects like toys, instruments – anything I can play with. Some museums have nothing to touch. I’d have sound and stories – but not on headphones. Headphones don’t help sometimes because you can’t talk to people at the same time.

 “I learned listening skills and talking to people; meeting and greeting skills. It was absolutely busy – I’ve never seen it busier. I’ve enjoyed it but I wish it was quieter!

“I think volunteering at the Horniman is good. I feel confident about it. I’m getting used to stroking [the ferret] with two fingers. I was asking so many questions – What is it made of? How does it feel? Hot or cold? Where does it live? How does it move?


Preparing for Winter in the Gardens

Gardens Apprentice Ian has spent the last few months working to help get the Horniman's 16.5 acres of Gardens ready for the winter months.

Hello, my name is Ian and I am a new gardens apprentice. I started in October and am experiencing the hard way just what it's like to be a Gardener in the winter.

The different times of the year bring new jobs for gardens. In October we dug out the dahlias in the dahlia bed because the dahlia is a tender plant which cannot take the cold of the winter and needs protecting.

As you can see in the picture here the dahlia bed is empty now.

What we have done to protect our tender plants is to dig them out carefully as not to damage their root tubers, cut down the plant's stem and store them in our poly tunnel upside down for a week (upside down to dry them out so they don’t root). After a few weeks we lined the crates with newspaper then spaced out the dahlias and covered them with soil. This picture of a cultivar of the Dahlia plant “Show and Tell” should give a idea as to how it should look.

We did that for all the Dahlias and then moved them to our greenhouse. It reaches heights of up to 15⁰c on even the coldest days in there so it was a good place to store them.

When it comes to the winter this isn’t the only way we protect our plants. If you go to our display garden you may see some plants wrapped in a clear bag. Those are our banana plants: these plants are more sensitive to the rain and damp rather than the temperature. I haven't included a picture of our wrapped up banana plants because you can come and see it for yourselves, and we also blogged about the process of protecting them last year!

I hope you have enjoyed this and learnt something in my first blog. I plan to write more of these so keep an eye on the blog for more gardens news!

Ian's apprenticeship is funded by The Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

What's this? A Charmed Life

Since July, a group of 8 brilliant volunteers have been involved in collecting information and memories from visitors to the museum about an intriguing object – a glove charm from Naples. 

  • Glove protective charm, Mano cornuta, or horned hand amulet in the form of a brown leather glove with white stitching. Used as a charm against bad luck.
    Mano cornuta, or horned hand amulet in the form of a brown leather glove with white stitching. Used as a charm against bad luck.

As well as talking to people about the object and encouraging them to enter their thoughts into the iPads next to the object, they have been taking photos of the lucky charms our visitors have in their pockets.

Sze Kiu Leung - one of the volunteers - takes us through a selection of the charms.

During the past month, as part of the Collection People Stories project, we have been inviting our vistors (as well as our fellow volunteers) to share their special / lucky charms with us by letting us take a photo of the charm, as well as telling us a little bit of background information about it (e.g. what it is and why it's special).

This lady said this was a religious talisman given to her by her mother when she was a child. "I have worn it ever since – I am now in my 30s. I lost it twice and went to big efforts to retrieve it and fix it!"

  • Charm, A religious talisman.
    A religious talisman.

"I have carried this everywhere for 20 years. It is the name of the sun in Egyptian. I would feel lost without it."

  • Charm, Egyptian hieroglyphs.
    Egyptian hieroglyphs.

"This is my mother's wedding ring. Wearing it gives me a sense of closeness with my family member."

  • Charm, A wedding ring.
    A wedding ring.

Volunteer Louise's lucky charm bracelet – it is made of beads which ward off the evil eye.

  • Louise's lucky charm bracelet , A charm bracelet.
    A charm bracelet.

This is Roy's lucky glove (aged 3). It is a golfing glove, but he likes to think it is his wrestling glove and likes to just wear only one glove on his left hand.

  • Roy's lucky glove, A lucky glove.
    A lucky glove.

Volunteer Tempe's lucky bracelet – she wears this for all exams, interviews dates etc. As a rule though she wouldn’t say that she is superstitious.

  • Tempe's lucky bracelet, A good luck bracelet.
    A good luck bracelet.

Volunteer Kieron's cap – he wears this every day and has a subconscious need to wear it, like a good luck charm.

  • Kieron's cap, A lucky hat.
    A lucky hat.

What would you consider your charm? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook by using the hashtag #Horniman.

What's this? What we know about the object

In July this year, we set up a new case displaying an object in our African Worlds gallery. Around the case were two ipads, into which our visitors can put their questions, information or memories about the object.

Lots of questions were asked about the object, so we asked our curator Fiona to tell us what she knows about the object.

This object is a mano cornuta, or 'horned hand' amulet in the form of a brown leather glove with white stitching, stuffed with pink wool to resemble a gloved hand.

The wrist is bound with a cotton thread to attach a twisted and knotted loop of string by which to hang it.

It would have been used as a charm against bad luck, probably hung from his barrow by a street seller. It probably came from Naples, and is believed to have been acquired by the Museum in the early 20th century from Edward Lovett, who was a collector of amulets.

Mano cornuta, or 'horned hand' amulets come in all sorts of material and sizes. In southern Italy, they are sometimes made of coral, amber, silver, and mother-of-pearl.

They are still sometimes used, and were once worn widely as a protection against the ‘Evil Eye’. This was the look given by someone wishing to cause a person injury or misfortune, usually a jealous rival, and it was thought that some such people could cause harm by glancing at you.

Making a gesture like the one formed by the glove, or wearing an amulet such as this one could offer some protection by diverting the evil glance.

Tomorrow, this object will be going back into our stores and a new object will arrive in the case in African Worlds. We hope you'll enjoy discovering the next object.

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