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The many sides of yellow

What comes to mind when you think of yellow. The sun? Spongebob? Lemons?

The colour yellow is all around us, in our food, our clothes, our waste. As most kids can tell you, it is a secondary colour, created by mixing red and green.

It is considered a cheerful colour – conjuring up images of sunflowers, buttercups and sunny days. However it is also closely associated sickliness and cowardice. In China, it is associated with pornography, while in Russia it has associations with mental illness.

We look into the multi-faceted nature of yellow.

So what makes things yellow?

There are a few origins.

Carotenoids are pigments that create bright colours like yellow (as well as orange and red) in foods. You find them in organic material like plants, bacteria and algae, and they play a really important role in absorbing light for photosynthesis, and protecting chlorophyll in a plant. Carotenoids are behind the yellow of lemons, autumn leaves, egg yolks, daffodils and much more.

  • Yellow blog, A daffodil which contains carotenoid
    A daffodil which contains carotenoid

There are quite a few different minerals behind yellow pigments in paint, but one of the oldest found used in art is yellow ochre.

In fact, yellow was one of the first colours ever used in art, as ochre (a mix of ferric oxide, clay and sand) was very accessible and could be found in many places all over the world.

Engraved ochre was found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa that dates from around 75,000 years ago. A bit closer to home, ochre has been found in paintings of animals in French caves  from 25,000 years ago, and in Spain, from around 15-16,000 BC.

  • Yellow blog, An Ancient Egyptian coffin cover painted with yellow ochre
    An Ancient Egyptian coffin cover painted with yellow ochre

But ochre is not confined to history. If you are wondering if yellow ochre is used in any of your paints, have a look for PY-43 on the label.

Yellow dyes were about as widely available as ochre, and the colour can be taken from saffron, safflower, gorse bushes, as well as the bark of the Eastern black oak and Dyer’s mulberry. Find out more about yellow dyes in our Dye Garden.

  • Yellow blog, A Gorse bush in our Dye Garden
    A Gorse bush in our Dye Garden

What do we think of the colour?

It is a vibrant colour that is used to create an emotional or energetic response.

Yellow is thought to increase cheerfulness and optimism when used in marketing, but can apparently make babies cry.

That emotional energy makes it an ideal colour to draw in shoppers and prompt impulse activity. There is a reason why it is the colour of choice for fast food outlets like Burger King and McDonalds, stores like Ikea and toy companies like Play-doh and Nerf.

However, when it comes to picking our favourite, the colour yellow falls very low for both men and women gaining only 1% and 3% of responses respectively.

Sickness or royalty?

This lack of love for yellow may have something to do its association with illness and disease. Yellow is the colour of jaundice, pus and bile, and it has associations with cholera, which shares etymological routes (Khloros). Bruises turn yellow and no one wants to get Yellow Fever.

Yellow had negative associations in the Middle Ages, when repentant cathars were forced to wear yellow crosses on their clothes. Hundreds of years later, Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis had to wear a yellow star on clothes or display the sign on their houses. Heretics were forced to wear yellow during the Spanish Inquisition.

  • Yellow blog, Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France, kitkatcrazy thanks to Wikimedia Creative Commons
    Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France, kitkatcrazy thanks to Wikimedia Creative Commons

In the late 18th century the phrase yellow-belly was first identified as a derogatory term, as set out in Grose’s A provincial glossary (1787):

Yellow bellies. This is an appellation given to persons born in the Fens, who, it is jocularly said, have yellow bellies, like their eels.

But despite all this, we prize gold which is of a yellowish hue.

Yellow was associated with gold in Ancient Egypt. The bones of gods were believed to be made of gold, enforcing the belief that it was eternal and indestructible.

It was also associated with the Pope in the early days of the Christian church and royal yellow is the colour of the robes of the Emperors of China, because of its links to the sun. Jing Han writes,

Just as there cannot be two suns in the sky, there cannot be two emperors in a nation. Thus from then on, yellow was regarded as the costume colour used exclusively by emperors.

Ribbons, roses, a submarine and a big yellow taxi

Lots of other musicians have featured yellow in their songs.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree sung by Dawn featuring Tony Orlando is about signalling that a prisoner of war is still welcome by his sweetheart when he arrives back home. Songs or poems with similar themes crop up from early in the 1900s, but the first copyrighted version was in 1917 by George A. Norton, which he titled Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon (For Her Lover Who Is Far, Far Away).

The yellow ribbon gained popularity in the US during the Gulf War as a way of supporting troops, and are still displayed in some towns and cities on this basis today. Yellow ribbons are still identified with POWs in Italy and Kuwait. 

  • Yellow blog, A yellow ribbon
    A yellow ribbon

Two famously yellow songs, Mellow Yellow and Yellow Submarine are linked, as Paul McCartney is one of the people heard in the background of the Donovan track, and Donovan helped McCartney with the lyrics for Yellow Submarine.

Listen to these and some other famous tracks associated with the colour yellow.

Both China and Vietnam had music genres called yellow music, both with separate origins.

In China, yellow music or songs described early popular music between the 1920s to 1940s, as a reference to pronography, and this term was used up until the Cultural Revolution.

It also referred to music created in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, as opposed to red music from the North. The content of the songs were considered “decadent” and were banned in 1975.

Liked reading about yellow? Find out about the colour blue in our earlier post and stayed tuned for more colours throughout the year.

Horniman History: Lectures given by Women

For International Women's Day, we have a look at some of women who gave lectures here in the early days of the Horniman.

Our Librarian Henry Rowsell recently uncovered an interesting fact about the Horniman as part of #NHEphemera.

The Horniman used to host lectures from visiting experts, as well as our own curators, up until the 1980s. The records show that we had a few well known women lecture, which was (according to author Kate Hill) unusual for the time.

Although women could undertake the public role of lecturing to a mixed-gender audience, they rarely did so, and those who did so had, or were in the process of developing, the professional authority to be able to speak publicly. Moreover, it may be significant that of the museums studied here, only the Horniman recorded women delivering lectures, and these were all in its Saturday afternoon popular lecture series.

In fact, the women we talk about below featured in both Saturday and Sunday lectures, in the morning and evening, repeated three times on Sunday evenings alone. Rather wonderfully, the Sunday afternoon lectures were repeated "to reduce the amount of aimless loafing in the Museum" by visitors during that time.

So who were these lecturers and why were they invited to speak?

Marie Stopes

Many will know her name from the Marie Stopes family planning clinics, but Stopes' original work focused on botany and geology.

  • Women lecturers at the Horniman, Marie Stopes in her laboratory
    Marie Stopes in her laboratory

Stopes graduated from University College, London with a first class B.Sc. after only two years by attending both day and night schools.

She continued racking up firsts, becoming one of the first women to be elected a fellow of the Linnean Society and the first female academic at the University of Manchester, as a lecturer of Palaeobotany (although they later tried to rescind the offer when they realised she was a woman). She took up postgraduate work in Munich in 1903 and became the only woman amongst 500 men, and in 1904 Stopes achieved her doctorate on cycads seed structure and function. She was the youngest person in Britain to earn a DSc in 1905.

In 1907, Stopes was sent on an 18-month expedition to Japan by the Royal Society. Charles Darwin wrote about flowers being an “an abominable mystery” as the earliest samples in the fossil record all dated back to around 100 million years ago in various forms, suggesting an explosion of diversity. This was the mystery that Stopes intended to shed light on.

In her journal she wrote:

August 24th: Really it is hard work to carry tents and everything along these rivers. Often I alone find it difficult to go, and I have nothing to carry – except my fan and hammer, both of which are in constant use.

Her work on angiosperms from Hokkaido, Japan provided vital evidence which proved to be, at the time, the oldest flowers discovered.

Stopes’ Lecture at the Horniman on 2 March in 1912 “Evolution in Plants, illustrated by Fossils” would have doubtless drawn from her experience in Hokkaido.

  • Women lecturers at the Horniman, Marie Stopes' lecture in our records
    Marie Stopes' lecture in our records

Kate Hall

Kate Hall was the Curator if the Whitechapel (or Borough of Stepney) Museum from 1895 until 1909 – the first paid female curator in the country, according to Kate Hill.

Hall was a protégé of Henrietta Barnett. Barnett who, along with her husband, established The Whitechapel Library and Toynbee Hall, as a way of educating working class people in London’ East End. A room was given on the second floor to serve as the Whitechapel Museum, which housed natural history specimens collected by Rev. Dan Greatorex.

During this time, Hall founded during this time the Nature Study Museum which opened in 1904, containing living specimens, taxidermy and insects, as well as a bee hive with glass walls, all of which sounds very similar to the Horniman today. The intention of the Nature Study Museum was to give city people the opportunity to encounter live animals, and who may have otherwise not had this opportunity. Over 100,000 people visited in two years.

The lectures Hall gave at the Horniman in January, February and March 1905 drew on her knowledge as part of the Nature Study Museum. The first two talks were, “The life of the honey bee” on 22 January and “The work of the honey bee” on 12 February, with an enigmatically titled lecture: “Trees” following on 5 March. According to St George-in-the-East Church, the bees in the Nature Study Museum had a local fame so it is little wonder that they were the subject of Hall’s lectures.

  • Women lecturers at the Horniman, Kate Hall's lecture in our records
    Kate Hall's lecture in our records

According to the Survey of London, Hall was innovative when it came to education, providing a carefully planned syllabus prior to the school visit. She also created a handling collection of natural specimens which were changed weekly and around 400 children visited for nature-study lessons at the museum each week in 1907.

Dr E M Delf-Smith

  • Women lecturers at the Horniman, A lecture by EM Delf-Smith in our records
    A lecture by EM Delf-Smith in our records

Dr Ellen Marion Delf-Smith, as she was later known, went to school down the road from the Horniman at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, studied natural sciences at Girton College, Cambridge and went on to a post at Westfield College, University of London teaching botany.

According to her obituary in the British Phycological Journal, Delf-Smith had very few facilities or help when she first took up her teaching post and “if she wanted a specimen she had to go out and collect it and prepare it herself.”

She is described as having a remarkable gift for stimulating and training students, “able to discern the faintest spark of interest in a student and to fan it into a flame.” Her determination and initiative led to the University approving the Westfield laboratory for preparing students for pass degree examinations in botany in 1910 and for honours degrees in 1915.

Delf-Smith’s passion within botany lay in marine algae and the process by which plants excrete water (transpiration). It was her results in this area that lead to her award of the London DSc as well as the Gamble prize from Girton.

  • Women lecturers at the Horniman, A lecture by EM Delf-Smith in our records
    A lecture by EM Delf-Smith in our records

She returned to her old stomping ground in South London to give numerous lectures at the Horniman, and we can find listings in our records from 1912, with talks on “The Plant life of a Moor” on 9 March and “The Botany of Bread” on 2 November.

We’ll leave you with a poem she wrote for The Sportophyte, a journal edited by Marie Stopes:

A Botanical Dream

Last night as I lay dreaming

There came a dream so fair

I stood mid ancient Gymnosperms

Beside the Ginkgo rare.


I saw the Medullosae

With multipartite fronds,

And watched the sunset rosy

Through Calamites wands.


Oh Cryptogams, Pteridosperms

And Sphenophyllum cones,

Why did ye ever fossilise

To Palaeozoic stones?

E.M. Delf


The Horniman drumming circle

We spoke to the Studio Collective about how they've been getting their creativity flowing in their recent meetings with some rhythmic drum circles.

During the Collective’s discussions to create our exhibition we’ve talked a lot about sound-making and looked at drums from the Horniman’s collections. One of our members Joe is a keen drummer, so he and artist Serena hatched a plot to begin one of our meetings a little differently, with something to get our creativity flowing…

  • Underfloor_heating_warms_the_drums (1), Drums warming on the underfloor heating
    Drums warming on the underfloor heating

With a selection of drums from the Horniman’s Handling collection, we formed a drumming circle. There were no rules apart from, it turned out, ‘don’t stop drumming’. So Joe started us off by setting a beat and then we drummed.

  • drumming_circle_ready, Drumming circle ready
    Drumming circle ready

As a group, our playing naturally grew into crescendos and at times softened almost to no sound at all. I faced my own challenge of not racing ahead of the beat. We stopped by unspoken consensus halfway through and then resumed. We didn’t time it, the drumming simply lasted as long as it lasted. 

  • Judith_drumming, Judith drumming
    Judith drumming

Joe, our resident drummer, was quite complimentary of our efforts. He was pleased that we listened to each other and tried to fit our playing together. Very apt for our collective endeavour to co-create the first Studio exhibition. Keep an eye out for some drums when it opens later this year.

Artist Commission: The Studio 2019

We are looking for an exceptional artist with a collaborative practice for our 2019 Studio commission. 

What is the Studio?

The Studio is an exciting, new contemporary arts space at the Horniman, as well as a collaboration between the Horniman, artists and local community partners. The successful artist will join the Collective, the working group who programme the Studio. The chosen artist will be commissioned to create a new artwork as part of an exhibition opening to the public in October 2019.

The Studio will open for the very first time in October 2018. We will commission a new exhibition programme each year inspired by the Horniman’s collections.

The Studio aims to be a hub for exciting events and activities alongside its exhibitions programme, co-curated by artists, community groups and partners working with the Horniman.

The Commission

The Studio in 2019 will focus on Memory. Museums play a vital role in mediating memory, since they often present objects, images and stories from the past. 

Anthropology museums have a particular responsibility in how they present the way the past speaks to the present.

They need to provide a space for contested and alternative forms of memory to flourish. Such memories often challenge and re-orientate the Horniman's curatorial voice, creating both social cohesion and disruption amongst its visitors.

Selection Criteria

We are looking for an artist with great experience of working with people, and involving communities within their work. The artist will also have experience of exhibition-making in their portfolio of works but is not required to have had past experience of working with museums or museum collections.

  • Artists with a practice in social arts or socially-engaged arts, who work together with people and community as part of their practice. We will also consider applications from artist-led organisations where artists share a collaborative practice.
  • Artists who have a track record of creating exhibitions as an outcome of participatory process.
  • Artists who can demonstrate best practice and ability to engage the public in critical enquiry through their work.
  • Artist’s Expression of Interest statement on why the area of enquiry is of interest and interest in the Studio.

Please note: we are not looking for a proposal idea response to the enquiry in your Expression of Interest at this stage of application.

Next steps and application

Download and read the Guidance in the open call document below:

Then submit

1. A brief Expression of Interest statement of no more than two A4 sides that include the following information:

  • Why you are interested in the area of enquiry (see above section Commission Area of Enquiry). No more than 500 words.
  • How you may work collectively or collaboratively with community partners and curators. No more than 700 words.
  • How this opportunity will support your own artistic practice. No more than 500 words.

2. Visual examples of your work. Select three examples that best represent your practice in relation to the criteria outlined in this brief. Please send these as a separate document or signpost us to links of these works online. Please note that if you are emailing us images we are unable receive emails over 9MB.

3. An up-to-date CV (Curriculum Vitae).

To Anila Ladwa, Curator of Studio Programmes (aladwa@horniman.ac.uk) by 5pm on Tuesday, 3 April 2018, with the subject line ‘Studio 2019 Expression of Interest’.

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.

Reef Encounters: Pawel Achtel

As part of International Year of the Reef, we're speaking to people who work with coral reefs, from filmmakers to fish taxonomists. In this post, we hear from Pawel Achtel, who is drawn to the "immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life" as a filmmaker.

What is your typical day?

Most of the time there is no typical day. My focus changes depending on what I’m working on at the time. When I’m in the field filming, the morning starts with an equipment check followed by breakfast and then we head out to sea for filming.

The evening is filled with footage offloading before checking and setting up the cameras for the following day. I like to have my equipment all set up a day earlier to avoid last-minute surprises.

  • Day Pawel action shot close with 3Deep and lights, Pawel taking to the water with his equipment, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel taking to the water with his equipment, Pawel Achtel

When did you first know you wanted to work in this area, and how did you get into your work?

When I first visited the Great Barrier Reef about 30 years ago and put my head down I realised this was something I wanted to pursue. After returning from my holidays, I completed a scuba diving course. I bought a broadcast-quality camera and housing, and since then almost never dived without one in my hands.

What inspires you in your work?

The immense beauty, unusual behaviour, and diversity of marine life motivate me to try to capture some of those moments. A well shot 3D spectacle is the ultimate reward. I want to share these experiences with others.

  • DSC00232.small, Pawel getting up close to a school of fish, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel getting up close to a school of fish, Pawel Achtel

What would your message for the future of reefs be?

When we watch pristine marine habitats we often take these environments for granted, but from the perspective of my 30 years of diving, I can tell you that the reefs are dying.

It’s hard to watch. Every year we are losing marine habitats one after another and they take many years to recover. Some of them never do.

I try not to think what the future is going to be like. I try to focus on how to preserve as much as we can and educate others about the importance of these marine ecosystems.

  • Day Pawel filming bommie, Pawel filming an offshore reef or 'bommie', Pawel Achtel
    Pawel filming an offshore reef or 'bommie', Pawel Achtel

What’s your favourite creature on the reef, and why?

I love marine mammals. A humpback whale would be my number one. They are so powerful, yet so gentle. So different, yet so intelligent. Every time I look into a whale’s eye I see a warm, intelligent being.

  • Pawel Whale, Pawel filming a humpback whale, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel filming a humpback whale, Pawel Achtel

What’s the oddest thing you’ve seen at sea?

Sydney’s pygmy pipehorse (Idiotropiscis lumnitzeri).

  • Sydney pygmy pipehorse, Sydney pygmy pipehorse,  John Turnbull
    Sydney pygmy pipehorse,  John Turnbull

What kit do you use?

I film almost exclusively in 3D. My setup is two RED Epic Dragon cameras, 3Deep titanium housing, Denecke Genlock, Nikonos 15mm submersible lenses, Keldan 24X lights with custom reflectors, custom TrueBlue OLPF filters.

  • DSC02397 fixed, Pawel making use of this equipment, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel making use of this equipment, Pawel Achtel

What’s the next big thing for your work?

I’m currently filming an IMAX film called Sea of Love 3D about reproduction and relationships in the ocean.

Who’s your ‘reef hero’ – someone doing great work or advocacy for the future of reefs?

Dr John (Charlie) Veron.

  • IMG_1795, Pawel taking a moment to catch his breath, Pawel Achtel
    Pawel taking a moment to catch his breath, Pawel Achtel

Harassed parent to museum student: my volunteering journey with the Horniman

Engage Volunteer, lawyer, mother, and now MA student, Gemma tells us about how volunteering with the Horniman has taken her back to university.

Ever since we moved into the area, about 10 years ago now, I’ve always loved the Horniman – the walrus, the music gallery and, as a sleep-deprived new parent, Busy Bees and the coffee in the café. I started volunteering largely because - with my youngest son starting school - it was getting harder for me to think of legitimate reasons to hang around the place. Joining the Engage volunteer team soon solved that.

The Engage team runs object handling on the engage trolley and welcomes visitors to the Butterfly House and Animal Walk. Very quickly, I went from being the harassed parent with the dinosaur-obsessed child on the one side of the engage trolley to being the well-informed volunteer on the other. Little did I know when I first signed up that Engage was just the start of my journey into the museum world.

  • IMG_3376, Gemma at London Volunteers in Museums Awards ceremony 2017 at City Hall. From left: fellow Family Learning Volunteer Marisa, Community Learning Assistant Ewen, and Gemma
    Gemma at London Volunteers in Museums Awards ceremony 2017 at City Hall. From left: fellow Family Learning Volunteer Marisa, Community Learning Assistant Ewen, and Gemma

Within a couple of months of starting with Engage, I also began volunteering with the Family team – putting my experience with nursery rhymes and the under 5s to good use by helping with the Busy Bees session each Tuesday.

The more I dug into what went on at the Horniman, the more I uncovered and the more I wanted to be involved. I helped the Community team with the Crossing Borders event for refugees. I helped design new object boxes and a banner for the new gallery. I tagged along with the Education team while they presented school sessions on evolution and I chatted to Kate, Sophie, and Rhiannon in turn about what was involved in managing the volunteers.

Still, I felt I’d only scratched the surface. There was much more to know, so I began to look into courses and other volunteering opportunities. Time and again, there was the Horniman.

I did a free, short online course with Futurelearn and the University of Leicester, and there was the Horniman acting as an example of how to make the best use of museum objects. I did some reading about “Museums in Britain”. There was the Horniman as one of the prime examples of Victorian museums for the general public.

Eventually, I secured a place to study Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture on an MA at Westminster. Unfortunately, juggling the course, my day job as a lawyer and my childcare responsibilities, has meant that I’ve had to cut back on my “hanging around at the Horniman” time, but even though I can’t come in as often as I used to, the Horniman is always there.

It’s there in the books I study from, through links with my fellow students and we are all well known for raising the museum as our go-to example of best practice in seminars. On my first course this term, I’ve got a museum visit - it’s to the Horniman. Thank you to the Horniman Museum for being an inspiration, an example, and an education.

What’s in a colour? Blue

As part of our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed we will be learning about a colour each month.

First up, one of the primary colours: Blue.

Top choice

Blue is one of the most popular colours in the spectrum. It comes out on top as the most preferred colour for both men and women across many countries. This could be because we see it in blue skies and clear water.

This relationship to the sky and sea gives blue an association with calming and soothing environments in our homes, where it prompts feelings of dependability.

  • The blue sky with our Totem Pole, We see blue daily, whether it is a blue sky or water. Our Totem Pole against a blue sky
    We see blue daily, whether it is a blue sky or water. Our Totem Pole against a blue sky

In business and marketing the colour blue engenders a sense of security and trust. You will often see it associated with medical (Blue Cross, Oral B) or tech companies (Facebook, Twitter, IBM).

Both of these sectors depend on customer confidence in the ability of the company to look after their wellbeing or their records, so blue branding is a subtle nod to this. However, you will start to notice lots of other brands which rely on the trust of their customers use it in their logos.

More recently, Blue has come to mean something else in modern society – a link. Blue is the predominant colour for hyperlinks in documents and online.

Feeling blue

It is quite strange that, despite blue’s associated with dependability, this colour is closely associated with sadness. There are blue notes in music, often played in blues songs which evoke feelings of melancholy harking back to the origin of the blues in the US Deep South. 

This is the first commercial recording of vocal blues by an African-American singer: Mamie Smith's performance of Perry Bradford's "Crazy Blues" in 1920:

Some people think the association of blue with sadness came from ships showing blue colours when the Captain or officers were lost during the voyage.

Washington Irving is credited with first using the term “the blues” in 1807, as a synonym for sadness. He was shortening the phrase “blue devils” which was a synonym to describe a menacing presence or a hangover.

Creating blue

Blue has placed an important role in our society as a pigment.

Blue pigments were created from azurite and Lapis lazuli. It was an expensive colour to create, due to scarcity of the mineral deposits, so it is no surprise that you will frequently see it used in older artwork relating to those of high status in Europe, such religious paintings (think the Virgin Mary’s scarf) or stained glass windows, while cobalt blue has long featured in the Middle East and Chinese porcelain.

  • Azurite, A sample of the mineral Azurite, Rob Lavinsky iRocks.com
    A sample of the mineral Azurite, Rob Lavinsky iRocks.com

The first official blue synthetic pigment came from Egypt in the form of calcium copper silicate. The earliest evidence is from around 3250 BC.

Before synthetic blues were developed, plants True Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) and Woad (Isatis tinctoria) were used to make blue dye for clothing, dating back at least 4,000 years.

The Indigo plant has also been used for food colouring, although many manufacturers have now switched to using spirulina. If you are wearing jeans, you are likely to be wearing indigo now.

You can see some of the plants used to make blue dyes in our Dye Garden.

Blue in nature

While we think of ourselves as being surrounded by blue in nature, with the sea and sky, there is far less when it comes to animals.

The blue you see in animals (particularly mammals and insects) comes often from the structure of their feather or scales, rather than a pigment.

When you think of the blue in a peacock feather, or on our Blue Morpho butterflies in the Butterfly House, the structure of the scale or feather has been created so that it absorbs all other colours, leaving you with the blue light reflected, which is why there is an iridescence when they move.

  • Blue Morpho butterflies, Blue Morpho butterflies from our Natural History Collection
    Blue Morpho butterflies from our Natural History Collection

Joe Hanson explains this really well in his series Its ok to be smart.

When it comes to plants and flowers, there are more blues that you would see in animals, but less than 10 percent of the 280,000 species of flowering plants produce blue flowers, and blue foliage is very rare.

Found these facts about blue interesting? Learn more about colour in our exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed.

A Horniman Rainbow Flag

February is LGBT History Month and as we have just opened our new exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed, what better time to look at the Rainbow Flag, which has been a symbol of LGBTQI pride since the 1970s.

The Rainbow Flag is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The flag was originally created by artist Gilbert Baker in the 1970s. Baker had been tasked by Harvey Milk to create a symbol of pride for the gay community and the original flag flew in the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade in June 1978.

“Flags are about power,” Baker told ABC in 2017, “Flags say something. You put a rainbow flag on your windshield, you’re saying something.”

This original flag contained eight colours but was modified to six in 1979, and we have used this six-colour flag to create our own rainbow from our collections.


The red stripe in the flag symbolises life and the colour evokes blood – a symbol of life. As a colour it is at the end of the visible light spectrum which is why it is the first colour in the rainbow.

This is a wax seal from the mid-1800s. Wax seals are still commonly used to secure the padlocked doors and gates of important cabinets, offices and buildings in India and Pakistan. The inscription gives the name Narsinghadev, an official of an 'emperor' Bhagvant Singha, and dates that are equivalent to AD 1838-39 and 1859-60. 


The orange stripe represents healing. Orange is considered to be a friendly, cheerful colour combining the energy of red and the happiness of yellow.

This is a clownfish from our Aquarium. Most anemonefish are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning they alternate between the male and female sexes at some point in their lives.


The yellow represents sunlight. It is a warm colour and the association with the sun evokes feelings of optimism and clarity.

This is a painted, carved wooden mask of 'El Tigre' from Mexico and is part of our Handling Collection.


The green represents nature, which is natural when green are the colours we associate with spring, growing and life.

Unsurprisingly we’ve gone outside to the Gardens for this part of our flag for a picture from a sunny day under the trees.


The blue stripe represents serenity, harmony or peace. Blue is used commonly by brands to evoke trust, as it is the most popular colour for both men and women.

We’ve gone for a Blue Morpho for this part of the flag, because they are just stunning. This specimen is part of our Natural History Collection, but you can also see then in our Butterfly House.


The final stripe at the opposite end of the light spectrum is violet which represents spirit. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, violet is most often associated with extravagance, individualism and the unconventional, which aligns with spirit well.

This circular embroidered fan case came from China in the early 1900s. It is decorated with an embroidered scene of a young woman dressed in blue in a boat surrounded by lilies. Beside her is an overhanging willow and a bird, probably a crane, flying overhead.

There you have it, a Horniman version of the Rainbow Flag.

As Baker said, “I like to think of those as elements as [being] in every person; everybody shares that.”

The Collective meets the objects

Learn about the Studio Collective's visit to the Study Collections Centre to inspect objects that may feature in their exhibition later this year.

The Collective spent a lot of time in our meetings talking about objects from the collection and looking at pictures of them. But nothing compares to seeing objects in real life, so our visit to the Study Collection Centre, where the Horniman stores everything that isn’t on display, was much anticipated.

Collective member Julia says ‘Sometimes you can be really surprised when you “meet the objects” – things which didn't seem so special on the database can really shine and some objects which we thought would be huge turned out to be tiny!’

Horniman staff at the Study Collections Centre had laid out our selection of objects on large tables, and there was plenty to catch the eye, and keep our interest.

Collective member Dom (the Horniman’s Community Engagement Coordinator) says ‘I enjoyed the cabinet of curiosities vibe of seeing such a range of objects. I particularly liked the small, ordinary-seeming objects we looked at, like the piece of bark which is actually a fragment of a much larger object used for divination.’

Several of the Collective were particularly fascinated by this figure of a donkey, made up of other interlocking animals including swans, fish, a monkey and a lion (and a man’s face, see if you can spot it). It’s from India, was made before 1837 and is part of a set of 12 similar figures including two people also made of animals.

Seeing our longlist of objects ‘in the flesh’ was the next step towards deciding what will be included in the first Studio exhibition, opening in autumn. Will the horse figure make it into a display case? You’ll just have to wait and see but in the meantime, the last word goes to Julia…

‘Seeing all the objects together, outside of a glass box, gets your imagination going. They conjure worlds. It's a lot to take in but it's very special.’

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