National Gorilla Day! (or Racist Skeletons in our Closets)

Happy National Gorilla Day!

We don’t usually cover “national *insert_animal* day” specially on this blog, but this year we’re particularly excited about gorillas because a book was recently published that contains a comprehensive list of all the gorillas held in natural science collections worldwide.

Screenshot 2017-05-26 at 12.31.47 - Edited

This impressive resource has been compiled by John Cooper and Gordon Hull over the course of many years and not only are specimens listed, their collection and/or acquisition data are also reported. Cooper and Hull have also offered suggestions for use of specimens in collections as well as guidance on the different types of preservation available and how they can be achieved. This only forms part of the book, with the first section more concerned with the health and conservation of these impressive animals. Continue reading

Objects, Meet World! Using Tumblr to Bring Collections to New Audiences

This post is another in our series of presentation write-ups from the 2015 NatSCA Conference, Museums Unleashed!


In 1901, Victorian tea trader Frederick Horniman opened his museum (The Horniman Museum and Gardens, in London) with the ideal of bringing the world to Forest Hill. His collections were vast and varied, encompassing Anthropology, Natural History, and Musical Instruments. They have been added to extensively over the years.

In 2012, the Horniman embarked on a three-year review of our Anthropology collections, Collections People Stories, with the aim of getting a clearer picture of what we now have and learning more about our objects, in order to inform a planned redisplay of some of our galleries.

The review project was an enormous undertaking, involving staff from across the museum as well as external experts and community groups. The progress of the project was shared on the museum’s blog, but we also wanted a more informal way to share the day-to-day work of our review team, and to highlight some of the amazing objects we saw every day as we ploughed systematically through the Study Collections Centre.

Boxes of objects in the Horniman's stored collection

A review in action: lots of coloured labels!

Tumblr fit the bill nicely: it is a microblogging (think very short-form) platform that can accommodate a variety of content, including text, pictures, video, and audio. We’ve found it works best with images, plus a small amount of text to explain what the object is and why it’s interesting. Posting is quick and simple, so it can fit into a busy workflow easily. Tumblr is also a great way of reaching a large audience with little initial effort, thanks to the snowball effect: followers can ‘reblog’ our posts, sharing them on their own page, and then other people reblog it on from there, and it can just keep going!

Our page, In the Horniman, was set up in September 2012. The review team were given control of the page, and let loose! Our agenda with Tumblr is not overtly educational; we aim simply to share our enthusiasm for the collections with our followers. We choose objects just because we like them – anything that makes us say ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ is an instant Tumblr candidate.

"Wow, that's amazing!" - a beautiful ceramic dragon from Uzbekistan (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

“Wow, that’s amazing!” – a beautiful ceramic dragon from Uzbekistan (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

We didn’t just want to share pretty pictures with our followers, though. We also wanted to encourage engagement. This is not as easy as it sounds, because of the way Tumblr works: followers can ‘like’ or ‘reblog’ posts with one click, but commenting is less common because it takes more effort. But without us even trying, it was happening: people were commenting on our posts, sometimes even telling us things we didn’t know about the objects. So we started an interactive feature called Stick of the Week, in which we share an image of a stick-like object and ask the good people of Tumblr to guess what it is. We have many such objects in the collection, and wanted to share them to highlight that any object can be interesting when you know its story! Stick of the Week sounds silly, but it has (hopefully!) got our followers looking at and thinking about objects differently, and allowed us to open up a dialogue.

Stick of the Week: a parrying dagger made of antelope horn

Stick of the Week: the reveal (Image: Horniman Museum & Gardens)

In The Horniman has achieved our aim to share the progress of the Collections People Stories review, and wildly exceeded our expectations. Since 2012 it has gained over 39,000 followers (up by 2,000 since I delivered this talk at NatSCA 2015!), received over 90,000 page views from 158 countries, and even won an award (Best Social Media at the Museums & the Web Awards 2014)! But the reason we keep doing it is the wonderful feedback from our audience:

Visitor feedback for In The Horniman Tumblr page

In The Horniman: people lobe it!

Tumblr has given us a platform to share our collections with audiences all over the world, and a new way to engage people with our objects. Mr. Horniman’s aim in founding the museum was to bring the world to Forest Hill. Through Tumblr, we are now bringing Forest Hill to the world.

Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum & Gardens

A Tale of Two Playing Cards

The Museum Ethnographers Group conference is being held on Monday and Tuesday at the excellent Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. The theme is ‘Nature and Culture in Museums’, and the relationship between the two.

I am a zoologist by background, but for the last three years I have been immersed in a different world, working on a review of the Anthropology collections at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. I have learned an enormous amount about material culture from all over the world, seen some incredibly stunning objects, and been surprised by how relevant my Natural History knowledge has been. Many of our objects are made of animal materials, and it’s been a great opportunity to learn new skills in identifying ivories, bone, and antler. Only a few weeks ago I was very excited to be able to identify an Inuit flint-sharpening tool as being made of mammoth ivory!

I have also been asked to add taxonomic data to some Anthropology object records in our Collections Management System, so that we can record the species that are represented by objects. This provides richer contextual data, and links between objects that can be navigated on our website.

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

One such group of objects is this set of Victorian playing cards. They are cute: on one side is a cryptic clue to the identity of an animal, and on the other is an illustration of that animal. I didn’t anticipate how much the taxonomic information would add to our understanding of the objects, or that it would enable them to tell a story about discovery and extinction…

Two cards in the pack, together, tell this tale. The first is the ‘Black-diver’:

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Which is actually a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis). I have never heard ‘black diver’ used as a common name for this bird, but the likeness is unmistakable. The last recorded sighting of this species is from 1852, following the death of the last individuals to be shot, in 1844. I was intrigued to see this species represented in the pack, and was left wondering whether any of the Victorian children who played with the cards had ever actually seen a live Auk.

A second card could potentially hold the clue to this:


Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum &Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) was not described until 1903, so it seems much more likely that this card represents the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), described in 1847.

The date of the discovery of the Western Gorilla, combined with that of the extinction of the Great Auk, could potentially narrow down the date at which these cards were made enormously: there is only a five-year period in which both species were known to exist together, between 1847 and 1852. However, the actual date of manufacture could be much later: following their discovery, gorillas were incredibly popular with the public for many years, particularly in the 1860s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and the first live specimen reached a European zoo in 1876. ‘The Auk’ was taken as the title of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s journal, founded in 1884. So the Great Auk was clearly still in the public consciousness long after its extinction. Given this information, it seems quite possible that the original owners of the playing cards may never have seen either species in the flesh!

But that is as far as my research has taken me for now. This is a story that I hadn’t expected to find in these objects. As museum professionals, we are custodians of more than just collections: we are the keepers of specialist knowledge that we use to interpret our collections, to tell stories that will engage our audiences. Sometimes, to find their stories, you need to look at objects from more than one perspective. By working across disciplines and sharing our expertise, we can find new tales and new ways to tell them.


Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens