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

Bringing the Dead Back to Life, with Paolo Viscardi

Paolo at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1

A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.

One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.

The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.

As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.


Margay. By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.

Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.