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My Flickrset from a tour of the Horniman object stores.

I spent a very fine afternoon yesterday being guided around the stores where the Horniman keeps the 95% (I think) of their collection which isn’t on display. It was a public tour with a small group, guided firstly by Helen, who took us through rooms of mummies, weaponry, musical instruments and other assorted wonders.

The stores are cramped and absolutely bursting at the seams, but we squashed into the spaces between old fashioned rolling stacks and jam-packed shelves whilst we peered at oddities and several of us tried to grab what photos we could in the low light. Though we weren’t allowed to take photos of the outside of the building (understandably, they’d prefer it wasn’t identified) they were very accomodating in their photography policy for objects and the stores themselves. I could have spent hours and hours in there wandering around with my camera, pulling back curtains, reading the extraordinary labels for boxes I wasn’t allowed to open (a giraffe trap!) and listening to the curator’s stories about these fabulous objects.

One of the conservators showed us just what they are up against in terms of pests (carpet beetles, clothes moths and the like), light or sun damage and other wear and tear. And finally, Paulo (who blogs here) and is a natural history specialist, gave us an inevitably too brief whirl around their bones, antlers and taxidermy. I wish I could have seen every one of the Hart bird dioramas, created by a husband and wife team; he killed the birds and mounted them, she painted a backdrop taken from the very location in which they were collected. They’re wonderful.

The natural history collections pose some interesting problems for the curators. The bird’s eggs must have data on their provenance, else they could fall foul of more recent laws that forbid their collection. Taxidermy from the Victorian era can be laden with arsenic, found in the soap that was used to clean the animal’s insides. Gloves should always be worn when handling them to prevent arsenic poisoning (apparently not uncommon in curators of this type of material). And if you ever see flakes like dandruff on taxidermy, that’s the arsenic, do NOT touch!

Also, stringent CITES rules on transport of animal and plant material, designed to protect endangered species, mean that loans across borders to other museums become a bureacratic nightmare. Read the brilliant Orchid Fever (one of my favourite books) for an interesting and entertaining examination of why CITES might be doing as much damage as good in some instances.

I’ve been inspired to become a Friend of the Horniman (only £10!) after this visit, and highly recommend joining one of these tours if you get the chance. Apparently they only run them a few times a year but keep an eye on this page if you’re interested.

(PS embedding a flickr slideshow turned out to be a bit of pain, I found the solution here).

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