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Visiting the Horniman Museum's stores


This week has been a very special week because I am down in London with my family doing lots of trips and visits. There are three or four different things I want to write about, but to start off with I'm going to write about a very special visit I was really looking forward to where I was going to meet Paolo Viscardi who writes the Zygoma blog and who is a museum curator at the Horniman Museum in south London.

Paolo invited me to visit the Horniman Museum's Study Collections Centre which is like a secret warehouse hidden away in another part of London. I'm not allowed to say where it is because it contains valuable exhibits, and it's not open to the public, so it was very special I was allowed in.

Mum and my younger brothers went to a museum nearby, and dad and I got a bus and Paolo met us at the bus stop. It was really amazing to meet him after sort of knowing him online for about four years. We walked up to the building which had lots of security and locks, and went into the staff room and there were lots of people there who knew me through my website and who I knew a bit through Twitter (like Vicky and Sarah and Russell and Rachel), and it was even written on the whiteboard that I was coming in today.

They had even baked an amazing cake with a proper dog skeleton made out icing !

This is me with the cake:

After we had cake and drinks Paolo started showing me round. We began at the stuffed animals in storage. I wasn't allowed to touch them because older stuffed animals were prepared with arsenic to preserve them and kill bugs on them. Unfortunately arsenic can also kill other things, like 11 year old boys:

This golden eagle was lovely:

They all had these special labels on them to help catalogue them. This one really did have elephants' tails in it !

I recognised this wandering albatross on top on the shelves. It has the biggest wingspan of any bird in the world:

Other animals were kept in plastic bags to keep out bugs and moisture, like this badger and this leopard:

Paolo really liked this gibbon because when you carry it it looks like it is cuddling you:

This is his room, where he does his work ! 

There was even his mini photographic studio where he does the pictures for the Friday Mystery Object on his blog:

These are some of the bones he is working on at the moment:

Above his desk there were lots of deer heads:

...and antlers (a lot were from chittal deer)...


...and horns.

On the other part of the room there were metal shelves which moved from side to side to use up as much space as possible and they were filled with some of the most amazing skulls I had ever seen. These shelves were full of cats. These ones were small, like domestic cats...

but also had this lion:

and Paolo taught me the difference between lion and tiger (on the right) skulls which are very very similar:

Here's them in closeup showing how similar they are. The trick is using the suture lines Paolo is pointing to:

as well as leopards too. I wish I had brought my own leopard skull to compare with.

Paolo said that often big cat skulls are very very difficult to tell apart since they are a relatively new species, so the different types of cat are still quite similar to each other because they are still quite close to their common ancestor. (I say relatively, but it is still millions of years.)

This dog skeleton was quite amazing since it showed the taxidermied dog on one side, but the skeleton on the other. I had seen ones like this before at the Perth Museum, but they are quite rare and the Horniman museum has a lot of them:

There were lots and lots of bird articulations:

and some amazing raptor skulls like this lappet-faced vulture skull

Part of Paolo's job is to go through all of the natural history exhibits, and to decide which ones to keep and which not to. He showed me a box which he called the Box of Horrors which had been given by a member of the public. You do NOT want to know what was in there !


It's a pretty amazing experience to think of any skull of any animal in the world and ask for it and in a few seconds have it handed to you ! This is me with a brown bear black bear skull:

There are thousands and thousands of exhibits, so everything has to be catalogued. These were old slides showing parts of the collection:

I asked to see the bugs and spiders (because I have a bird eating spider body), and there were load of them kept in glass cases that slid in and out of a huge cupboard:

Then we went to the fossil rooms. The rooms have to be kept with no water moisture to preserve them, even though they are hundreds of millions of years old already. If a fossil has iron pyrite in it, then moisture can get it to release acid which will eat through museum shelves in as little as ten years.

He showed this incredible fossil which was his first purchase of the collection when he started working at the museum:

This is a mastadon tooth, so it must be at least 12,000 years old, which is 7,500 years older than the pyramids, and about the same age as my dad's jokes.

This is the jaw of a cave bear:

and this is the tooth of an animal so big it used to kill and eat whales as prey !

This is a broken dinosaur bone:

Museums are great, but it's amazing being able to actually hold skulls and bones in your hands and take a close look. Not everyone who visits museums would enjoy going round the stores, and a lot might find it boring, but for me it was like being in a place full of treasure. You could spend weeks or months opening boxes and still finding stuff that was new.

This is a completely different side of museums that people normally don't see where scientists and experts work behind the scenes working on specimens to identify them or restore them.

A big, big thank you to Paolo and everyone else I met today who were all so kind to me today and who made me feel so welcome !

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tai haku said...

you lucky lucky chap! That looks amazing.

Lena (ossamenta) said...

Lucky you! Museum stores can be so awesome (especially if you're allowed to open all the drawers and cupboards...).

HollyMae Steane Price said...

I want to work there! Would be a dram come true!
Lucky you, Jake :)

HenstridgeSJ said...

Looks like you had a great day. I expect you to do even better on the Friday Mystery Object now that you've seen Paolo's stores! :-)

Jake said...

No you don't.

Christine Sutcliffe said...

Museum stores are incredible aren't they? I volunteer at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (I help make scenic bases for taxidermy specimens) and could happily spend days in the Natural History sections - so many amazing creatures!

Ric Morris said...

What a sensational experience - I have been behind the scenes at a few small museums in the past but none as impressive as this one. And by the way - I most certainly DO want to know what was in the box of horrors!

Betta132 said...

Saying that I don't want to know just makes me want to know even more...

That place looks awesome. I want that cake for my birthday, but I doubt that's gonna happen!

Sam Misan said...

pls whats in the box of horrors

Jake said...

Something that used to be something else.

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