Nomenclature for the people

Photograph of display at Hornimann Museum

Museums are funny places. I should know – I work in them. They are constantly trying to redefine themselves in relation to contemporary material cultures. But by their very nature they are old-fashioned. Their weighty pasts – and often un-wieldy present – make them unsuitable for chasing the mode. A new gallery today will probably be there in 10 years time, and so become something of a museum piece itself.

A trip to the Horniman Museum in South London revealed a lovely example of an historical display. The museum itself is a super thing; an arts and craft castle perched over Forest Hill. Within the last few years it has had the ubiquitous extension and ‘revamp.’ For most lottery-funded projects that translated as fewer objects on show, more multi-media, a new café and a new shop.

But despite shiny new galleries, it was the old natural history gallery that fascinated and kept my attention for far longer. A large galleried room full of ponderous wooden display cases, chock-full of stuffed animals (including a rather disconcerting trophy-mounted, heads-of-pet-dogs display). All presided over by a grand stuffed Walrus on its giant fake iceberg. Glorious.

The predominant colour of these antique displays – pink – is unexpected. And the detailed interpretation throughout the cases is very beautifully wrought: labels of plaster letters, black with a white edge, in a 1930s font* in nicely measured layouts – stood proud of their textured ground. Smaller plaster-pink paper labels full of Latin nomenclature were the next level down of interpretation. And, every so often, a larger frame was slotted in – with strange and beautiful classifications charted across it.

Old school it may be. But there is a place for exhibitions of weird and wonderful objects beautifully displayed. And I think this gallery sits comfortably alongside its new neighbours. But realistically it might be an idea to get along to see it soon, as it’s probably on someone’s funding hit list.

* On this font, über graphic designer and sound northern chap Paul Hetherington comments:

‘The overall characteristic is of the font is deco, it looks like a cross between Futura and Gill, but it has quite a unique G. Therefore, an obscure font, probably1930s, an amalgamation of the look of the day and would have been designed and made in-house by a single, individual foundry. Certainly it’s no classic, or something that became widely used. Nor would it have made the leap out of metal into photo-typesetting.’

One Comment


You made it look and sound more glamorous than it is 🙂

It’s amazing how long you spend in these parts of museums when the new interactive bits hold your attention for mere minutes (but maybe that’s because it’s a busmans holiday).

My favourite bit was discovering about the dinosaur in Crystal Palace with it’s thumb on it’s nose. Oh and those full body sections of cats and dogs and monkeys. It was the gruesome stuffed animals and the displays that kept me in there so long – pointing at some new discovery every 30 seconds and hollering to my mates to come see.

I must go back and see the real animals caged up out back…


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