For the last quarter of 2016 I am lucky enough to be artist in residence at the Horniman Museum.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens was established by Tea Trader and philanthropist Frederick John Horniman, who began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860.
The collections of this wonderful museum are held in four main categories: anthropology, natural history, musical instruments, and the gardens. My plan is to use the Horniman collections as inspiration to create a series of false noses. There are many places to look. The most obvious is perhaps the anthropology collection: dance, devil, carnival, and ‘ugly’ masks. Equally, I could turn to the natural history collection: the spoonbill’s beak, the paleomastodon’s nascent trunk, the nine-banded armadillo’s curled protective shell. Less obvious, but no less inspirational, is the collection of instruments: an orchestral horn false nose, a concertina false nose, of course the nose flute already exists.
I collect false noses. I have hundreds of them. Most are human noses, but I also have witches noses, clown noses, animal noses, and other oddities. I even have a plug nose and a socket nose.
In 2013 I showed a series of 452 self-portraits wearing my false nose collection at the Wellcome Collection in London.
The thing about this collection is that there is a rapidly decreasing pool of noses to collect. As cosplay becomes commodified and the means of costume production more affordable, people are dressing-up more ‘authentically’. The false nose, alas, has probably seen its day.
In an effort to try and add to my own collection, I have started making false noses myself. I have made painted noses, papier maché noses, brass noses, clay noses, cardboard noses, crochet noses, and gold noses. I have recently started a digital Nose Museum on Instagram.
Bang slap in the middle of our faces, the nose is often overlooked. There are odes to beautiful eyes, sonnets on the perfect shape of lips, hair practically has a strand of literature to itself. The nose, however, is often cut off. The nose has a rich narrative potential for the absurd, the comic, the mysterious and at the same time, the entirely knowable. We all have a nose after all. As Dr Seuss reminds us, ‘They grow on every kind of head’. For example the moose above, whose giant nostrils sniff out from under a tyvek sheet, or this great crested grebe poking its beak out of its puppet theatre archive box.
As my introduction to the Horniman Museum, Lindsey Bruce, Exhibitions Officer, took me on a trip to the collections store in a semi-secret former school building in South East London. It is here that many of the hundreds of thousands of objects that are not on display in the museum are kept. The annual acid-free tissue-paper bill must be enormous. It’s nice to see a recently accessioned lute lounging on some pillows.
You can imagine the scene. Corridors of boxes, strange shapes undercover, colour-coded labels. Helen Merrett, Collections Officer showed us around.
This is the room where textiles are stored, rolled up under canvas, their hidden treasures all the more enticing for not being seen.
Spears from the Solomon Islands each have their own specially cut storage mount inside an archive drawer.
Mummies lie, not quite in state, their coffins inside coffins, another layer added to their mummification. Scribbled on the side in marker pen, is the weight of each box: 56kg, 106kg…
“What are those?” I say, pointing to some amazingly long single piece wooden struts. “Mongolian yurt poles,” Helen replies in a matter of fact tone.
A rather pouty Mars ignores our gaze as Helen lifts the dust sheet aside. It is unclear whether he’s attention seeking (‘About time too! I’ve been ignored for too long.’) or genuinely annoyed for having been disturbed.
A sample box is removed from a shelf. Inside an exquisite sharkskin covered chopstick carrying case. ‘What else is in this place?’ I wonder to myself.
An armoured mannequin stands ready for display at a moment’s notice.
There are ominous reminders of the experimental history of museum conservation. Warning signs of toxicity sit alongside accession labels.
It struck me that one of the pleasures of touring the collections store is that you don’t get to see everything. As opposed to the museum where access and interpretation are at the forefront of curators’ minds, here the objects are constantly escaping you. The more you see, the more you realise what you aren’t seeing. The pleasure of this ‘not knowing’ is also contingent on the fact that the general public don’t get this access. There is some satisfaction in recognising that you are in a privileged position, and equally discomfort that it can’t be experienced by more people.
Helen handed over to Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History and we delved into some taxidermy.
Everyone I have met so far at Horniman loves their job. Jo is no exception. You can see the fire in her eyes and hear the delight in her voice, as she opens a box of say, disarticulated lizard skeletons.
This is the skeleton of an owl. The bones around the eye-socket are like a stone setting for some precious jewel.
Jo pointed out these ‘nose bags’ that are tied around the mounted skulls of different beasts. Although it looks like they are feeding, the bags are actually to capture the odd bits of fine nasal bone that might might fall off.
No such bag is required for the magnificent nose of the warthog.
Noses are, quite naturally, to be found everywhere in the natural history collection. It was quite overwhelming. This ‘twice prepared’ cutie, which the collections staff call Patches (to Jo’s cheery disapproval) is quite something. Possibly a teaching aid from the 1930s he evokes the cuddle instinct, revulsion, and wonderment all at once.
Here are some rather startled puffins.
The term ‘taxidermy’ comes from the Greek ‘taxis’ (meaning arrangement) and ‘derma’ (meaning skin). When the derma hasn’t had its taxis, it is a ‘study skin’. These are gutted birds that have then been filled with cotton wadding to give them some volume. They were used as specimens for the study of the plumage rather than anatomy. They have a melancholy beauty, the colour of their feathers bleeding through the polythene sheaths.
Many have their original labels; this one is from 1897. The handwriting is something to be admired. Part of the preservation of these objects is now necessarily also the preservation of their particular archiving over the years.
Jo opens another drawer. There in the centre is a box of beaks. For a collector of noses, this was something of a magic moment. A hastily scribbled note sits on top: ‘Not catalogued’. Clearly this box of beaks has not been considered of prime importance. Up until now.