Playing the Nose

The three main collections at the Horniman Museum are: natural history, anthropology, and musical instruments. As part of my residency, I’m planning to make a series of false noses which respond to these collections. This gives me the opportunity to engage, to some degree, with all aspects of the museum.

The Music Gallery has the tricky task of creating a ‘no touching’ visual display of what are foremost sonic objects. Unusually for a museum there are many opportunities to play instruments that are in the handling collection but the core pieces need to be protected. The room contains floor to ceiling glass cases packed with musical instruments that emerge from the darkness.


It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust. You have to peer through the reflections and focus, in order to separate out each individual instrument from the mass.


Despite being more or less a flat display in a series of long cases, the feel is incredibly three-dimensional. Instruments are positioned and different heights and depths.


They are arranged in classification, for example this collection of concertinas folded and clipped back but ready to spring into action.


Many of the instruments, like this 3 valve compensating cornet, seem to hover in mid air, as if the musician had suddenly disappeared and gravity forgot to take hold.


Objects are not collected solely for rarity or value. This popgun (c.1990) categorised under ‘Plosive aerophones’ is exactly the kind I had as a child. It was great to see it there amongst the wind instruments, sitting right up front.


Across the Horniman Museum, but perhaps especially in the Music Gallery, the object mounting is exceptional. The curatorial team work closely with the technical staff to coordinate the display.

At the moment the African Worlds Gallery and the Centenary Gallery which housed the anthropology collection are closed for a major refurbishment. A new World Gallery and Studio will open in 2018. The anthropology collection is among my favourite at the Horniman Museum, so I miss being able to walk through these galleries on my weekly visits. However, I’m very curious about the plans for the new presentation and particularly in how the objects will be mounted.

In the Music Gallery, iron rods, barely visible from the front of the case, hold the instruments in a shaft of light. You have to look at an angle and do some visual gymnastics to pick out these batons.


From the side of the case you see just how intricate and numerous they are. Each one devised and created specifically for the instrument it holds.


You don’t have to just imagine the sounds, as most of them are available on an interactive audio-visual screen which corresponds to the display. Here are some conch shell trumpets, played on the Admiralty Islands and by the Maori people in Aotearoa New Zealand. In the second of the two shown below, notice where the hole is. It would have been side blown.




This 17th Century French flageolet is displayed with its adorable case.


And this beautiful porcelain ocarina from Meissen in Germany. (On the top left of the photograph you can see an ocarina made by Guiseppe Donati, the former Italian brickmaker who invented the instrument.)


I’m particularly interested in the wind instruments and to think about the craftspeople who made them. Here are a pair of Nigerian whistles.


I’m also interested in the way some of the instruments are shaped and decorated to represent other things. This vessel rattle in the form of a killer whale, for example. (The Bellabella people, Vancouver Island, Canada before 1892.)


Or these two sonaja, vessel rattles, one with a cowboy head and one with a devil head, from Celaya, Mexico.


Or most brilliantly these fantastic hand clappers which are from XVIII Dynasty Riqqeh in Egypt, making them about 3,500 years old. Amazing. To have a pair of hand clapping clappers seems like an entirely contemporary post-modern idea, and yet here they are from an ancient civilisation.


Seeing so many musical instruments together allows you to explore the variety of shapes and materials used. This Native American rattle from the Great Plains of South Dakota is strung with spent cartridges. What were the bullets shooting, I wonder?


This mid-20th century Nigerian side-blown horn has an impressive twist.


I love this woven bell thing but I’m not actually sure what it is. I’ll investigate further on my next visit.


A clay figure of a satyr playing the auloi, probably from provincial Greece, in the first or second century AD, offers evidence for instruments that no longer exist.


Other objects aren’t musical instruments in their own right but form part of the musicians kit. And this polishing mop is particularly handsome.


What to make of all this? Well, I’ve set my heart on creating some kind of false-nose-nose-flute. I went to the Horniman library to do some research. The librarian, Helen Williamson introduced me to the holdings. There has always been a library as part of the Horniman. The original collection was formed of about 10,000 objects and 2,000 books. The library tells the story of the museum and follows the collection as it has grown under the auspices of individual curators, their predilections and areas of expertise.

The current library is housed in a grass roofed building next to the museum and holds approximately 30,000 books. It is open to the public on the two days a week that Helen works (generally Monday and Tuesday) but is mostly a reference collection for the curatorial team.


Dotted around the shelves are individual books or series of books that have yellow labels sticking up from their pages. These are the volumes that formed part of the original collection of Frederick Horniman.


Helen showed me this one inscribed by Frederick Horniman, and his wife Rebecca, to his father John Horniman (the tea magnate who originated the wealth upon which the Horniman collection is founded).


I found a few references to nose flutes, including an illustration of one made of a jaguar bone (figure ‘e’ below) from British Guiana. I also listened to a CD which included some nose flautist recitals on the fangufangu nose flute from Tonga. The recording was from 1978 and the CD notes made it clear that with the introduction of the guitar and the ukulele, the Polynesian nose flute traditions declined.


I also read about the toomerie and the poongee, which are nose flutes used by snake charmers in India. The thing about the nose flute is that you are creating the sound while breathing through your nose. It somehow feels connected to the breath in an organic way.


So, now I’d like to give it a go at making some kind of false-nose-nose-flute and I have discovered a whole online nose flute culture as a result. A key resource for those minded to explore the potential sounds their nasal passages could induce, is which focusses on the contemporary iterations of the instrument. It’s well worth a browse. From there I discovered the Boccarina, a contemporary mass produced plastic design by a South African ceramicist, Chris Schuermans. They are very affordable, so I ordered a couple. (The next edition, the Boccarina Pro, is currently in prototype phase.)

I am not a musician (by any stretch) but I wanted to give this a go. So here, with some trepidation, I offer you Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute. I have not managed to create a nice sound but it’s the first step in my foray into nose flutes.

If you got through that, well done. And if you want to hear the Boccarina being played really well, check out Will Grove-White’s great nose flute cover of The Beach Boy’s classic, God Only Nose.