A tour of the Horniman museum object stores

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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).

Elements: working with a great science communicator

Still trying to marshall lots of thoughts about games, museums and the like following High Tea and a great Museums and the Web conference. Hope to put up a presentation about the latter after I give it next week. In the meantime, the films below are the result of a new approach we’ve decided to take at Wellcome Collection to using video with our events, and I’m pleased with how they’ve turned out.

In the past, when we had big events with lots of activities on a theme, I used to just film everything, add some interviews and cram it all into a highlights package (e.g . here) Increasingly, especially given the low numbers of views for these videos, I began to suspect there might be a better way. So with Elements, we decided to do something in advance that would be more focussed, stand alone after the event, and perhaps act as marketing too.

Fortunately, one of the curators was Andrea Sella, an inorganic chemist as well as a brilliant and enthusiastic presenter. In just one hour he gave me a whistestop tour of three of the elements that would form part of the event and I did my best to capture everything. We tried a few things more than once, but this is mostly the product of one take and Andrea’s ability to ad lib a really great explanation.




They are pretty rough and ready, but I think it’s fine as the pace and presentation more than make up for it. Of course it’s not everyday you can work with someone who’s such a natural in front of the camera, but I think it makes such a difference if you can. Shows what a rare art it is.

On another note, if you start building something like atomic structures in Motion (a tool not entirely suited to the job) perhaps it would be best to first consider the most complicated structure you are likely to have to build before committing yourself to the idea. Lesson learnt.

Thoughts about games: easy is fun?

So far, my blogging has been solely about my work as a filmmaker for the Wellcome Trust. However, I have another aspect to my role there, as a sort of web producer, which lately has been focussed on creating games. Lots more on that to come later. Particularly as I gather my thoughts following our successful launch of High Tea, a game with broadly educational aims which puts the gamer in the position of an 19th century opium smuggler in the Pearl Delta.

One aspect of the experience has really got me thinking over the last week or so and I’d love to hear what other people think about. Though it varied between sites, such negative comments as there were about High Tea largely revolved around the difficulty level, especially on Armor Games. Many gamers appreciated that it was hard to beat, and this may have added to the addictive quality and replay value. However, others wanted us to change some of the functionality in a way that would have made it incredibly easy. It seemed that a simple clickable walkthrough was genuinely what some players wanted, though of course it’s impossible to know whether they’d really have enjoyed it if that was what we’d given them.

Sushi Cat 2
The charmingly stupid Sushi Cat 2

In the same week, two other huge games were launched to huge ratings approval: Icy Gifts and Sushi Cat 2. Both are cute, and Sushi Cat in particular has really charming graphics and a neat, if very simple, little narrative. But both rely on game mechanics that require almost no skill whatsoever and are pretty hard to lose. The difficulty, if any, is about factors that are beyond the player’s control, so beating it requires merely a bit of luck. I must admit, I played through both. Icy Gifts has an achievements system that lead to me going back and playing through all the levels again until I’d racked up all possible achievements. But I’m not sure I even enjoyed it, I was just a rat pushing an especially pretty little lever for my reward.

Why do people (including me) play these games? Is it the window dressing of graphics and SFX that makes the difference? Is it the illusion of skill? I’m sure others must have already done some thinking around this, so would love to hear if there has been any research/conclusions in this area.

Finding the limits of FCP: the High Society trailer


This was not one of the smartest things I have attempted to do in Final Cut. The correct tool was probably Motion, but I’m not that familiar with it beyond using a few behaviours on text and so on, and wouldn’t know where to start with a bigger project like this. I didn’t have that long to do this, so even though I knew that Final Cut isn’t the best for dealing with stills, nested sequences and so on, I went for the devil I knew.

We wanted some sort of trailer for our High Society exhibition which explores “mind altering drugs in history and culture”. It’s useful to have this resource to give visitors to our website a sense of what the exhibition will be like, market via YouTube and also apparently increase the likelihood of the exhibition being mentioned on blogs, since there is additional content for the blogs to tart the post up with.

The challenge we have is that before the exhibition there are no available shots of the exhibition itself because it isn’t installed yet. Usually, all we have are stills of the objects and imagery and occasionally some video.  The first hurdle is therefore trying to think of something interesting to do with the stills. Classic rostrum moves (zooms and moves across the picture) just felt too dull for this subject, which seemed to be crying out for a more psychedlic treatment. I decided to take the images and cut out figures (e.g. mushrooms, people) from within them using Photoshop (thankyou hacky magic lasso tool) and then expand or move them around against the background, and generally mess with them in way that I hoped would look really trippy.

This process was a bit fiddlier than I’d hoped, but that wasn’t the main problem. What nearly killed this project was the sheer weight of it: the render time. Pulling in photoshop files with all their layers creates a sequence. Putting this into another sequence creates nested sequences which Final Cut doesn’t appear to be friendly about. The files themselves are pretty heavy, and would require a bit of rendering even before I start moving everything about within them. I was also rotating or zooming on separate image files as backgrounds, using luma keys, dissolves between multiple layers and, to cap it all off, motion templates with behaviours for the text over the top. Crunch.

This meant that I couldn’t see a change I’d made in the sequence without rendering it, which was a very slow trial and error method. Also, the rendering process started to throw up “out of memory” errors as my supposedly speedy mac stopped coping. When I came to render the final project, the only way I could complete it was by rendering just a few percent, stopping, saving, and then rendering just a few percent etc etc. It took AGES. I would dearly love to hear from anyone who knows what, if anything, I could have done to make this less painful!

Well, I got there in the end and the trailer has indeed proved very useful, racking up thousands of hits on YouTube after being embedded on various blogs across the world, even reaching the Huffington Post (if wrongly credited).

The music was from the usual place. We abandoned an original idea to also have a voice reading the dedication from Mordecai Cooke’s “The seven sisters of sleep”, since it conflicted unhappily with the music.

So, given the problems with my approach, despite a successful result, what to do next time? I’m thinking maybe something a little more lateral, taking to the streets with a relevant question and gathering interesting vox pops, maybe? Using interviews with curators/artist? Focussing on one artwork or object and using animation to do something interesting with it? We’ll see. Work on the next one begins in just a couple of months…

Filming words – the Wellcome Trust Book Prize


The Wellcome Trust has an annual book prize, which means an annual challenge of how to present the shortlisted books in an engaging way both online and at various related events. A video might seem like an obvious thing to do, but it does run the risk of just being a lot of talking heads going on about books, with not much else to look at. I tried to get around this by making the books themselves the stars, using the Sony EX1’s fairly decent macro capabilities to get really close-up shots of them.

I tried out all kinds of pans, tilts and moves on the books, handheld and not, but found that focus pulls on the tripod or with the camera rested on the books worked the best, drawing the eye along the words. Other moves tended to show a bit of judder, especially with all those lines.

The shots were all slightly wobbly, especially where I was just leaning the camera on the book to keep it steady, but Final Cut’s smoothcam feature worked very well here to sort this out. It doesn’t always work, but in this case it came through. I then used the “light rays” filter, on the lowest settings, to deliberately blow out the whites a bit. I use this effect quite a lot when I want to give something a slightly dreamy/glossy look. I should probably get Magic Bullet though, right?

The film got a lot of positive feedback, so I’m very pleased with how it came out in the end. The music is from Audio Network, as usual.



A little film I put together to give people a flavour of the latest exhibition at Wellcome Collection – Skin. I’ve decided that even though a video like this is primarily about marketing something, and doesn’t have a story or any real substance, it’s still a good thing for me to be doing on occasion. Because it’s relatively straightforward just filming objects and then cutting images to music, it gives me a chance to try out new things in Final Cut that I wouldn’t ordinarily have the time or inclination to play with, in this case ramped speed effects. These I have just (pretty crudely) keyframed in in the Viewer. Hadn’t really tried this before, and it works alright, I think.

Strangely, one of the things I am most pleased about this with is actually totally invisible. I found the music on Audio Network and it’s a remix of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker suite. I managed to loop it just before it gets recognisable and therefore a bit distracting, in a way which (hopefully) nobody will ever notice. In fact, thinking about it, generally when people don’t notice an edit, that’s when you know it was successful. Or is that just the self-justification of the uninspiring editor? Hmmm…

Exchanges at the Frontier: “Krauss is king”


I was fortunate enough to interview some of the people working in the most exciting areas of science last year as part of Wellcome Collection’s Exchanges at the Frontier series. The video above features Professor Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, perhaps best known for his “Physics of Star Trek” book and work on the origins of the universe. It’s been the most popular video so far, with some unusually nice comments from YouTubers (including “Krauss is king”, from a fan). You can also see interviews with neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland, Tejinder Virdee of CERN and Seth Shostak of SETI on the website or YouTube channel.

I only got about 10 minutes with each of these people, but they were all such pros that’s all I needed to get these little clips. The BBC broadcast the events themselves as radio shows as well though, for a bit more insight and detail into their work.

Blue Death: a film about nematode worms and ageing

My colleague Barry J Gibb made this really lovely film about how nematode worms are being used to study the ageing process. Was particularly struck by the revelations about their success in increasing the life spans of these little worms, along with their poignant death under the microscope.

Hello world!

My website had been languishing without update for over two years so, rather than try and design a whole new site with my rubbish and outdated web design skillz (CSS what??), I’ve created a blog instead. Will mostly be used as a place to collect the stuff I work on as Multimedia Editor at the Wellcome Trust, so videos and interactive stuff about biomedical science and related art. I also reserve the right to post whatever other flotsam and jetsam float into my brain demanding internet space, which will probably include old projects I’ve worked on but potentially also pictures of cats with stupid captions which never gets old as far as I’m concerned.

Would love any feedback on the work I put up here.

If you’re so inclined, you can follow me on twitter, am @marthasadie.

Most of my videos end up here on the Wellcome Collection YouTube channel, but some also here on the Wellcome Trust one.