The Horniman Walrus: Times of Transformational Change Require Cross-Generational Expertise


Frederick Horniman was a Victorian tea trader and avid collector of art and artefacts, objects and specimens from all over the world. In 1901 he donated his collection, and the museum that housed it, to London County Council ‘for the instruction and enjoyment’ of Londoners, on condition that it should always be free to enter.

At the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill you’ll find totem poles and textiles, pan pipes and puppets, death masks and a dodo model. There are cabinets of curiosities, dioramas of startled and stuffed wildlife. You can see the remains of a nineteenth century male mermaid, a merman, which is actually a composite of fish, bird and papier mache. The Horniman is truly a place of wonder, a place where science, art and the imagination walk hand-in-hand.

One of the star attractions is an awkward looking stuffed walrus. The huge Horniman Walrus sits rather uncomfortably atop a fibreglass iceberg. When you first encounter him he peers mournfully back at you. He seems stretched and ‘over-stuffed’ and he lacks a walrus's characteristic wrinkles and skin folds. It’s as if he’s had a few too many chai lattes or is perhaps the victim of a bizarre Botox accident.

It transpires that when in the late 1880s the Horniman Walrus’s carcass was brought over to Britain, the local taxidermists had never seen a live walrus. So they just speculated on its natural appearance.

One can imagine the conversation: ‘Dave, this walrus here must have been a phenomenal beast. The boss is very excited about it. Any idea what it should look like?’ ‘No, Pete, just fill him up as best you can. I’m sure that’ll be fine.’

How many of us operating in marketing and communications over the years, working with new technologies and media, have created our own Horniman Walruses?  How often have we endeavored to put a new platform at the heart of our plans without being entirely confident what best to do with it?

During the boom I worked with numerous small businesses that thought they should advertise on TV; and with a large energy company that thought it should be a portal.  There was subsequently a rush to build brand websites that few consumers visited, and to populate them with branded entertainment that few consumers watched. We enthused about Friendster, MySpace and Google+. And our agency senior team once presented our future plans via avatars on Second Life.

So I’m not sure you’d want to ask me, for example, to find an optimal use of Periscope, Snapchat or 360 degree video. I’m well aware that these technologies are current, popular and important. But as a man of a certain age, I’ve not properly experienced them in the wild. I could probably stuff a platform with marketing strategy, expert acronyms and futuristic confidence. But would it end up looking natural?

Inevitably we assume that we’d be better off entrusting our marketing on new platforms to young people who are fluent in applications and algorithms. However, it’s far from easy locating an appropriate and effective role for marketing in new channels.  Often they resist more obvious commercial engagement. We may find that our digital natives are not sufficiently experienced in the art and craft of brand communication to crack the conundrum.

To put it crudely, if you want to stuff a walrus you need both people who know their walruses and people who know their taxidermy.

I’m increasingly of the view that times of transformational change require cross-generational expertise: teams that integrate youthful understanding of new platforms with the marketing wisdom of more mature heads.

We talk a good deal nowadays about creative partnerships: reaching across the divides of channel, technology and specialism. But in this neophile era and industry, maybe we don’t talk enough about collaborations that embrace a spectrum of age and experience.

Perhaps the Horniman Walrus, at the ripe old age of 150 or so, still has something to teach us.


This piece first appeared on Guardian Media and Tech Network on 15 June 2016

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