From a giant stuffed walrus to Arts & Crafts architecture, not forgetting a panoramic view over London, here are 5 reasons to visit the Horniman Museum.
It’s fair to say the Horniman Museum would not be at the top of most visitors’ must-see sights in London. That privilege is usually reserved for the big-hitters such as The British Museum with its Neoclassical exterior and world-class collection, or perhaps the Gothic splendour of the Natural History Museum. Not that these two institutions, and others like them, should be overlooked. Far from it. But treasures like the Horniman also have their place and can offer an insight into British society, history and architecture in a small but perfectly-formed package.
Frederick John Horniman was a Victorian tea trader, and philanthropist. From around 1860, he was also an avid collector of items ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’. Towards the end of the 19th Century, his collection had grown to such an extent that they had taken over his entire house in Forest Hill in south London. As you can imagine, Mrs Horniman was none too impressed by this and gave him an ultimatum … ‘either the collection goes or we do’. Frederick complied and moved his family to the grounds of Surrey Mount next door.
Their former residence became known as the Surrey House Museum and opened its doors to the general public in December 1890. Its gardens opened five years later. However, Mr Horniman felt that this space did not do justice to his collection, and in 1901 it was rehoused in a new building designed by the Charles Harrison Townsend. It has remained there ever since.
So, without further ado, here are the five reasons you should visit the Horniman Museum.
1. For a slice of Arts & Crafts architecture
Charles Harrison Townsend (1851 – 1928) was one of the leading architects of the Arts & Crafts movement. Originating in Britain in the latter half of the 19th Century, this movement in the decorative and fine arts flourished in Europe and North America between 1880 and 1920. As much a social as an artistic movement, it took a robust anti-industrial stance, using traditional craftsmanship with medieval, romantic, or folk flourishes.
The Horniman museum is a splendid example of the Arts & Crafts style. The facade is made of soft Doulting Stone, embellished with intricate carvings, including leafy trees thought to represent the Tree of Knowledge.
2. For stuffed animals galore
Taxidermy and natural history were two passions for the Victorians. Birds, cats, squirrels … any animal you care to name, if it stood still for long enough, they stuffed it. And king and prince amongst taxidermists were William and Edward Hart, a father and son team from Christchurch in southern England. Take these owls for example, frozen in expressions of curiosity for eternity.
But pride of place is given to a walrus, the size of a small car, looking down on us from an ‘iceberg’ in the centre of the exhibition hall. Brought back from Canada by the explorer James Henry Hubbard, he was first exhibited in London in 1886. Frederick Horniman took a fancy to him – the walrus that is, not the explorer – and bought him for the Horniman Museum.
What I love about this walrus is that it is ever so slightly wrong. Taxidermists assembled it from skin alone, not having a clue what a walrus looked like. Unaware that a walrus is deeply wrinkled, they stuffed it to the limit. The result resembles an overinflated balloon with tusks.
Whilst you are here, don’t miss the merman, in a case at the far end of the exhibition hall. Mermen are the mythical male equivalents of mermaids. However, for many years they were believed to be real creatures living in the oceans of Asia. The ‘mermen’ brought to Europe in the 18th and 19th Centuries by sailors were quickly exposed as fakes, an unholy marriage of the dried up head and torso of a monkey and a fishtail.
3. To take a global musical journey
The upstairs space houses the museum’s extensive collection of musical instruments from around the world. Why not go to a wedding in Uzbekistan or the Rio Carnival? Or find out more about the role of music in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism or a funeral in West Cameroon?
Closer to home, the museum displays the collection and archive from Boosey & Hawkes, once Britain’s largest maker of musical instruments. At the company’s peak in the 1960s, its London factory churned out over 1000 instruments a week. I was given a Boosey & Hawkes guitar by my grandparents when I was 11, which my brother still has. Sadly, despite a decent instrument, I was never going to be the next Joan Jett! However, I did reach Grade 5 with the clarinet, which was the company’s main focus of woodwind production.
4. For panoramic views of the London skyline
For one of the best viewpoints over London, head to the bandstand. On a clear day, you can see the City skyline in all its glory.
5. For nature trails and gardens
The Horniman Museum is set in 16 acres of gardens, meadows and nature trails. Sit for a while by the sunken garden, which is a riot of colour. Also known as the Dye Garden, this was built in 1936 in the Arts & Crafts style and showcases dozens of dye plants, grouped according to the colour they produce.
Along the southern side of the sunken garden is the Medicinal Garden. Whilst the scientific claims for the healing properties of some of these species displayed here are dubious, others are more established. Take for example foxglove, from which digoxin, used to treat heart conditions originates. Or the humble broad bean, which is a rich source of levodopa, used to treat Parkinson”s Disease.
And with the opening of the museum’s World Gallery, there is now a 6th reason to visit the Horniman Museum. Or a reason for me to go back.
The practical stuff
- The Horniman Museum is around 10 minutes walk from Forest Hill station, which is served by London Overground (orange line) and mainline trains.
- Admission to the museum and gardens is free. There is a charge to visit the aquarium.