100 London Road
London SE23 3PQ
Thursday April 16 2015
Whether this can be truly called a museum outing is a bit debateable – with all of us involved in family related health problems this week and for some time to come it was difficult to arrange a planned combined visit. However as Linda has lived on the Horniman’s doorstep for the past 40+years it seemed acceptable that she should ‘wing’ this report a little.
The Museum's history is not untypical of many created in the Victorian era – private collector (Frederick John Horniman was a tea importer) who collected varied objects from his world-wide trips and then ran out of space at home – the first displays were in his home up on Surrey Mount and then in 1898 he had Charles Townsend build the dedicated museum near the top of the hill, with its entrance on the main road, which is now the South Circular. A Jubilee era extension almost doubled the capacity of the museum, and moved the entrance so you now go in from the surrounding park or, more correctly, gardens.
For us the Museum is indivisible from its surrounding gardens which are a real glory. They boast a children’s play area, theme based on musical instruments, a proper elevated band stand, a small animal enclosure (small area: some small animals but quite hefty alpacas included) an education centre, an African garden, vegetable allotment and formal walled flower garden ringed by seats and often a suntrap. On a clear day you can see as far as the Wembley Arch & Hampstead in the north of London and even moderate visibility gives you the Shard.
The Museum has three substantive and permanent collections and a changing series of ticketed special exhibitions. The Aquarium is beautifully presented with most fish presented at adult knee height thus really involving the visiting children. In 2013 it won Children’s museum of the Year and it is really VERY child-friendly with clearly worded low hanging exhibition labelling – and interactive sections in all parts of the collections. This makes it very busy during the school holidays but also in term time with significant number of school parties on organised outings. As former pupils of Horniman Primary School you can imagine how familiar our own children were, especially as they also spent part of the holidays doing exhibit-related craft workshops. Today it was still close enough to the beginning of term for there to be very few visitors and I certainly had two sections to myself.
I started with the Musical instruments collections which is hugely impressive, embracing as it does anything you might wish to blow, suck, bang or pluck from round the world. It just so happens that twenty sorts of woodwind and the noise they make does not greatly interest me but may well hold fascination for most other less philistine museum visitors than myself. The children’s hands-on area was being happily used by some push-chair aged toddlers and was very suitable for tinies.
The musical instruments used to be up in one of the galleries but had moved into the newer build Centenary gallery which opens out of the three story atrium – a lovely space today only adorned by some Chinese lanterns but allowing for book launches, performances and lots of visitors.
Meanwhile the ethnographic collection – masks, puppets, headdress, votive offerings, fertility symbols from different faith and culture groups – had migrated into the older galleried exhibition hall dating from 1902, so imagine something like the set from ‘Night at the Museum’ and you will get the picture.
Most scary in this section is the avenging god Kali dancing on the body of Shiva.
Before the museum was re-arranged these exhibits used to be softened by a rather endearing statue of the half bull Nandi and the odd elephantine Ganesha but they seemed in short supply today. More colourful were the artefacts from Polynesia and Guyana. The Horniman curators have taken great care in presenting these objects but even so it does sometimes feel like a museum of museum displays. The African worlds have another gallery to themselves and this feels more cohesive, with the separate tribal regions presented in both a historic and contemporary context; of course many of the people concerned live locally and are able to contribute.
Most famous and most unreconstructed are the Natural History Galleries with their serried ranks of glass display cabinets illustrating different wild life and domestic species. Probably grouped more for their visual impact than any other taxonomy they are a testament to the not so dying art of the other t-word – taxidermy. I gathered from a recent launch of Kate Mosse’s last novel – The Taxidermist’s Daughter – that this nearly forgotten Victorian skill (and real artistic skill is required) is finding some resurgence amongst modern artists.
The most famous exhibit is of course the ‘over-stuffed’ Canadian walrus who has held centre stage on his ice-floe for over a century – when the museum was remodelled in 2002 there was an outcry when there was talk of not including him so here he still sits making a handy ‘meeting point’ on the first floor. What’s more I had forgotten how cosy this floor of the museum is and how we used to arrange Sunday PM viewings to economise on the home heating! Our favourite remains the dodo which you can find both here and in the garden.
If I have a criticism of the Museum it would be getting from one section to another as it does sometimes feel like three separate spaces not very clearly connected and you could easily lose a child in one of the less popular galleries…
Anyway if you follow the directions for shop and café – all on the ground entrance floor – you will find your way out with both facilities offering a good range of gifts and a popular indoor/outdoor eating space. The adjacent grand Victorian conservatory or crystal palace hosts additional functions. In the end my revisiting of this South East London gem was well worth while, as indeed your visit will prove.