Discover London: The Horniman Museum

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We take a look at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, one of London's most eclectic and fascinating little-known gems.

Located in a beautiful corner of South London’s Forest Hill, the Horniman Museum and Gardens is a true London treasure. Nowhere else in the city can you find such an extensive, varied, and eclectic range of anthropological objects in an area boasting 16 acres of landscaped gardens. The museum houses exhibitions relating to anthropology, natural history, musical instruments, and even has an aquarium. Delighting visitors of all ages with its expansive programme of workshops and activities, the Horniman Museum has something for everyone.

Founded in 1901 by tea trader Frederick John Horniman, the eponymous museum started off as a private collection of objects, specimens, and artefacts that Frederick J Horniman had collected during his travels since around 1860. His overarching goal was to “bring the world to Forest Hill” and to educate and enrich the lives of those in the local community. Today the collection holds over 350,000 objects and sees hundreds of thousands of people passing through its doors each year to learn about the diverse cultures and weird and wonderful objects on display.

The main Natural History gallery is filled from floor to ceiling with display cabinets containing taxidermied animals and specimens from around the world. From a duck-billed platypus, to a Bornean orangutan, to Atlantic puffins, the Horniman’s natural history collection is wonderfully and outlandishly varied. One particular specimen stands out among all others, however - the oddly shaped, overstuffed Horniman Walrus (that’s his name, we double checked that it’s not Walter as previously suspected). The reason he’s so big is because the Victorian taxidermists who were in charge of stuffing the walrus had never seen one before. When they received a strange, grey creature with heavy folds, they assumed the animals’ natural wrinkles needed to be smoothed out. Hence why the museum’s walrus is huge, bulging, and oddly smooth. For over a century, the Horniman Walrus has had pride of place in the natural history gallery, perched on a fake iceberg since the 1980s, and busying himself these days by heading up his own twitter account, and being the face of the museum. He’s so fabulous.

Image Credit: Régine Debatty

A slightly more hidden gem in the Natural History gallery is the infamous dodo bird on display. According to Jo Hatton, Keeper of Natural History at the museum, “People often think that the dodo in the entrance of our Natural History gallery is real and is a real taxidermy specimen of a long-extinct bird but actually it’s just a model.” Sadly the last dodo to be seen alive was in the 1680s, so models of the bird are as close as you’ll get to seeing this extinct animal in the flesh. The Horniman’s dodo was made by the famous taxidermy company Rowland Ward and brought to the museum in 1938. The feet and head are made using plaster casts, and the body is covered in chicken and goose feathers, with whole chicken wings added on to it as well. At first glance, there’s a good chance you could be tricked into thinking it’s the real deal.

What makes the Horniman so unique is the fact that, while the collection is so expansive, the museum itself isn’t that big. It’s much more doable in a day than say the Natural History Museum. Not only this, but the fact that they have their own aquarium with fifteen different displays showcasing aquatic environments from around the globe ranging from the British coastline to the Fijian coral reefs makes it highly unusual for a collections museum.

Another thing that makes the Horniman stand out compared to other museums is the fact that their museum exhibits and their garden displays create a dialogue between one another and create links between the interior world and the exterior space of the museum. Wesley Shaw, the Head of Horticulture at the Horniman Gardens, tells us how this has been achieved: “In 2012, the gardens underwent a re-development and we built a dye garden, a medicinal garden, and a materials garden, and a food garden and they link in via interpretation to the collections in the museum.” For instance, many of the plants found in the garden are used to make musical instruments like the ones displayed in the Music Gallery. Similarly, the vegetables they grow in their garden are used to make the food served in the museum’s café.

The gardens are absolutely breathtaking and have as much to offer visitors as the eclectic collections inside. Because of its high location up on Forrest Hill, the Horniman Gardens offer its museum-goers an incredible panoramic view of London. There’s also an animal walk where you can get up close and personal to Poppy and Peep, the two alpacas, as well as goats, sheep, guinea pigs, rabbits, chickens and more. After you’ve visited these furry friends, stroll along the Nature trail, or get hands-on in the Sound Garden. Alternatively, sit in the sunken garden and enjoy the serenity of the magnificent surroundings.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens’ main mission is to use their worldwide collections and the Gardens to encourage a wider appreciation of the world, its peoples and their cultures, and endeavor to educate people by bringing them together through discovery and learning. The Horniman Museums and Gardens always have interesting events and workshops going on throughout the year, so make it your mission to see it for yourself and learn something new about our weird and wonderful world.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is located at 100 London Rd, London SE23 3PQ. For a full list of the Horniman Museum and Gardens’ events and workshop, visit them online. You can also follow the Horniman Walrus on twitter for fun news and updates.