My favourite museum in the city is the Natural History Museum; always has been and probably always will be. My friend Claire again accompanied me this week for my London jaunt, and while we had originally planned to go to Kensington, we decided spontaneously that morning to go somewhere else instead. Thus, the Natural History Museum isn’t the focus of this week’s post. The Horniman Museum, however, is.
Situated not far from Forest Hill train station, the museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman in 1901. He was an avid collector, and after years of travelling had amassed around 30,000 items, mostly anthropological artefacts, examples of natural history, and slightly more unusually, musical instruments.
The natural history cases are particularly marvellous, although some of the taxidermy is perhaps slightly unnerving. (If you visit, look for the rockhopper penguin and you’ll know what I mean.) Standing proud in the centre of the room on an enormous iceberg is a behemoth of a walrus. It’s a real one, now stuffed, and it’s been on display for over a century. However, when it was mounted, few people had ever seen a walrus alive, so this particular model is, shall we say, “overstuffed”. Walruses are far wrinklier than this in real life, but his popularity is assured, being a mascot to the museum in the way that Dippy and the blue whale are to the Natural History Museum.
Around him are many cases containing examples of many mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. They are mostly arranged by species and family – for example, whole cases are given over solely to different species of ducks or parrots, but some work in other ways. One, for example, shows the many different ways that animals have learnt to defend themselves, lining up creatures with spikes, horns, toxic bites or noxious tastes together. One notable exhibit has the head of a wolf surrounded by the heads of various breeds of dog such as a bloodhound, bulldog and collie, showing how selective breeding has changed dogs into so many different appearances.
Personally, my favourite creatures in here are a bittern with a serious case of “resting bitch face”, two skunks, the okapi and the family of musquash (also known as muskrats). There’s plenty else to see in this room alone, though. Almost every species of primate seems to be present and there are comparative skeletons of all the great apes, including a human one, making the similarities look even more striking.
Downstairs is a small aquarium which splits off into tanks showing several different biomes, from a typical British pond to coastal seas and rainforest swamps. It’s small and you have to pay extra to go in, but it’s worth taking a look around. It’s home to dogfish, jellyfish, rays and rather a lot of frogs.
Another room is called the African Worlds Gallery. I confess that Claire and I didn’t spend too long in here because of an unnecessarily loud school party (we’re too old for that nonsense) so I can’t give you too much detail about it. From what I did see, it was a lot of photos, costumes and artefacts from all over Africa, displaying great examples of the people and culture of this often misunderstood continent. If I go back again, I shall check out this exhibition in more detail.
The final part of the museum’s interior is perhaps the oddest, dedicated as it is to thousands of musical instruments. Contained here are examples of everything you could ever imagine from pianos to mouth organs, violins to bagpipes, xylophones to flutes. Whether you pluck it, blow it, bang it, shake it or tap it, there’s one of it here. We got excited at the prospect of the primary school favourite, the recorder, turning up and weren’t disappointed. The museum has several, including an enormous bass recorder that would certainly make school assemblies a bit more interesting.
I’m not musically inclined, but seeing all these together is rather astounding. Humans have been making music for as long as we’ve been talking, probably longer, and the wide variety of instruments we’ve created for the purpose is nothing short of breath-taking.
Our visit to the Horniman Museum was rounded off by a stroll through the beautiful gardens. It was a gloriously clear day and from the bandstand just above the museum itself you can see right across London, taking in Battersea Power Station, the Shard and the other nearby skyscrapers and St Paul’s, which looks miniscule from this far away. There are also specialist gardens here, one for food and one for medicinal plants, all labelled to tell you what they do. Most spectacularly of all though is the Grade II listed conservatory that sits just behind the museum. It dates back to 1894 and used to be at the Horniman’s Croydon family home, but was moved to the museum in the 1980s. It is beautiful in the extreme, ornately crafted and makes your average conservatory look pathetic in comparasion.
The Horniman Museum is a reminder than London is packed full of museums that most people don’t bother to go to, or even know about. The three in Kensington get all the glory, but one of the purposes of this blog is to show people places off the beaten track and find treasures like this that they may not normally see. I daresay there will be many more museums to come, so watch this space.