10 small (and fascinating) museums in London…10. The Horniman Museum

For the last in our series on small (and fascinating) museums, Exploring London visited the Horniman Museum, an eccentric collection of artifacts based in south-east London.

The museum started life as the personal collection of wealthy 19th century tea merchant, philanthropist and MP Frederick John Horniman. Horniman, who started collecting in the 1860s, opened his house in Forest Hill to the public so people could come and view his collection. But as the number of objects in the collection increased, he decided to construct a purpose-built museum and in 1898 commissioned architect Charles Harrison Townsend to design it.

The new art deco museum building – which includes a landmark clocktower – opened in 1901 and, along with 16 acres of gardens, was given to the people of London. While further buildings were added over the ensuing century (including in 1911 when Horniman’s son Emslie donated a new building), some of these later additions were demolished in the late Nineties and a new extension built which was opened in 2002.

These days Horniman’s original collections only make-up around 10 per cent of the 300,000 objects in the museum. The artifacts are grouped in a series of thematic galleries. Among them is a Natural History Gallery containing stuffed specimens and models of animals ranging from the Dodo (extinct since 1680) to the yellow-bellied pangolin (which rolls into a prickly ball when threatened).

Other galleries include the stunning African Worlds Gallery, housing everything from a display of Ethiopian crowns, a series of plaques from Benin depicting scenes from the country’s history, 25 kilogram Bwa plank masks, and macabre Midnight Robber head-dresses from Trinidad as well as the Music Gallery which contains an amazing array of instruments old and new, including a monster 6’6” tall tuba and a Tibetan trumpet made from a femur.

There is also the Centenary Gallery which contains a display of Horniman’s original artifacts and new finds – everything from American Indian head-dresses to a Burmese Buddhist shrine and a fake torture chair which was once claimed to have dated from the Spanish Inquisition but is actually believed to have been assembled in the 19th century.

The site also includes an aquarium (an entry fee applies) and spaces for special exhibitions – these currently include The Art of Harmony, which brings together musical instruments from the Horniman and some on loan from the V&A, and Bali: Dancing for the Gods, which explores Balinese dance culture and dance (this is free with the aquarium ticket or an entry fee applies).

There’s also a shop, cafe and gardens to explore (although the latter are currently undergoing redevelopment, meaning of the gardens are currently not accessible).

This quirky museum – aptly once known as a “cabinet of curiosities” – will reward any visitor. As Horniman himself said in a quote which appears in the museum: “Those who use their eyes obtain the most enjoyment and knowledge. Those who look but do not see go away no wiser than they came.”

This is the last in our series on 10 small (and fascinating) museums. Given the number of museums we haven’t yet mentioned, we’ll be running another such series in the future. Next week we start a new Wednesday series on Royal Parks.

WHERE: Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, Forest Hill (nearest station is that of Forest Hill – both Overground and South-Eastern); WHEN: 10.30am to 5.30pm; COST: Free (with the exception of the aquarium and some special exhibitions – the aquarium is £2.50 an adult/£1.20 a child aged 3 to 16/ £5.50 a family; WEBSITE: www.horniman.ac.uk

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