It’s fair to say the Horniman Museum is not at the top of most visitors’ must-see sights in London. That privilege is usually reserved for London landmarks such as Tate Modern and Tate Britain or the Gothic splendour of the Natural History Museum.
But treasures like the Horniman Museum can offer an insight into British society, history and architecture in a small but perfectly formed package. From its famous giant stuffed walrus to Arts & Crafts architecture, here are five reasons to visit the Horniman Museum in London.
Introducing The Horniman Museum
We have a Victorian tea trader and philanthropist to thank for the Horniman Museum. From around 1860, Frederick John Horniman was an avid collector of items ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world.’
By the end of the 19th Century, his collection had grown to such an extent that it 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 Charles Harrison Townsend. The Horniman Museum has remained there ever since.
Five Reasons to 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 decorative and fine arts movement flourished in Europe and North America between 1880 and 1920. It took a robust anti-industrial stance and was a social and artistic movement, 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.
A mosaic designed by the artist Robert Anning Bell dominates the museum’s facade. Made from 17,000 glass pieces, it tells the story of humanity and the things that limit and improve its progress.
2. To see the famous Horniman Museum walrus (& other stuffed creatures) in the natural history gallery
Taxidermy and natural history were two passions of the Victorians. Birds, cats, squirrels; any animal you care to name. If it stood still for long enough, they stuffed it.
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 the Horniman Museum walrus. The size of a small car, it looks down on you 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 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, displayed 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 downstairs space of the Horniman Museum houses an 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.
4. For panoramic views of the London skyline
From Hampstead’s Parliament Hill to the Sky Garden, London is not short of places to take in the views.
For one of the best viewpoints over London, head to the bandstand at the Horniman Museum. 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.
Take time out 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.
6. To visit the World Gallery
Through more than 3,000 objects from the museum’s anthropology collection, the World Gallery celebrates ways of life from across the globe. These artefacts, arranged over four interlinked spaces, allow a greater understanding of other peoples, places and cultures.
I like that more than 200 people from community networks worked with Horniman staff and curators to develop this gallery, and included representatives of some of those who made or used the objects in the collection.
7. To get close to hundreds of butterflies
The Horniman’s Butterfly House is a tropical indoor garden that has been specially cultivated to encourage butterflies. As well as experiencing these brightly-coloured insects fluttering around your face, there is lots of information on the life-cycle and behaviour of butterflies.
Visiting The Horniman Museum
The Horniman Museum is around a 10-minute walk from Forest Hill station, which is served by London Overground (orange line) and mainline trains. Its address is 100 London Road, SE23 3PQ
Admission to the Horniman Museum and Gardens is free. However, there is a charge to visit the Aquarium, Butterfly House and special exhibitions. Check the opening times here.
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Bridget Coleman is a Londoner who has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on social media.