I’ve never understood why so many Londoners have never been to, let alone heard of, one of my favourite places: the Horniman Museum. I know it’s located in the leafy suburb of Forest Hill, but you could hit two birds with one stone and visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I promise, it’s worth the trek. And speaking of treks, the founder of this gem of a museum was a heavyweight collector of art, cultural artefacts and curios from across the globe. The museum is his legacy, an eclectic wonderland of the weird and wonderful, an anthropology museum which recently opened its doors to a new World Gallery, stuffed with 3000 objects from Frederick Horniman’s treasure trove.
Frederick Horniman (1835-1906) was the world’s most successful tea trader and a philanthropist. Thanks to bulging coffers, he travelled the world and brought some 350,000 souvenirs home, ranging from musical instruments, anthropological finds and other cultural curios. Horniman wanted to “bring the world to Forest Hill.” He travelled to far flung destinations such as Burma, Egypt, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and North America.
As the collection grew, his wife was known to have said to him, “either the collection goes, or we do.” The Surrey House Museum was born and opened to the general public on the 24 December 1890. Eight years later, Horniman enlisted architect Charles Harrison Townsend to build a new and larger building which opened in 1901. Horniman donated the museum and the grounds to “the people of London for ever, as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment”
Today, the Horniman Museum has a Natural History Gallery with skeletons, specimens in fluid, fossils and some serious taxidermy which includes the famous Horniman Walrus and the Bengal Tiger. There’s an Aquarium, a Music Gallery with over 1300 instruments from around the world, a Butterfly House and 16 acres of garden with a pagoda, a medicinal garden, an interactive sound garden and a sundial trail. The newly-opened World Gallery includes objects from a titanic hoard of curios.
Highlights of the World Gallery
The Oceania section covers cultures from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and other islands in the Pacific Ocean. The area spans some 4 million square miles and is home to an astonishing 1000 languages. The dress in the foreground is a backcloth, worn by Fijians for their 1st and 21st birthdays.
Pacific Islanders know how to work with, not against, Mother Nature, thereby allowing them to settle on the remotest of islands. A ray-skin body belt, which forms part of a Kiribati warrior’s armour, adds extra power thanks to the poisonous characteristics of the animal.
Over in Africa, it’s fun for the kids to explore the everyday objects that are sold in the Lagos market, one of the biggest street markets in Nigeria. Just be prepared for some serious haggling!
The Tuareg who come from Algeria, Mali, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso, have a shared cultural identity. Bags, swords, tents, jewellery, camels, clothes and sandals are ornately decorated with distinctive colours and patterns. The camel saddle is made from two carved pieces of wood, held in place with the soft skin of the cow’s underbelly. There are more than 50 different terms for camel, indicating age, colour, temperament, gait etc. An arewaha camel roars when it is loaded with heavy bags, whilst an arennanas camel neighs when joy when it is fed.
These Thai masks are used in the Ramakien sacred masked dance, composed in the 18th century by the Thai king and performed at the royal court.
Storytelling is a part of the fabric of the American Northwest Coast. These carvings represent the powerful spirits Bear, Dzunakwa and Raven. Touch them and listen to how Raven stole the sun and returned it to the sky, or how the ashes of Dzunakwa, the Wild Woman of the Woods, morphed into mosquitoes and how she plagues us with her bites to this day.
The Cloutie tree is adorned with pieces of fabric, each of these representing a wish or a note of gratitude. The trees follow the tradition of sacred wells and springs where scraps of fabric are tied as wishes.
The Presepe, or Nativity scene, represents the birth of Jesus. This one was made in Naples by Katugasthotage Dimutu Lasantha and Giovanni Giudice in 2017. It features such strange guests as Michael Jackson, Queen Elizabeth II and Silvio Berlusconi.
Clearly, one of the visitors has a sense of humour.
A dolphin skull, a cat mummy and a fake merman are some of the strange curiosities with which Horniman returned to his Victorian London.
Don’t miss a wander around the stunning 16 acres of the Horniman Museum. There’s a Grasslands Garde, a Wildlife Garden, botanical display gardens, a handsome conservatory and a bandstand with killer views of London.
The Grade II listed Conservatory was originally erected in 1894 in the Horniman family home in Coombe Cliff, Croydon. It’s based on the Crystal Palace, built for the Grand Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Today, the Conservatory is used for special events and is used as the setting for the museum’s arts and crafts markets.
The Horniman Nature trail is the oldest in London and runs half a mile on the site of the original Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway. And if that isn’t enough, there’s a Sundial Trail with 12 of these to locate.
The Horniman Museum is free, although some special exhibitions are ticketed. The museum is open daily from 10.00 to 17.30.
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