Horniman Museum & Gardens
The result of personal obsession, the Horniman Museum is wonderful experience both indoors and out.
The Horniman Museum is a relic of what could be achieved by individualistic philanthropy in the Victorian era. It is one of the few museums in London that did not start its life as a public institution, instead, it was the converted household of Frederick Horniman. During this time the Horniman Tea company was one of the largest in the world after Frederick’s father, John Horniman, had taken advantage of the scope of the industrial revolution by introducing mechanical devices to speed the process of filling pre-sealed packages, thus storming ahead of competitors. Prior to this advancement in the production of tea, only loose leaf teas had been sold, allowing more ethically vague traders to add hedge clippings, dust, and other bulking items to their tea leaves in order to increase their profits So large was the impact of Horniman Teas that even Freidrich Nietzsche mentioned in his letters that it was his brand of choice. The result of this was that the family could afford to travel the world and Frederick was allowed to indulge he insatiable appetite for the curious and the exotic. During the span of his life he managed to amass around 35,000 items that ‘illustrated natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’. His mission statement was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and this he certainly managed to achieve. He opened his collection to the public on Christmas Eve 1890, later building a larger museum over the same site due to the rapid expansion of the collection. The final purpose-oriented museum was opened in 1901 along with the 16 acre grounds.
Today the Museum is the proud home of over 350,000 items that span anthropology, natural history, musical instruments, botany, and even an aquarium. The museum was the first in the UK to feature an African gallery, including the obligatory collection of Egyptian mummies and coffin lids (Horniman was very much a product of his time and the Egyptomania craze was sweeping through Europe at the height of his collecting prowess). Much has changed since it opened its doors to the public and the current team have updated the museum accordingly, handling the ethical implications of the original collection with much sensitivity whilst retaining the initial exploratory excitement that created it in the first place.
A real strength of the Horniman is the balance of their display between the interior and the exterior, with their expansive gardens essentially acting as living botanical exhibit. The 16 acre gardens boast a nature trail, a turn of the century bandstand, a totem pole, an intricate Victorian conservatory, and most excitingly a sound garden with interactive custom musical instruments reminiscent of those created by Bjork’s team for her Biophilia project. Musical instruments were a personal love of Horniman and this can also be seen inside the museum where there are thousands of instruments from across the globe. Apart from these, there are some spectacular examples of taxidermy dioramas, ritual masks and even a haunting torture chair on display. The aquarium is much loved by children, and the museum is particularly family friendly often putting on workshops to teach the ankle-biters all about conservation. Added to this theme is the handling collection of 3,000 objects where children can forge a more direct personal connection with items from the collection, instilling within them a love of learning and discovery prized by Frederick Horniman. The overall experience is one of fun and immersion. For those visiting on the weekends, there is even a farmer’s market with first-rate cheese toasties every Saturday.
The Horniman Museum is located at 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ
Open daily from 10.30am-5.30pm