In the heart of South London is the Horniman Museum, one of London’s most precious museum treasures. The Horniman Museum is the legacy of Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, who began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ in about 1860. His professed mission was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and educate and enrich the lives of the local community.
And for 153 years his collection has been doing exactly that.
His travels took him to many fabulous destinations such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States. He collected objects that ‘either appealed to his own fancy or that seemed to him likely to interest and inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands’. Soon word of Mr Horniman’s interest as a collector spread and travellers also approached him to offer specimens and curiosities.
By the late nineteenth century, his artistic collection had accumulated to such an extent that he moved out of his house, and it was opened full-time as a museum. It is reported that the move was precipitated by his wife, who is claimed to have said, ‘either the collection goes or we do’. The family moved to Surrey Mount, the grounds of which adjoined those of the former residence.
There are 350,000 objects in the collection and they all tell a marvellous story. There are musical instruments, Ancient Egyptian mummies, a vast taxidermy collection, artefacts from the indigenous cultures of North America, fish hooks, arrows, a monkey skeleton . . . the list goes on and on.
Of particular interest to me is the African collection with some of the most wonderful masks to be seen anywhere. There is the spectacular Igbo Ijele, one of a tradition that makes Africa’s largest mask, and the only one of its kind on display in Britain. This sits alongside other impressive Dogon and Bwa masks from Mali and Burkina Faso, which are about 5 meters high. Then there are the beautiful Gelede masks from the Yoruba region of Nigeria. Much of the African collection has been put in place since the 1950s and it is accompanied by wonderful video and documentary footage. There are also sessions where the visitor can learn the stories behind the many exhibited pieces, and numerous fabulous activites and tours to join in with. All the information can be found on the Horniman’s website.
The museum is very focused on all its visitors, what ever their age (or height) and the museum’s aquarium in particular has been designed with children in mind. Low-level viewing windows allow younger visitors to see directly into the wonderful aquatic world, offering a really enchanting learning opportunity. The Horniman also undertakes and supports work around the world to preserve the types of habitats shown in the aquarium.
And there is more – the garden! The Horniman gardens are home to a fine collection of trees, some of which existed before the museum, and formed the field boundary markers when Forest Hill was populated by farms. Other trees on the site were originally found in the gardens of the Victorian houses that were pulled down in the 20th century, and include a crazy monkey puzzle tree. It is a perfect place for a picnic after the stimulation of the museum.
What I absolutely love about the Horniman Museum is the nature of the exhibited pieces. This is not a collection of art created by artists. This is a collection of art made by people to enhance their lives, to manifest their belief, to make tasks possible, to hold water, gather crops, catch fish, cope with the elements. It is a life-enhancing collection of art that shows the visitor how ‘other’ people do things, and with that the collection communicates the normalcy of lives lived far away in very different environments. A visit to the Horniman museum is a truly an experience to treasure.