London: The Horniman Museum

DSC01643I’ve never blogged about the Horniman before, which is a bit of an oversight on my part.  Not only does it have a hilarious name, it’s also a pretty cool museum.  I mean, just look at that walrus, who is the Horniman’s unofficial mascot.  He’s seen better days, obviously, but that’s a large part of his charm.  So, the Horniman is also in Dulwich, but it’s a fair walk away from the Dulwich Picture Gallery from the last post.  We cut through Dulwich Park, and it took over half an hour to get there (probably a bit longer because I stopped and tried out all the “exercise” equipment in the park (I don’t think the “waist twister” really does anything, but it sure is fun). Also they have these adorable cottages by the park gates that I totally want to live in and become the official witch of Dulwich or something, and grow herbs in the back and yell at people who walk on my lawn, but that’s another story).

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The Horniman is free, except for any temporary exhibits and the aquarium, but our National Art Pass got us into those for free as well (I think it was about 7 quid otherwise).  The current temporary exhibition about dinosaur families was quite obviously aimed at children, with two large play areas and a truly epic amount of prams parked outside the exhibit, but I enjoyed it nonetheless mainly because of the paintings they had in there.  I mean, we all know dinosaurs are pretty cool, but these made dinosaurs look awesome.  The dinosaur sitting on her nest looks like she’s doing dino-yoga or something. Also, the dinosaur babies were all kinds of adorable, though I don’t doubt the carnivorous ones would eat my face if they could.  Still, it definitely wasn’t worth paying that much extra for, so if you don’t have kids, I wouldn’t bother with it if you can’t get in for free.

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The aquarium is also not really worth paying for, unless maybe you have small children who have never seen fish before, as it’s rather crappy and unimpressive.  There’s really only a handful of tanks in there, and aside from maybe the seahorses and the jellyfish, nothing seemed particularly exotic.  I guess everyone loves sticklebacks after that whole business with Spineless Si on Springwatch last year, but most of the other native British fish are just not all that captivating.

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Anyway, let’s move on to the Horniman’s permanent (and free) collections.  The museum was started by Frederick John Horniman, one of those excellent eccentric Victorian collectors who amassed a hell of a lot of crap on his tea-trading exhibitions around the world.  It was originally inside his house, and I have to say that it looked super awesome, though undoubtedly the captions on the anthropological stuff were pretty racist (as was the style at the time.  Because the 1800s were only awesome if you were a rich white male).  I like rooms that are really packed full o’ shit (as anyone who’s been to my flat can attest to).  His collection eventually grew to the point that it made more sense to have a dedicated museum building, which was similarly eclectic in design and opened in 1901.

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In my opinion, the centenary gallery is the best part of the whole museum.  Not only does it give you the history of the Horniman collection, I think it is also the closest you’re going to get to the pleasantly cluttered feel of the original museum.  It’s a dark, fairly deserted gallery (mercifully, probably because it’s not really child friendly, unlike most of the rest of the museum) full of wonderful anthropological specimens from around the world.  I absolutely love its randomness, plus how cute is that cobra?  (Never mind that Kali is standing on top of that guy, about to rip out his heart or something.  Cue my best Mola Ram impression.)

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The music gallery, also downstairs, is similarly dark, and filled with a lot of instruments that don’t even really look like instruments, which is what makes it so cool. I love how many of the instruments are shaped like demons, though I’d probably be wary of playing any of them, in case I accidentally summoned something up.

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There’s also a splendid African art gallery, of which the most noteworthy object is probably the lion right by the entrance.  Love his “rawr” face!  But there’s also an Egyptian section in the back, a lot of cool tribal masks, and a selection of voodoo shrines, which I am not including a picture of in case there is a curse attached (just kidding, sort of.  If you believe in curses, a lot of the stuff in this museum will probably make you nervous, though Horniman himself lived to a decent age, and didn’t appear to have any particular evil befall him, so you’ll probably be ok), though I did think it was pretty funny that one of the shrines included the stuffed head of that annoying baby on that Dinosaurs show (does anyone else remember that show?  It kind of freaked me out when I was a kid, but I watched it anyway).

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There’s an upper level that overlooks the African gallery below, and this is currently full of photographs of an Indonesian performance troupe, and some Romanian clothing and handicrafts.  I quite like seeing the different traditional dress of various countries, and it was also interesting to learn that in Soviet Romania, traditional dress was standardised, so that a particular outfit was associated with a particular region, and that’s what they had to wear to events and public gatherings.  Dolls wearing each costume were also produced for the tourist trade, and they were on display too.

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The main thing the Horniman is known for though, outside of the anthropology collections, is the hall of natural history, which you’ll probably come to right when you walk in, if you don’t go through the museum backwards like we did.  I’ve already shown you the famous walrus, who is back in pride of place after being loaned out for several years, but there’s lots of other great taxidermy on display as well.

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The display of various dog heads was a bit much, even for me (I would have felt better about it if they’d included the whole dog, rather than just a head, as I’m quite partial to Balto), but the birds and sadly derpy monkeys made up for it.  And of course the kangaroo and some of George Stubbs’ magnificent paintings of the wildlife of Australia.  I love hearing about Cook’s voyages (especially when they mention that dishy Joseph Banks).  (I have a problem – I think that’s about the fourth time I’ve linked to that picture.)

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The Horniman also includes some special hands on rooms for children, which I did not go into, and some gardens, but it was too cold on the day we visited for me to be bothered going around them.  The Horniman is an excellently quirky museum, but it’s a bit too family orientated for it to become one of my favourites.  I like quiet, and that’s just not what the Horniman is all about.  Fortunately, the small children do largely seem to be contained to the special kids’ galleries, the natural history section, and the aquarium, so I was free to peruse the anthropological galleries with a minimum of interruption (but I do wish the anthropology stuff still had its own building, like back in the old days).  Nevertheless, I think the Horniman deserves a 3.5/5, because it’s free and there’s lots of neat stuff to be seen (and the name still makes me snicker), but it is kind of a bitch to get to, and can get very crowded and noisy, even (especially?) on weekdays.

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  1. Ha! I totally remember that Dinosaurs show – haven’t thought about it in years. It was pretty freaky. And I love that lion’s face. He looks more than a little stoned.

    1. I remember there was an episode based on that King Solomon story, where they were going to cut the Baby in half,and it scared me. Although I would have only been 6 at the time it aired, so perhaps it’s understandable. I used to watch a lot of stuff that probably wasn’t intended for children because I was a night owl even then, I was scared of the dark, and I had an old TV in my room, so I would be allowed to turn it on when I went to bed so I wouldn’t freak out. Of course, some of the stories on 20/20 back in the Hugh Downs and Barbara Walter days scared me more than the dark did. Too many cults and murderers and junk.

      1. Yikes, I don’t think I saw that episode. Other than the gape-mouthed Baby, I just remember the dinosaurs watched a television show called “watching paint dry” which struck me as pretty hilarious at the time. But I do remember how Hugh and Barbara could be scary – that’s a lot for a kid to take in. I didn’t get to have a TV in my room, but I managed to scar myself anyway. When I was about 7, I walked to the library because I heard they’d be playing a movie – it was “Night of the Living Dead.” Man, that movie was not for me. I lay awake in terror many a night after that.

      2. Honestly, it wouldn’t have taken something as extreme as zombies to scare me. I was terrified of Santa Claus AND PeeWee Herman. I’d run from the room if someone turned PeeWee’s Playhouse on. I still don’t get his appeal. Oh,and Rumpelstiltskin. I watched the sort-of-animated version on Reading Rainbow once, and I had nightmares for years afterwards about it.

      3. I wish I could say it was the zombies that upset me, but it was all the shooting. Being so young, I think it was the first time that I realized that life (even an undead one) could be snuffed out with a shot. (On a side note: What sort of librarian allows a kid to watch that stuff?!) But Santa AND Pee Wee? Poor thing, that doesn’t leave a lot of safe, happy places for a kid. I’m with you on Rumpelstiltskin – those Grimm brothers knew how to lay it on.

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