At last! Another post in my Making the most of London series. A mere year since the last one, ha ha…
Overstuffed walruses, giant totem poles, kitchen gardens growing lentils; what’s not to love about the Horniman museum?
It’s one of those collections of eclectic eccentricity that the British seem to do so well.
Luckily for us, it’s a mere 15-minute walk from where we live (albeit up an extremely steep hill) so we visit almost every week. But weekly visits are almost a necessity to even start to explore just a little bit of the amazingly diverse activities and sights here: almost all of them ideal for children.
The museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea trader, philanthropist and collector in 1890 to showcase the bits and pieces he’d picked up on his travels around the world. [Side note, if only current job descriptions were as exciting as "tea trader, philanthropist and collector" -- I'd be updating the CV as we speak...]
Added to slowly in the centuries that have followed, the museum is a brilliant juxtaposition of the old anthropological exhibitions that you expect from a natural history museum and crazy architectural features like a totem pole, with modern additions such as the beautiful green-roofed library and aquarium in the basement.
Being something of a fishy family (in the nicest possible way), the aquarium tends to be our first spot to visit, where the sproglet races round pointing out all the fish excitedly to anyone listening and the baby and I tend to spend a little more time staring into the tranquility of the jellyfish tank. So peaceful and beautiful, I’d really love one in my own house.
I try not to bore on too much about the differences between a pipe fish and a seahorse to the sproglet, so once we’ve completed the loop a few times, we head upstairs to the natural history museums.
Here, two floors of glass cases are filled with stuffed animals, where the most famous exhibit is the fat walrus – bought by Horniman for the opening of his museum and originally from Canada. He’s a little chubbier than he should be as the taxidermist who stuffed him who had never before seen a photo of an actual walrus so had no idea they had folds in their skin.
If fish and stuffed animals aren’t your thing though, there’s plenty more to see.
The music room showcases practically every musical instrument you could ever imagine. Though safely behind glass, two tables in the room allow you to select photos of the instruments and listen to what they sound like. An adjacent room has a hands on area where you can play a selection of random instruments (most often populated by dads with their children, I’ve noticed, “just showing them” how to play the instrument correctly)… Outside, by the bandstand, every day objects have been turned into giant instruments – plastic pipes become a huge organ, and metal ones a giant xylophone. The sprog absolutely adores this area.
The bandstand itself is the setting for weekly story readings as well as a series of concerts over the summer.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the animal walk – a (really pretty tiny) walkway where you can admire chickens, goats, sheep, rabbits and… …two alpacas. Alpacas being pretty much one of my favourite animals in the world right now, I often lose myself, leaning on a gate, dreaming of owning an alpaca farm in the country and making my fortune selling beautiful alpaca yarn. Right until the sprog starts tugging at my sleeve and demanding, “Wot Mummy doin’?”
There’s also a kitchen garden, ten acres of grounds to explore, and the most stunning glass conservatory, in which occasional exhibitions are shown and which is available to rent for events like weddings (we did consider it for ours…)
The summer events programme is particularly impressive, I think. With an Edwardian theme (to match the newly renovated Edwardian bandstand), they’ve really gone to town on creating events to cater to all whims. Open air cinema, Edwardian “lates” with tea dances and live music (sooooo up my street!) and activities for kids on every day of the week, such as storytelling, art and minibeasts tours of the grounds. I genuinely think this must be one of the most “interactive” museums in the whole of London.
So, if you like a bit of weirdness in your kulcher, definitely somewhere to add to the “to visit” list. It’s in Forest Hill, so fairly easy to get to on the Overground or train line. Just be warned that the hill to get there is pretty steep…
- Check out all the events, activities and exhibitions on the Horniman museum website. (NB, despite the gushing, I’m not in any way in cahoots with the Horniman on this post; just a genuine fan!)
- For more Sabrina-reviewed places to visit in London, check out my series Making the most of London