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The Horniman, where wonders never cease…

  • February 16, 2024
  • 5 min read
The Horniman, where wonders never cease…

Beside the entrance to the Horniman Museum in Horniman Gardens, Forest Hill, South London, there is a drinking fountain. Next to the drinking fountain is a small, silver bowl filled with clean water. The fountain is for the refreshment of passersby, heading either for a walk in the gardens or a visit to the museum. And as an afterthought by the museum managers, the thirsty passerby might have a thirsty pet…

Very Horniman, and the thoughtfulness as well as the after thoughtfulness of the museum makers here is what has made the Horniman such a favourite for young and old alike, especially the young. However, it is changing subtly, as part of its own evolution.

Five years ago, the museum gained its latest director, Nick Merriman, and two years ago it was named the Art Fund Museum of the Year, reflecting some of the changes he has made. In February, Merriman moved on to run English Heritage, leaving his mark in SE23.

Inspired by the 1851 Great Exhibition, the tea magnate Frederick Horniman developed a passion for collecting objects, specimens, and artefacts, “illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world”, which accounts for the 35,000 items (now 350,000) in the permanent holdings. In 1890, he began exhibiting them in the Surrey House Museum, which was also his family home, but soon there was no room for the living Hornimans, and in 1901, he opened a permanent brand-new museum. Even then, it was not conventional, designed as it was by the then avant-garde architect Charles Harrison Townsend in the art nouveau style to make one of the most beautiful museums in the world.

Horniman was also a social reformer who campaigned for the creation of a British welfare state, and his mission was to “bring the world to Forest Hill”, and educate and enrich the lives of the local community. He always intended the gardens to be part of the museum, and in 2012, they had a major redevelopment, including a pavilion for school groups, to bring the outside even more in tune with what you’ll find inside.

And it continues to attract, educate, and entertain, with growing numbers coming every year, 862,000 at the last count. The Horniman won the 2022 Art Fund Museum of the Year Award because, said the Fund’s director Jenny Waldman who chaired the judges, it had taken lessons from Covid and the death of George Floyd to rethink its place and role in society. “The Horniman team used these events as points of departure for thinking about what a museum is there for, and what it can do”, she said.

And it does it subtly, using the online teaching tools that came to the fore during the pandemic, and acknowledging the responsibilities of former colonialism by exploring the lives, religions, and cultures of all people around the globe in the spirit of discovery. One of the judges for the Museum of the Year was Dame Diane Lees, former director-general of the Imperial War Museums, who said the Horniman was “championing the natural environment, commissioning artists and music festivals, to bring the eclectic collections of Frederick Horniman new relevance with diverse communities.

“They are setting the agenda for how a traditional museum can reinvent itself through powerful ideas”.

The £100,000 Art Fund prize money was spent on a program of musicians in residence, bringing to life the instruments in the collection, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world; and a school holiday club.

Like all good museums, the Horniman is full of fascinating things you didn’t know you wanted to know about.

You’ll find that you need to know, for instance, that Lagos in Nigeria is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, but as its people plan for its future they reflect on the past – old kingdoms, religions, objects, and stories. You have to know about the evolution of the horse’s hoof, what local fungi it is and is not safe to eat, how the Navajo people of Arizona make their inimitable sand paintings, that the zampogna is a bagpipe played by Southern Italian shepherds who come down to the towns to play it at Christmas. The aquarium on the lower ground is a water wonderland.

But now the walrus is leaving the gallery – temporarily – to be restored, properly stuffed, and remounted, just as imposingly but more realistically on a new “iceberg”, an emblem of the historic Horniman but also of the new museum’s thinking. The general look approved by Frederick Horniman and loved by generations will remain – the gallery is listed – and as many of the old showcases as possible will remain, with the desk galleries on the first floor still festooning the balcony overlooking the floor display.

Reborn in the £10m Nature + Love project, the natural history gallery will use the existing collections, add new acquisitions along with references to the human impact on our planet, so that you can explore and marvel at the natural world and our need for it. Work began at the start of 2024 with parts of the gallery closing gradually, to be completed by the spring of 2026.

And so, with free admission and open seven days a week, the Horniman is alive with fascinated humanity drawn into its galleries. “Those who use their eyes obtain the most enjoyment and knowledge” Frederick Horniman said, presciently, in 1898. “Those who look but do not see, go away no wiser than they came.”

About Author

Simon Tait

Simon Tait, former arts correspondent of The Times, writer on arts and heritage for national newspapers since 1985, president of the Critics’ Circle 2012-14, author of a biography of the painter Philip Sutton RA, editor Arts Industry Magazine.

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