THE HORNIMAN MUSEUM

Si Spencer, November 2017

Non-stuffy Stuff in Glass Cases

THE HORNIMAN MUSEUM is tucked away in Forest Hill, close to where the cultural tectonic plates between the urban and the urbane of Camberwell clash more dramatically than in almost any other part of London. The main building itself is beautiful, an arts and crafts style dream-castle that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of ‘The Prisoner’ or ‘Lemony Snicket’ but the collection itself is the real attraction, like a mind-palace in the most bewildering episode of ‘Sherlock’ you could imagine.
Frederick Horniman was the heir to a vast tea fortune and spent much of his life and a good deal of his fortune travelling the world collecting artefacts seemingly almost at random. Some days he clearly had a good eye for a bargain, on others the fraudsters of the world clearly saw him coming. Hence the ‘genuine authentic Mermaid skeleton’ in the collection.


Like many long-suffering wives of obsessive collectors before and since, Mrs Horniman evidently got tired of not being able to reach the marmalade without negotiating a stuffed walrus, a primitive bass trombone and a torture chair from the Spanish Inquisition (which is obviously one of the favourite exhibits with the kids). A man can only hear ‘either this junk goes or I do’ so many times (about 978 according to scientists) before he gets the hint, and so Frederick bequeathed his oddball collection to the nation.

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Tribal masks, membranophones, aerophones (look ‘em up!), animal skeletons, dolls, armour, medieval truncheons and toys all jostle for a space in a collection that boasts over 350,000 individual items (though not all of them are on permanent display of course). The beauty of the Horniman is that rather than being a logical focused collection to illustrate a particular aspect of history or culture, it’s simply the accumulated random junk of a joyous obsessive collector; like a big beautiful and fascinating garden shed.
If the collection gets a little too dizzying, the basement aquarium is a tranquil and relaxing space with a fittingly eclectic range of water beasties from the local to the far Pacific.

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Outside, the grounds are beautifully landscaped boasting a tea garden and a butterfly house, although it has to be said, its animal walk of sheep, alpaca, goats, rabbits and chickens is remarkably staid and safe in comparison to the general ethos of the establishment. I guess they were all out of jabberwockies, bunyips and yetis.

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