view of a natural history gallery in a museum

Secret Southeast London: Horniman Museum and Gardens

There are plenty of museums in London—so many that I think it’s impossible to have been to them all. With so many to choose from, it’s natural to have a few favourites; the ones that you keep coming back to, whether for their content, location, or atmosphere.

One of those is Horniman Museum and Gardens, in Forest Hill. This is an area full of young families, and the museum primarily caters to them, offering family-focused exhibitions and a large cafe which at weekends fills to bursting with, it seems, almost everyone in the area. Families from the area come to the Horniman in their droves for an easy day-out: family-friendly lunch, a quick run around the galleries, home.

But cast aside its family-orientation and there’s plenty for any visitor to enjoy. The museum is historically interesting, for one thing: the museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman, who throughout his years of travelling the world, collected a variety of objects from cultures far and wide. The Horniman website quotes Frederick as saying he had a mission to “bring the world to Forest Hill”—a gallant task, and one that, humorously enough, betrays the fact that southeast London, in 1890, perhaps wasn’t as worldly as the rest of London.

The museum building itself reflects its history, growing and changing as much as the collection has since its opening. The oldest part of the current building, from 1901, is recognisable for the clock tower. If it wasn’t for the endless hills in the area, and the built-up environment the museum is now surrounded by, the clock would tower over the horizon, but it’s really only visible once you get close to the museum. A plaque at the entrance to the museum details the subsequent additions to the gallery: 1911, 1996, 2002. For a building with such a long history, it’s a shame it isn’t more recognised in the list of London museums today.

clocktower at museum and blue sky
Horniman Museum is full of interesting architecture

Inside, the Horniman’s collections primarily cover anthropology, featuring a ‘World Gallery’ with more than 3,000 cultural objects, as well as an intensely large musical instrument collection—a niche gallery to say the least. It’s this varied and, at times, random collection that makes the Horniman unique. And while other museums in London, such as the V&A, have similarly substantial collections, the fact that the Horniman is located in a smallish suburb of southeast London sets it apart.

The highlight of the museum for me, though, is the aquarium—not terribly well advertised, and really just an ‘if you know, you know’ section of the museum. Along with the Butterfly House in the museum gardens, it’s the only part of the museum that isn’t free entry, but at only £4.50 for adults, it’s certainly worth it—take the elevator down to the basement level and emerge in an aquatic world far removed from the busy galleries upstairs. The purpose-built jellyfish tank is especially worth a look, but really all the exhibits have something interesting. I can’t say I’ve ever been to the Sea Life London Aquarium on the Southbank, but I’d choose this one over the touristy hellscape of central London any day.

The jellyfish in the Horniman Museum aquarium are well worth a visit
fish swimming in coral tank
There’s plenty other attractions to see in the Horniman Museum aquarium

Upstairs, among the more crowded main galleries, there are still some gems to be found, though. You can’t go to the Horniman without checking out the famous walrus, which stands pride-of-place in the centre of the Natural History gallery. Supposed to have come from eastern Canada in the 19th century, its most peculiar characteristic is the fact that an under-travelled taxidermist has overzealously stuffed the thing, making it appear slightly more fairytale-like than a real animal. It’s become such a symbol of the area that this fat walrus is practically a mascot of Forest Hill, gracing the area in the form of graffiti and pub names (see The Fat Walrus down the road in New Cross).

walrus in horniman museum gallery
The infamous Horniman Museum walrus
view of a natural history gallery in a museum
A view of the natural history gallery in the Horniman Museum

After wandering the gallery, it’s good to get out into the gardens. Though not extensive, they do contain some interesting spots, including the 20th-century bandstand, which offers stunning views over central London (as well as a peculiar-looking block of flats in neighbouring Dulwich). Additionally, the Grade II listed conservatory next to the museum cafe is also worth a look—the entire structure was transferred from its original home at the Horniman family home in Croydon to the museum in 1986. On a sunny day, it looks especially pretty, the ironwork stark white against the blue of the sky.

view of skyscrapers of central London from horniman museum
There are great views of London from Horniman Museum’s gardens
white conservatory
The conservatory in the Horniman Museum gardens is worth a visit
white iron conservatory at the Horniman Museum against blue sky
A beautiful Grade II listed construction

While the gardens aren’t overly large (when compared to other public parks in London, at least), they do lie on the Green Chain Walk, a public path that links open spaces in south-east London. From the Horniman, it’s possible to reach other little gems in the area, including Crystal Palace Park and Nunhead cemetery. (Once the weather has returned to a normal April condition, I’m hoping to have a post up about the Green Chain Walk too—it’s proof that southeast London is still a little bit wild and green.)

Forest Hill also benefits from being on the Overground line, meaning the Horniman is very easily accessed from central London. If you’re looking to escape the hum-drum of the city (and, let’s face it, who doesn’t), a trip to this gem of a museum could be just the ticket.

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