London Museum Challenge #1: The Horniman Museum

January 13, 2013 § 4 Comments

A week ago, I started making good on my New Year’s resolution, and on the principle that any great exploration should begin in one’s own backyard, I started with the museum closest to home: the Horniman Museum. Also, for better or for worse, the most poignant – I once had a friend who lived nearby. She no longer lives there and, for reasons best not gone into here, we aren’t on speaking terms anymore. But I’d visited her countless times in years past and on warm summer days we often went for a walk in the Museum’s gardens… though for some reason (probably a desire to take full advantage of the weather) we never went through the door.

So when I entered the gates on the first wet, miserable Sunday of the year, I only knew the museum’s exterior – a fusion of the original building, a wonderful Arts and Crafts creation by Charles Harrison Townsend (who also designed the Whitechapel Art Gallery), and a smart modern extension built just over a century later. It should, by all rights, look awkward and weird, but the juxtaposition is surprisingly harmonious. The meeting of old and new turns out to be a good metaphor for the museum itself, which has one of the more eclectic collections I’ve come across: anthropology, natural history, ethnography and, just to make things even more interesting, musical instruments and an aquarium (not in the same space, although Saint-Saëns might have approved).

The Horniman Museum: the infamous giant walrus

The Horniman Museum: the infamous giant walrus

The Horniman was founded by a wealthy tea merchant who, with typical Victorian civic-mindedness, wanted to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ for all the locals who didn’t have the opportunity to travel; it was free then and it still is (apart from the aquarium, for which I happily shelled out £2.50 – what can I say, I’m a sucker for aquariums). What struck me again and again over the course of the afternoon was how well the Horniman negotiates a balance between its Victorian heritage and 21st-century museum practice. They’ve kept one of the two natural history galleries as it must have been almost since the museum opened, with the ancient wood-framed vitrines, the fusty taxidermy, and – I can’t really write about the Horniman without mentioning it – the glorious overstuffed walrus presiding over it all from atop a fake iceberg. (The story goes that the taxidermist had never seen a live walrus and didn’t know that the skin is supposed to hang in heavy folds.) Across a corridor is another gallery, a near mirror-image of the first, but a contemporary take on the same subject; on my visit, it was hung with the work of the winners of this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards.

Centenary Gallery

Centenary Gallery

The mirroring continues as you descend: one gallery recreates some of the original displays of ethnographic material, a dark, dramatically-lit jumble, while another contains an equally packed display of musical instruments – one half of the gallery laid out in a very old-fashioned way (instruments grouped by type) and the other half along the much less conventional concept of rites of passage in different cultures. It could easily have come off as stilted, but the displays came together seamlessly.

Oh, and the aquarium? Well worth the visit. It might be small (granted, having grown up with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, my view may be a bit skewed!) but it’s beautifully and thoughtfully designed. And it has an almost trance-inducing tank of ghostly jellyfish, which I could have stayed in front of for considerably longer if not for little details like closing time.

By the time I re-emerged into the wet and grey (and by this time, dark), I was glad I’d decided to start close to home. The Horniman is a gem. I may not get back to it this year (given how many other museums I have to visit), but once I have a chance, I’ll definitely return.

Tally: 1 down, 22 to go

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