1883 Magazine

This week I continue my magical mystery tour of wonderful but bonkers London Museums with the Horniman Museum in South London.

Because I’m weird and emotional, I have weird, emotional attachments to quite a few museums and institutions, and the Horniman is no exception.


I blame my family. When I was little my grandmother used to take me to see the golden, Chinese Buddha at the V&A. We’d sit on the ground, rub our bellies, and talk to him. This, in retrospect, was a pretty badass thing for us to do, and I’m not sure I could brave it without her, but every time I walk through the Chinese Gallery I still give myself a little mental tummy rub.

The Horniman awakens some different “special” memories for me. When I was eleven, my best friend and her mother took me there for the first time. I was terrified. It was during a neurotic period in my adolescence when I was having fits on school trips to the Imperial War Museum (because- ‘trenches’), cried all the way up Vesuvius (because- ‘volcanoes’), and was still wary of firemen, (they were the only people that had ladders long enough to climb into my bedroom- because - ‘abduction by firemen’). I distinctly remember running out of the African Gallery and sitting in the toilets, desperate to avoid the museum’s dusty reminders of mortality.

Anyway, now that I’m old enough to laugh in the face of death (hahaha) I can finally enjoy the Horniman Museum, and appreciate all its glorious oddities and macabre artefacts.

The museum is a collection of collections. It’s founder (Horniman) wanted it to be everything- the world condensed into a building. From antiquity onwards men have tried to box the globe into manageable cabinets of treasures, and the Victorians (including H) were the masters of this art. Their homogenisation of ‘other’ cultures and peoples is highly problematic, but when you walk into a building like the Horniman you can sense the persistent, and very human, curiosity that inspired these men’s colonising attitudes.

On the Wikipedia page it says that the museum ‘specialises in anthropology, natural history and musical instruments’, but I think that ‘specialises’ might be the wrong term. Although its collection is far more organised than the explosion of culture in The Sir John Soane, it is madly diverse in both genre and origin. We worry about our modern attention spans (well done if you’ve read to here btw!), but museums like the Horniman suit this attitude perfectly. Had enough taxidermy? How about some musical instruments! Done with lutes and euphoniums? Have a shield! Have a mask! Have a photograph of a baby wearing a reindeer coat!    

But, beware! Despite its name, the Horniman might not be one to take a date to. Or, at least, not a first date. With a collection including taxidermy rats, tapeworms, shrunken human heads, miniature dogs and divination figures, it’s not exactly a visual aphrodisiac. There is something distinctly un-sexy about possum embryos suspended in a chemical preservation fluid.  But, not all good things come in sexy packages, and the Horniman is still one of my favourite museums in London. It asks all the big questions (who are we? what are we? what is that? who is what?), and it’s free, which is the best. It’s also got massive gardens, with a farmers market on a Saturday. And if you want to moan about talk the gentrification of the South of London I recommend the overground from Dalston to Forest Hill, midday in the week. Those are your people.

Next week I’ll be living in the future of the past at the Estorick Collection in Islington, catching fire and having coffee. Catch you on the flip side!

For more info on the Horniman Museum go to www.horniman.ac.uk

Words by Eliza Easton

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