Horniman Museum: A Fabulous Surprise in South London

The Horniman Museum is a delightful place, it's somewhere you might of heard of but have probably never visited, unless you live in South London. It's one of those gems that the locals know and love, that people occasionally recommend, but somehow you never quite make it there. I seemed to be specializing in places like this on my recent trip to London. I might not have made it either, if it hadn't been a straight shot on the Overland from Hoxton station which was only a ten minute walk from our flat. 

On arrival I was delighted with the building which was purpose built by the same architect who designed both the fanciful Bishopsgate Institute opposite Liverpool Street and the Whitechapel Gallery. Built by Charles Harrison Townsend in 1901, it has  both an Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau influences. Below you can see  the wonderful mosaic facade .
Part of the charm of the museum is its diversity, there's everything from an old fashioned Natural History Hall (including a stuffed walrus and a dodo) to an extensive musical instrument collection, an aquarium and  impressive  ethnographic materials from African, Asian and the South Pacific. There's a charming museum cafe, beautiful formal gardens, a petting zoo for children in the adjacent park and a bandstand with a spectacular view of London. It makes for a wonderful day out and overall was a charming surprise, by exceeding my expectations.
The whole place reminds me of a cabinet of curiosity and in a sense that is what it is. It's  the collection of a single person, Frederick John Horinman, see below.  A Victorian tea trader and local philanthropist, Horniman commissioned the building, planned the gardens and donated his entire collection, gathered from decades of travel and purchasing, to the betterment of the local community. 
It is said that he desired to bring the world to the people of Forest Hills and he did. One of the nicest things about the collection is that it does indeed bring other worlds to suburban London and there is an extensive collection of ethnographic materials, including shields, masks and ritual objects from  African the South Pacific, see above and below. 
What I loved about the presentation of the ethnographic materials is the ways in which the  exhibition halls have been updated. They now  question the original meanings attached to models of the "development of culture" and the superiority of European civilization. However they still display the ethnographic materials en masse - as they would have been in the early 20th Century. This evokes the sense of the voracious collector and a "cabinet of curiosity" feel I mentioned above, while simultaneously critiquing the original understanding of a cultural hierarchy. I particularly liked these carved Indian heads which  interestingly represent the phenological study of various caste groups.
There are also a number of impressive Benin bronzes in the African section
The hall of music has wonderful interactive displays designed  help you learn about, and hear, the various musical instruments. I was fascinated to listen to a bagpipe from Sicily. Unfortunately I couldn't appreciate it any more than the Scottish variety! 
The museum is well known for it's Natural History collection and I was amazed to see a dodo which was much larger than I had anticipated. How sad to think it is now extinct and that our only connection is through a stuffed artifact of a lost time. You can see the dodo on the left below. The walrus also seems to be a favorite with local children.
While some parts of the building retain a wonderfully old fashioned feel, including the dioramas and taxidermy in the Natural History hall, most of the museum has been extensively renovated.
Below is one of the more recently built wings designed in an ecologically sensitive manner complete with a living roof.
Part of the attraction of the Horniman is that there is so much more than the museum to see. Outside it a stunning glass house as well as lovely parklands and the petting zoo mentioned above. 
I was captivated by the Grade II listed conservatory which was moved from the Horniman's home in Coombe Cliff. It was restored in the late 1980's in conjunction with English Heritage. Apparently it can be rented for events, just looking at it makes me want to plan something! Isn't it glorious?
The gardens are very lovely and there are beautiful views of central London from a number of the large lawns. The park is well used by local families, but there are also formal gardens as you can see below.
Tip: The whole places is remarkably family friendly and it's a wonderful venue for children. They run a lot of special programs and there's just such a variety ,from the gardens and petting zoo to the aquarium and the indigenous collections. It's a great day out for visitors of any age and I was very impressed by both the collections and the manner in which they had been curated. They've done a splendid job of  respecting the original collector while placing the materials in a critical historical context. From an academic point of view it is superbly done. Horniman brought the world to the people of Forest Hills, but now the world should be hot fitting it to Forest Hills to see all that he preserved.