Museum on a hilltop that is outstanding in so many ways

KEN TOWL’s been on his travels again, this time to the country’s best museum. And it’s just a bus ride away

Inevitable: the dodo

I have just been to the best museum in the UK. And that’s official.

It’s not in Croydon (London Borough of Culture 2023) but it is not far away, in Lewisham (London Borough of Culture 2022). You can get there easily enough from East Croydon, on the stopping train to London Bridge, or from West Croydon on the Overground. Get out at Forest Hill and you will be, as a sign will confirm, 870 yards from the Horniman Museum. Or you could get the 197 and that will take you up the hill and to the door of the museum itself.

The Horniman or, to give it its full title, The Horniman Free Museum, has this month been named the Art Fund Museum of the Year. Apart from the fact that the museum gets £100,000 from the fund, this is a very prestigious award. Previous winners include Tate St Ives and the V&A. The Horniman probably needs the money, since it does not charge visitors.

On the front of the building are inscribed the words “A gift from Frederick John Horniman MP… dedicated to the public forever as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment, 1901”.

Weaponised: one of the museum’s hair-raising displays

I visited to see what the fuss is about. It appears to be a worthy winner and I came away from it recreated, instructed and full of joy.

Frederick Horniman, as it happened, funded his philanthropy from making his fortune in the tea trade – thanks to mechanical packaging, by 1891 the family business, founded by his father, was said to be the biggest tea merchant in the world. Fred grew up and lived in Park Hill, Croydon, but served as an MP for a seat in Cornwall and lavished some of his wealth on the old LCC (of which he was a member) and the museum.

According to their website, the award-winning Horniman Museum and Gardens have been recognised for its transformational programme in 2021, “re-orientating its activity to reach diverse audiences more representative of London and engaging people in addressing the climate emergency”.

Red in tooth and claw and bone: the skull of an orang utang

This included a sold-out live music festival that attracted 8,000 visitors, while nearly 20,000 visited the Dance Can’t Nice exhibition. The Horniman has also been “fulfilling the pledges of its Climate and Ecology Manifesto, including… planting a micro-forest to help combat air pollution along the South Circular”, as well as providing curriculum-linked school workshops.

The first gallery I came across inside was dedicated to musical instruments, hundreds of them from all ages and all parts of the world.

The museum is full of opportunities to interact with the exhibits. Here, there were music tables where I could select recordings of instruments (I chose sackbutts and serpents) and listen to them while learning about their history.

Next, I visited the natural history section, red in tooth and claw and bone, where I was fascinated by the skeletons of an armadillo and various primates, a stuffed great bustard and the inevitable dodo.

Again, there were opportunities for interaction. For example: “What’s your favourite beetle?”

I saw the famous Horniman Walrus which was, apparently, “highly praised by Queen Victoria”. It is massive. I did not know walruses could be that big. Indeed, when I saw the “walrus harpoon” on display in the anthropology hall, I was not convinced that even the most adept inuit would have had a chance of hunting it.

There was also an exhibition of photos of people with amazing hair. This, too, was something which contributed to the Horniman winning such acclaim. One model described her hair as her weapon, and it looked pretty deadly. Another said his tonsure was to keep him celibate. And it might.

Free museum: the Horniman has been engaging and delighting south Londoners for more than 120 years

Perhaps the most moving display was one of English good luck charms, a collection mostly of stones tied to a bit of string and which had been worn by people in this country, especially in rural areas, into the 20th century. The display information suggests that they were popular up to the First World War. Perhaps that event tested the lucky stones’ efficacy to breaking point.

You cannot visit the Horniman Museum without a walk around the gardens.

You can pay extra for the butterfly house or the “urban crazy golf”, or you can just relax. It was hot day and there were sunbathers stretched out on the grass while others relaxed on the (free) deckchairs.

Kids ran around and played and ate ice creams and couples in hats sauntered through the various formal gardens of the park. The museum is at the top of a hill and affords views north across London. There is a cafe with a sunny and shady terrace – beware! It filled up very quickly at precisely 12 o’clock.

Whether you are looking for recreation, instruction or enjoyment, or just a quiet place to read the newspaper, or a cheap day out with the kids this summer, the Horniman Museum is just a bus ride away.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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