Horniman Museum


100 London Road, Forest Hill, SE23 3PQ


020-8699 1872



Opening times:

Daily 10:30–17:30

How to get there:

Station: Forest Hill (from London Bridge). Bus: 176, 185, 312, P4

Entry fee:


During the 1860s and 70s, while working for the famous firm of tea merchants founded by his father, Frederick J. Horniman travelled extensively. His passion also lay in collecting; much of his hoard was bought at auction in London, and here it remains, in deepest Forest Hill, illustrating the arts, crafts and religions of the world at large. The museum first opened in Horniman’s own home, Surrey House, in 1888. This soon proved inadequate, and was demolished to make way for the present Art Nouveau building, described by Pevsner as ‘one of the boldest public buildings of its date in Britain’. The architect was C. Harrison Townsend (1897), who also designed the Whitechapel Art Gallery. In 1901, five years before his death, Horniman gave the museum to the people of London in perpetuity.

The Exterior

The façade is dominated by a landmark clocktower of eclectic design, and also by Robert Anning Bell’s large mosaic panel (10ft by 32ft) symbolising the course of human life: Humanity in the ‘House of Circumstance’ is flanked by gates representing Birth and Death and tended by figures representing the Arts, Poetry, Music, Endurance, Love, Hope, Charity, Wisdom and Resignation. Beneath is a plaque bearing the brave and inspiring inscription: ‘This building and its contents ... are dedicated to the public for ever as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment’.

Since extensive redevelopment of the museum in 2002, the main entrance is now on the northwest side, reached from the gardens that were also part of Horniman’s generous gift. They give wide views over London, and also contain a bandstand (1912), and children’s zoo. Left of the main entrance, the glasshouse conservatory (1894) was moved here from Horniman’s house in Croydon.


The Museum

On the ground floor on the left, the Natural History Gallery has retained its Victorian design, a barrel-vaulted ceiling arching over a formidable array of stuffed animals and birds in glass cases. Dominating the centre of the room, the most popular exhibit—especially with children—is the stuffed walrus, one of the original creatures on display when the museum first opened. It came from Hudson Bay, Canada, and was mounted by taxidermists around 1870. Other cases contain a reconstructed badger set, the classification of primates, featuring the skeletons of orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, and a stuffed ostrich. Yet more chart the evolution of the horse, and of the elephant, and contain stuffed birds including game birds, gulls, geese, ducks and hawks, notably a Golden Eagle, Harpy Eagle, and White Tailed Sea Eagle. Next door is the River Journey in the aquarium, where visitors can walk upstairs from mouth (sea) to source (mountain).

On the same floor, to the right, the African Worlds Gallery presents a selection from the estimated 22,000 African objects that make up almost a third of the museum’s ethnographic collections. Particularly important early items come from Egypt, Benin and Ethiopia. From the 1950s the museum focused on acquiring examples of the material culture of specific peoples, especially the Sua of Zaire, the Hadza of Tanzania, the San of Botswana, the Tuareg of Algeria and Samburu of Kenya. More recently curators have concentrated on developing collections illustrating contemporary masquerade: good examples come from the Dogon of Mali and the Bundouku region of the Côte d’Ivoire. Displays are usually arranged by theme rather than by geography or chronology. Examples of current themes are altars from Benin and Brazil, and a brightly coloured Haitian voodoo altar or pe with dressed dolls’ heads, skulls and Madonnas; masks such as the bird’s head battledress, an Igbo Omabe mask from Nigeria, named after the ‘dead fathers’ of the Igbo and worn to protect the people and their crops; a Yoruba epa mask, now a symbol of the Nigerian nationalist movement Eliti Parapo; and the flamboyant headgear of the Midnight Robber’s costume in the Trinidad Carnival.

The Centenary Gallery displays some of the multifarious objects that have been brought to the museum since its foundation and considers why they might have been chosen. The ‘Gift of the Horniman Family’ explores the founder’s main enthusiasms: colourful, exotic and educational objects. One such is a grisly metal contraption called the Torture Chair, with a dubious provenance once ascribed to Cell 23 of the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, now believed to be a 19th-century fake incorporating a genuine garotte. Others include 19th-century mangle boards from Norway, a Merman from Japan, and part of Horniman’s original collection of over 16,000 butterflies, beetles and insects, as well as rare birds in bell jars. ‘Illustrating Evolution’ explores the work of the first London County Council curators such as Alfred Cort Haddon, a founder of modern anthropology, who wanted the museum to ‘illustrate the evolution of culture’, demonstrating the now discredited idea that non-western societies were not ‘advanced’ in evolutionary terms.

The Music Gallery displays are drawn from the museum’s collection of some 8,000 musical artefacts from all periods and cultures. The theme of the central showcase is ‘The Rhythm of Life’: it shows instruments associated with celebrations of rites of passage: weddings, funerals, graduation concerts and inititation ceremonies. ‘Listening to Order’ shows the technological evolution of European brass and woodwind instruments from the 18th century to the present day, based on more than 300 historic instruments given to the museum in 1947 by Adam Carse, Professor of Harmony and Counterpoint at the Royal Academy of Music, in memory of his son who died in the Second World War. The display is complemented by the three ingenious interactive ‘listening tables’, where these instruments and many others are described and can be heard in action.

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Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.


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