There are a wealth of museums in London and they come in all shapes of sizes and have something different to offer. The Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the British Museum to name but a few, are all brilliant and well worth a visit, but I sometimes wonder how many visitors to London search out the slightly smaller, quirkier, but equally interesting museums that lurk just outside the central tourist hotspots of London. On that note, I'd like to mention the Horniman Museum and Gardens, which can be found in Forest Hill in south London, just a short train ride from London Bridge or also rather handily now included on the London Overground line.
In a nutshell, the Horniman Museum is a free anthropological museum set within 16 acres of gardens. Although the museum has been modernised, upon entering you will very much feel like you've stepped in to the private collection of some kind of Victorian collector of strange curiosities from around the world. The very simple reason for this, is because that's exactly what you have done.
The museum was founded in the late 19th century by a guy called Frederick John Horniman who had a penchant for gallivanting around the world to places like Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States and purchasing indigenous objects, specimens and oddities that either appealed to his own sensibilities or he thought might one day, illuminate the lives of those, unable to experience the wonders and treasures of the globe. Mr Horniman (incidentally) was able to finance his rather expensive hobby, by virtue of the fact that he had taken over his father's tea company (called Horniman Tea) which had been founded in 1826. By 1891 it happened to be the largest tea trading business in the world.
After 30 years or so of collecting assorted curiosities Mr Horniman had managed to pretty much fill his entire house with them. It would seem his own family took second place to his prized possessions, as the family were duly moved elsewhere and the house was turned in to a museum. It became known as the 'Surrey House Museum' and opened to the public in 1890. Although only open twice a week (for a total of 14 hours) and on bank holidays, the museum received over 42,000 visitors in its first year and even after an extension had been added, it became necessary to build an entirely new museum, which duly happened.
Upon completion, Mr Horniman thought it'd be nice to donate the museum, its collection and the surrounding gardens to the public as a free gift, which he did, with London County Council as Trustees. The new museum was formally opened in 1901.
Today, the museum is still free to the public, and has over 80,000 objects from around the world. At times it does feel like you've stepped back in time as you wander around cases and cases stuffed with taxidermy, skeletons, plants, fungi, insects and fossils, and apparently, have about 250,000 different specimens. However, everything is brilliantly lit, laid out and explained. If you're in to musical instruments, then you'll be delighted to discover they have a collection of 8,000 musical instruments which span 3,500 years of music making from the Egyptians to the present day. The museum also organise regular events for all ages, but seem to do loads of workshops and fun events to inspire and educate kids. They have frequent exhibitions and if you like wandering around gardens, then they certainly can offer that too.
All in all, it's definitely worth checking out. I personally could have spent hours just wandering around the amazing collection of animals, a number of which are unfortunately now extinct. With a bit of luck though, the Horniman Museum and Gardens will be around for a long, long time to come.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ.
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