A hidden gem worth seeking out

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is like a badly kept secret – you’d keep it all to yourself except for the fact that everyone else seems to know about it too!

Overseas visitors and those less familiar with the bits of London not served by the Tube may never have heard of The Horniman but it is truly one of our best museums. The tea trader Frederick Horniman amassed a collection of natural history specimens and cultural artefacts from around the World during Victoria’s reign. Horniman sought to bring the world back to his home in South East London and he opened part of it to the public. Soon the collections grew too big for the family home and Horniman commissioned Charles Townsend to design and build a museum to house them all. This opened in 1901 and Horniman gifted the museum and the surrounding park to the people of London. The original collections comprised natural history specimens, cultural artefacts and musical instruments. Over the last 100 years this free museum has increased the musical and ethnological collections tenfold and further building have been added in the last few years.

Current additional attractions include “The Spirit of The Sufi: Troubadours of Allah“, a collection of superb photographs in and around the sufi shrines of the Indus valley taken by German Horst Friedrichs. For the kids during half term and for an additional charge (£12 for 2 adults + four kids), ‘Dinomites‘ will bring them face to face with ‘life-size’ baby and juvenile dinosaurs shown in suitably prehistoric settings, Fact sheets, information boards, soundtracks, a quiz and a great ‘put the scales and plates on the stegasaurus’ model help liven things up for the ‘been there, done it’ Jurassic Park smart alecs & alexia. When the appeal of educational enlightenment wears off, you can head outside. The park with its small animal enclosure, rose garden and large sloping grass area are well kept and provide space for kids to let off steam and charge about. As with all museums who need to make ends meet, there’s the usual shop (though, commendably, they have resisted making folks exit through the shop unlike so many places these days) and a cafe that is pretty expensive. As a family of six we expect to pay more than most but two pots of tea, four cold drinks and six pastries cost us an eye-watering £15, making us wish we’d brought a picnic lunch to enjoy in the beautiful Victorian conservatory (virtual tour here), which sadly my T610 phone’s camera cannot do justice to.

Don’t let this put you off visiting because this museum is great, has a unique collection of Native American and African cultural artifacts and is blissfully uncrowded compared to it’s big brothers in Kensington – which is why it was voted the Good Britain Guide’s Museum of the Year and London Family Attraction of the Year in 2004. Just make sure that you don’t tell anyone else.

also posted to the London Metblog.

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