In a world where most habitats have already been discovered, it is hard to imagine what it is like to see a new organism for the first time. I remember being excited last September, when I heard that a new species of monkey had been found by scientists in the Congo. But, I already knew what a monkey looked like, so, while fascinated, I was not entirely shocked by its appearance. If I had been alive in the late nineteenth century, on the other hand, my frame of reference would be very different, and perhaps largely based on my immediate surroundings. So, to see something like a rhinoceros for the first time, an animal which has no British equivalent, my response would most likely have been one of awe and disbelief.
Frederick John Horniman, a Victorian tea trader, was passionate about creating these awe inspiring experiences for the general public. As a philanthropist, he had the resources necessary to travel the world, and consequently brought back a huge collection of objects, and specimens, for people to view. Horniman’s experience of collecting is like so many featured on this blog: a mass of objects that outgrows the collector’s home, which is then transferred to a small museum, until it finally requires its own purpose-built structure. For the Horniman collection, this structure was opened to the general public in 1901, and can be found in Forest Hill.
It is probably obvious that I am a fan of museums, especially places that are filled with vast quantities of curious objects – hence ‘maximal’ space. So the idea of visiting the Horniman has been occupying my thoughts for a considerable amount of time. Having followed their blog, and enjoyed their curator’s ‘mystery object’ posts on a weekly basis, I was already enthusiastic to say the least! And, during my visit, my expectations were not only met, but exceeded.
This museum has a definite ‘wow’ factor. From the beautiful aesthetic of the old display cases, to the wealth of objects actually on display, the Horniman is a world worth getting lost in.
The striking stone building is home to a large collection of natural history specimens; anthropological objects; musical instruments; an aquarium, and a set of peaceful gardens. Collections which may be viewed as ‘plunder’ obviously carry some negative overtones, but the relaxed and informed staff at the museum seem more than happy to talk freely about this. This relaxed atmosphere also nurtures engagement by visitors of all ages. While I was there, for instance, I saw children using learning areas; photographers exploring the collections, and a designer making careful studies of patterns found in nature. The Horniman has achieved what many public places strive hard for – a comfortable space, which is also filled with activity. This collection was originally gathered to educate and inform, and it seamlessly continues to do so.
The Horniman has always been in my top five museums for online engagement. Since visiting, I would more simply say that it is in my top five museums.