Horniman Museum & Gardens: A Guide

Many Londoners will never have heard of the Horniman Museum, one of the quirkiest museums in London and a historical and anthropological cabinet of curiosities. It’s home to the most famous Walrus in the world and you’ll even see a fossilised, ahem, merman. It houses a fabulous aquarium, one of the prettiest conservatories you will see in London, a Butterfly House, the Horniman Cafe and 16 acres of garden – perfect for a picnic with the family. It’s a smaller version of the Natural History Museum but without the crowds. Let’s go visit this eclectic wonderland of the weird and wonderful.

The Horniman: a weird and wonderful museum

Frederick Horniman

Horniman Museum Forest Hill

Frederick Horniman (1835-1906) was the world’s most successful tea trader and a philanthropist. Thanks to bulging coffers, he travelled the world and brought some 350,000 souvenirs, ranging from musical instruments, anthropological finds and other cultural curios.  Horniman wanted to “bring the world to Forest Hill.” He travelled to far flung destinations such as Burma, Egypt, Sri Lanka, China, Japan and North America.

As the collection grew, his wife was known to have said to him, “either the collection goes, or we do.” The Surrey House Museum was born and opened to the general public on the 24 December 1890. Eight years later, Horniman enlisted architect Charles Harrison Townsend to build a new and larger building which opened in 1901. Horniman donated the museum and the grounds to “the people of London for ever, as a free museum for their recreation, instruction and enjoyment”

Today, the Horniman Museum has a Natural History Gallery with skeletons, specimens in fluid, fossils and some serious taxidermy which includes the famous Horniman Walrus and the Bengal Tiger. There’s an Aquarium, a Music Gallery with over 1300 instruments from around the world, a Butterfly House and 16 acres of garden with a pagoda, a medicinal garden, an interactive sound garden and a sundial trail.

Highlights of the Horniman Museum

Natural History Gallery

anthropological museum LondonThe very quirky Natural History Gallery at the Horniman is a real cabinet of curiosities. It’s packed full of fossils, taxidermy and skeletons. It’s a fascinating gallery for kids and adults alike. The Natural History Gallery is free to visit.

Horniman Dodo

The Horniman Dodo

The Horniman Walrus

Horniman WalrusThe star of the gallery is the Horniman Walrus, sitting pretty on his own iceberg. Horniman  purchased the walrus after seeing him in an 1886 exhibition about the British colonies. Bizarrely though, there isn’t a wrinkle in sight. That’s because when the Victorian taxidermists who worked on him had no clue that a real walrus might be a tad wrinkly. The Horniman walrus looks like he’s had a serious session with a Botox needle.

World Gallery

anthropology museum London

The World Gallery includes objects from a titanic hoard of curios with over 3000 objects on display. A dolphin skull, a cat mummy and a (fake) merman are some of the strange curiosities with which Horniman returned to his Victorian London. Play in a Lagos market, marvel at the beautiful kites and banners above or add your own message of gratitude to The Cloutie tree. The World Gallery is free to visit.

Merman

Don’t miss the Horniman merman in the World Galleries. You can read more about this strange creature here.

Anthropology museum LondonOver in Africa, it’s fun for the kids to explore the everyday objects that are sold in the Lagos market, one of the biggest street markets in Nigeria. Just be prepared for some serious haggling!

Music Collection

Musical instrument GalleryThe Horniman has one of the largest collections of musical instruments in the world. There are over 9500 objects in the collection of which 1300 are on display. The Music Collection is free to visit.

Horniman Gardens

Horniman gardens

Don’t miss a wander around the stunning 16 acres of the Horniman Museum. There’s a Grasslands Garden, a Wildlife Garden, botanical display gardens, a handsome conservatory and a bandstand with killer views of London.

Horniman BandstandThe Horniman Bandstand has fantastic views over London. The Bandstand Kisok serves hot and cold drinks.

The Horniman Nature trail is the oldest in London and runs half a mile on the site of the original Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway. And if that isn’t enough, there’s a Sundial Trail with 12 of these to locate.

Horniman Conservatory

Horniman conservatory

The Grade II listed Horniman Conservatory was originally erected in 1894 in the Horniman family home in Coombe Cliff, Croydon. It’s based on the Crystal Palace, built for the Grand Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Today, the Conservatory is used for special events and is used as the setting for the museum’s arts and crafts markets.

The Horniman Café

The Horniman Cafe is open daily from 9am to 5.30pm. The Bandstand kiosk is open from 9am to 4pm.

The Horniman has a fantastic sustainability program, and the café plays by the same rules. All single-use plastic has been replaced with plant-based products. The cafe serves up delicious food and snacks and caters for both vegan and gluten free diets.

Picnics

You could grab a grassy pew and bring your own picnic to one of many idyllic spots in the Horniman Gardens. In the event of rain, you can head over to The Dutch Barn (located opposite the Bandstand in the Gardens).

What’s on at the Horniman Museum

Butterfly House LondonYou could easily spend a whole day at the Horniman Museum. Check out the several exhibits including the new Brick Dinos exhibition for little ones. Get up close to the hundreds of beautiful butterflies in the Horniman’s own Butterfly House (ticketed) or go say hello to the fish, frogs and coral displays in the Horniman Aquarium (ticketed). Check the website for all the free and ticketed events.

Brick Dinos

About the Museum

Address: 100 London Road, Forest Hill London SE23 3PQ

Entry: The Horniman Museum and Gardens are free to visit.  There is, however, a charge to visit the Aquarium, the Butterfly House and some of the exhibitions. More information here.

Opening hours: The museum is open daily from 10.00 to 17.30. The Gardens are open daily, from 7.15am (or 8am Sunday and Bank Holidays) until 5.30pm.

Getting there: The closest station is Forest Hill (overground). The museum is well served by buses several of which stop outside the museum (176, 185, 197, 356, P4). The Horniman is not in the congestion zone.

A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

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