Museum review: Horniman Museum

For my birthday last week, I finally travelled deep into southeast London to go to quirky anthropological Horniman Museum. Sat atop a very steep hill, it was a striking building amongst quiet suburban houses and flats. In front of the building was an American totem pole, a hint of the treasures to be found inside. Next to the museum was a sprawling garden that was mostly closed for upkeep, though you could see the landmarks of east London sprawled out into the horizon, as well as a Victorian conservatory that housed the museum cafe.

 

Though small, the museum was filled with lovely bits and pieces from top to bottom. On the ground floor was the natural history room, which held their most recognised acquisition, a walrus! Since it was acquired in the 19th-century, before walrus anatomy was known, the walrus is actually over-stuffed and completely smooth. I was impressed with the massive mammal, especially since I had no idea they were so large. The displays were filled with slightly faded creatures, dinosaur bones, insects and human skulls. Another lovely touch were the Victorian, art deco features and typography that were scattered through the room.

Another room featured a photo exhibit of traditional English holidays and rituals practised in contemporary society. It was fascinating seeing ancient rituals adapted and continued in modern settings. Also interesting was the fact that so many clearly rural rituals, marking and celebrating harvests and seasons, were practised in places that had become sub/urban over the centuries. It showed an interesting juxtaposition of materials, artefacts and clothing that played with ideas of British culture, both modern and traditional. I almost wished that there was a documentary available so that I could actually see the rituals enacted as well as the interactions with the communities.

The other rooms were also packed with anthropological goodness, like the African Worlds room, which had everything from Voudou alters to Mami Wata iconography (who I love after seeing an entire exhibit dedicated to her at the Smithsonian African Art Museum a few years ago in DC) and various costumes and ceremonial figures. There were also videos in various places showing craftspeople making variations of the ceramics on display, giving small insight into the amount of work put into these utilitary items. The Centenary room had an array of pieces from all over the world, but some displays held my attention more others, such as the massive statue of a furious and bloodied Kali standing atop a rather aggreived looking Krishna, or the extremely fancy and detailed pipes.  There was also a fearsome looking torture chair supposedly from the 16th century, though it turns out parts of it were from Victorian furniture in order to make it more frightening for a Victorian audience!

 

This small collection of oddities and curious curios is perfect if you want an unusual day out in the depths of southeast London.

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