Located in the heart of South London, the Horniman Museum and Gardens are quite something. Sat on a large hill, the Victorian building with its majestical clock tower is stunning. The museum houses the private collection of Frederick Horniman, a Victorian tea trader who filled up his whole house with fascinating objects such as stuffed animals, Egyptian mummies and musical instruments. His wife was reported to have said ‘either the collection goes or we do’. Fortunately the collection remained and the rebuilt museum opened to visitors in 1901. Frederick Horniman’s mission was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and educate and enrich the lives of the local community. He succeeded. Today there are 350,000 objects in the Horniman’s collection and over half a million people visit every year to see the impulsive collector’s items. We have only been here a handful of times but that has been enough for us to have a real soft spot for this family friendly museum.
On this particular visit the sun was shining so we made our way straight into the gardens where we were pleasantly hit by the stunning views of London. On a clear day you can see some of the city’s most iconic landscapes in the distance. As I stood taking it all in I felt like the world almost stopped for a few seconds. With a toddler in tow this feeling was of course fleeting so we headed on over to the ‘Animal Walk’ where we met alpacas, goats, rabbits and chickens which the kids were particularly enthralled by. Surrounding this are 16 acres of gardens, with a Nature Trail where you can hunt for various wildlife. With all this green space for the little ones to enjoy, you can understand why it is such a popular picnic destination in the summer.
We then made our way in to the free entry museum to explore the taxidermy, which includes an enormous walrus in the centre of its Natural History room. It has been said Mr Horniman didn’t seem to have much of an idea what a walrus looks like as it appears overstuffed and stretched where layers of skin would usually be. The walrus is over 100 years old and is very popular with visitors so we made sure we had our obligatory selfie with the large mammal before hanging out with the monkeys and birds. The Natural History collection contains over 250,000 specimens of local, national and worldwide origin. The room is split into two levels so we headed up to the balcony gallery to check out the sharks’ teeth and the German Apostle Clock which shows Jesus’ twelve apostles passing in front of him, bowing, at 4pm every day. The randomness of it all just adds to its appeal and certainly helps keep children, with their short attention spans, entertained. On this floor there was also a welcoming quiet area where children can sit on beanbags and leaf through the various books on offer.
Next up was the Music Gallery where you can find over 1300 objects from the Horniman’s renowned collection. This gallery hosts a wide range of instruments from around the world making it the largest number on display in the UK. Look out for the gigantic tuba, which at nearly 8 foot tall is the largest of over 8,000 instruments in the Horniman’s collection. In here we found the Hands On space where the kids can make as much noise as they like, playing the instruments without anyone blinking an eyelid. My daughter was in her element tapping away on the keyboard and playing the panpipes with a pair of flip flops.
There is a very small fee to visit the Aquarium but it’s worth every penny. Albeit small, its 15 different displays covering 8 different geographical zones, is just the right size for children. Mesmerised by the aqua blue water and neon pink fish we decided to go on the look out for nemo and to our kids’ delight we found him. There is a strong emphasis on conservation here as the displays show a variety of endangered habitats. A personal highlight in this space was the tiny jellyfish and seahorses that made for some captivating viewing.
The recently opened family friendly Robot Zoo exhibition runs until 29th October and is everything you could possibly want for your kids. Educational and fun the exhibition shows how animals operate through the use of robots. Activities include building a platypus, swatting a fly, shrimp racing and blending in like a chameleon. We learnt that chameleons change colour according to temperature, light and their mood. The kids can also take control of some of the robots allowing them to really engage with the exhibits, which include a grasshopper, bat and a giant squid. This exhibition with its wide appeal is an absolute must see.
On select Saturdays the Horniman runs a Hands on Base, where kids can hold things in their collection such as African masks and shark jaws, and an Art Smarts Workshop where they can have fun with art skills creating something to take home inspired by the Horniman’s collections. On select Sundays there is also storytelling. With all of these child friendly activities you can see why the museum has become such a popular attraction for families and so much more than a ‘local’ museum.
The shop that you pass on your way out is a delight with lots of books and toys and a few treasures for us adults too. My daughter was in awe of their vast array of dinosaur related offerings. The garden sticker book hasn’t been put down since we left.
Facilities are excellent; there is a quiet room for feeding babies, changing rooms and plenty of high chairs in the café where you can get pre packed kids lunchboxes and lollies made with real fruit.
We left the Horniman Museum and Gardens with full stomachs and happy faces, a truly wonderful family day out. If you are staying in the city with kids I strongly recommend a visit, you will not be disappointed.