Horniman Museum, London: ‘Interactive, intelligent and inspiring’ – review

The new World Gallery raises the bar yet further for this free local institution, brimful of music, nature and dazzling displays from cultures the world over

In a nutshell

This brilliant little museum in south-east London, dedicated to anthropology, natural history and musical instruments, feels as if it was created for kids, who love its opportunities for fun and play. An aquarium, steamy butterfly house, live animals, and instruments to bang bring lots of noisy excitement to a visit, while the main Natural History Gallery’s taxidermy animals include a Bengal tiger, and the famous over-stuffed walrus.

Horniman Museum stuffed walrus.
The Horniman walrus Photograph: Horniman

What’s new?

The new 600-square-metre World Gallery opens this week (on 29 June), with a dazzling, densely packed display of more than 3,000 objects from cultures from all over the world. They were selected from the 350,000-item collection begun by Victorian tea trader and philanthropist Frederick Horniman, who aimed to “bring the world to Forest Hill” through his museum when it opened in 1901. The space – previously hosting African Worlds – has been completely redesigned and the new gallery features around 10 times as many objects from the museum’s collection, spanning the five inhabited continents.

Fun fact

Merman, Horniman Museum, London
The Horniman’s merman. Photograph: Heini Schneebeli/Horniman Museum

One of the Horniman’s oddest exhibits, and now part of the World Gallery, is its 100-plus-year-old merman (male mermaid), the so-called Japanese monkey-fish. Such objects were made in Japan to meet western demand created by the popularity of PT Barnum’s hoax, the Feejee Mermaid, but were often sold in the 19th century by con artists hoping to pass them off as real animals.

Best things about it

The sheer variety of things to see and do. I live locally and have two toddlers, so I’ve visited the museum most weeks for the past five years. We honestly find something new every time, whether that’s the sundial trail in the gardens or the live bees and mice to watch in the Nature Base. Interactivity is very important here. The Hands On Base room, open at weekends, lets kids handle some of the collection, such as puppets and masks. They can dress up in camouflage and sit in a Mood Room with multi-coloured lights at the current exhibition Colour: The Rainbow Revealed (until 28 October). Week-day storytelling and art classes are intelligent and inspiring too, and there are always pop-up events, such as Plonk crazy golf this summer.

Children try on African head wraps.
Children try on African head wraps. Photograph: Megan Taylor

The new World Gallery is mind-blowing to anyone interested in other cultures. Beautiful treasures from the historic collection – a Tuareg camel saddle, English “hagstones” to ward off witches – are cleverly complemented by a few modern bits to highlight the continuation of cultures. The most interesting pieces are arranged at the bottom of the cases, where kids can see them.

A Horniman technician adjusts the Tuareg camel saddle on display in the World Gallery.
A technician adjusts the Tuareg camel saddle on display in the World Gallery. Photograph: Tania Dolvers

A screen shows footage of a Tibetan rapper, there’s some Nigerian haute couture, the prow of a Libyan refugee boat. Three totem poles play recorded First Nations stories when buttons are pressed, and children can sit behind a Lagos Market stall handling boxes of shoes. It’s worth typing the digital code on each item’s label into the Horniman website on your phone as you explore, to access more astounding stories and information that will bring it all to life for your charges.

What about lunch?

The cafe terrace at the Horniman.
The cafe terrace at the Horniman. Photograph: Ludovic des Cognets

The cafe is great. Very friendly staff, plus good pasta bolognese (£4.25), jacket potatoes (£4), falafel salad (£7.75) and sandwiches (£4.15), kids’ boxes (£4.85) and healthier lollies (£1.25) and ice-creams (£2.50). On busier days two other kiosks open, outside the cafe and near the bandstand, handy for cold food and coffee. There’s a great farmers’ market on Saturdays (9am-1.30pm), while the hilltop garden is a lovely picnic spot, with some of London’s best views.

Exit through the giftshop?

Nope. It’s self-contained, but the kids might drag you in to see the science-themed games and toys, bug viewers (£8.50), mini-African drums (£6) and T-shirts depicting the famous walrus (£12).

Getting there

The nearest station in London is Forest Hill, served by Southern trains from Highbury & Islington, London Bridge, Victoria and East Croydon, and London Overground. It’s a 10- minute walk from the station – go the back route to the hilltop garden via Manor Mount and Westwood Park rather than the more direct route along the busy south circular.

The museum’s gardens are spectacular.
The museum’s gardens are spectacular. Photograph: C Churcher

Value for money

As much of it is free, absolutely. The fees for the aquarium (£4 adults, £2.50 child), butterfly house (£5.40 adults and children), and temporary exhibition (£7 adults, £4 child) are reasonable, though it could be worth joining as a member, which costs from £29 per year for one plus guest, giving unlimited entrance to all these and 10% off in the gift shop.

Opening hours

Museum daily 10am-5.30pm; cafe daily 9.30am-5.30pm; gardens from 7.15am (Sun and Bank hols from 8am) until sunset.


9/10. I don’t think I’m just a biased local when I say this is an amazing museum for kids of all ages. The only negative is that the cafe can get very crowded, although service is always fast and the food good.


Gemma Bowes

The GuardianTramp

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