Mama likes to think that my Superdooper Big Brother is *her* son, although the animal obsession is all his own. But every now and again, he reminds her that Papa also had something to do with it.
One of those times was when she realised that he is a born collector.
It always puzzled her when, after she had given him control of the car boot sale toy budget, he would pass over that snazzy looking lion in favour of this motheaten sorry specimen of an armadillo. Eventually she realised it is because my Superdooper Big Brother is filling in the gaps in an increasingly vast collection of the animal kingdom in soft toy form, currently occupying half the bedroom and most of the space down the back of the sofa.
Mama thinks that he would really have preferred to be born in the Victorian age. This is because his ambition is to have a live animal museum. ‘You mean a zoo?’ Mama corrected. ‘No,’ said my Superdooper Big Brother. ‘You can’t see the animals properly in zoos. I will have them in those small glass museum cases, but alive, because that’s more interesting.’
He also wants to hunt the animals for his museum down himself. Look, he’s six. He’ll develop empathy later. Mama hopes. He is also quite keen on becoming an assassin of rhino poachers, so that’s something.
Anyway. Mama thinks that both my Superdooper Big Brother and Papa would have got on very well with Mr Horniman of the Horniman Museum, a Victorian tea trader and avid collector who eventually realised that he had filled so many of his rooms with carefully labelled stuff that he might as well be living in a museum, and so promptly did. Or rather, didn’t, because at about that point his wife insisted they move out (‘Either the collection goes or we do,’ were the exact words, apparently. Mama sympathises. She also wonders if Mrs Horniman and Mrs Soane had a support group).
Obviously what my Superdooper Big Brother appreciates most are the large number of stuffed animals. The Horniman Museum is particularly proud of its walrus, but Mama really likes the way many of the cases are designed to actually teach viewers something rather than just serve as curiosity cabinets. She and my Superdooper Big Brother, for example, can spend rather more time than I think is strictly necessary looking at the cases about how animals defend themselves and identifying the method each little group of animals used. There are labels, Mama! Yes, says Mama smugly, but my Superdooper Big Brother hasn’t quite twigged to the advantages of being able to read yet and has to work it out from pure observation.
Of course, she is also approving of the way that the Horniman Museum supports understanding of the concept of evolution too. In fact, until she discovered the Darwin Museum in Moscow, the Horniman was her go to museum every time she felt he needed a top up.
Attached to the natural history room is a hands on kids area, which is also very well designed – you can draw stuff, listen to bird calls and the game about identifying trees is, Mama thinks, almost unique as a button pushing opportunity which is both doable for people my age and also gets a point about classification across while you play it. Plus! In case you have been driven mad by the fact that is forbidden to fondle the extremely tactile exhibits next door, there are a couple of examples of the taxidermists’ art that you are allowed to stroke here too.
The highlight of the room is the ACTUAL LIVE ANIMALS (emphasis my Superdooper Big Brother’s). Bees, to be exact, and tiny tiny mice, both in cases small enough to make it to my Superdooper Big Brother’s own future museum, although the bees seem to be able to escape at will down a transparent tube.
That’s not all the animal action at the Horniman Museum though! There is also a reasonably priced aquarium in the basement which has a varied selection of small to medium sized fish from all around the world. And jellyfish. Also, butterflies. My Superdooper Big Brother likes the fish with the legs best. I like all of the tanks that come down to the floor, which is sadly not all of them. They do have little boxes you can carry about and stand on to get to the higher up ones though, which is almost as much fun as the fish themselves.
But. The aquarium has all but been eclipsed by the live animal walk in the grounds which arrived a year or two ago. For reasons which are inexplicable to Mama, it’s the rabbits at the Horniman Museum that are the truly fascinating furry things there. She prefers the lamas.
What she doesn’t realise is that as well as being a varied group with one record breakingly huge white one, the rabbits are pretty lively. No lounging around sleeping off lunch, hiding in the corner of the enclosure visitors cannot see into or staring contemplatively but unmoving into the distance for half an hour while chewing grass for the rabbits! No, it’s all nose twitching and bounding enthusiastically through the tunnels! In close up! Fabulous stuff.
The only down side is that bit opens at 12pm, so you shouldn’t plan to head straight for it when you arrive the way we always want to. Unless, of course, you get there after 12.
Still, if you are caught out, the Horniman Museum’s grounds are pretty cool, all 16 acres of them. Mama likes the spectacular view over London best, but we are more into the small play area. It is musical! There are things to bang, tap and generally make a loud noise with. It’s great!
As well as this, there’s a massive field where you can run around shouting or sit and eat a picnic, although there is also an outdoor café with tables, and even a few tables inside a small room if the weather is bad. This is apart from the proper café, which is back towards the main building. What Mama likes about that is that their overspill seating is inside a particularly splendid conservatory. It is imperative that if it is open we have a coffee break here regardless of how awash we are with beverages and sandwiches already.
Now that, as far as my Superdooper Big Brother in particular is concerned, is pretty much it for the Horniman Museum. Mama would like to spend a bit more time looking at some of the other collections they have, such as the African World one, which BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH (emphasis my Superdooper Big Brother’s, who is not one iota moved by the riot of colour, the wild variety of textiles, the oddly shaped statuettes, the mysterious objects or even the mummies inside. No obvious lion/rhino/zebra/giraffe/camel interest, you see) and especially the one about 100 years of collecting at the museum, which is what Mama describes as a fascinating look into the way that what people consider both cool and acceptable to acquire has changed over time, and what we describe as an area insufficiently full of animals or things I can touch.
In the end, in the face of our total disinterest, Mama compromises on taking us down to the music room.
The music room is pretty good not because of the thousands of instruments on display, but because of the computers. Touch screens! Woohoo! To be honest, for me touch screens can show pretty much anything and I am hooked, but these ones are particularly excellent because what they allow you to do is hear the instruments around you playing, and so Mama will allow us to muck about with them for HOURS because she find this interesting. Yes! My Sooperdooper Big Brother likes it because the sound tables are arranged in such a way that a small crowd of children can (and do) gather around one all at the same time and oooh and aaah over the sounds, and he can socialise, which is something he likes almost but not quite as much as animals.
There are also some live demonstrations of some of the instruments, or at least, we tripped over someone playing a harpsichord last time we went.
And if you want a go yourself, there is a room with a whole bunch more of hitting, stroking, whacking and plucking opportunities, in case you didn’t get your fill outside. Mama clearly didn’t because she LOVES it in there.
The Horniman Museum, then, is a quirky treasure trove of all sorts of interesting dodads, and certainly well worth a visit for young people, especially as they are very welcoming towards children, even quite small children. Despite the fact that local families clearly know this and have made it a firm favourite in their going out repertoire, it is still not nearly as busy as the big Kensington Museums at any given time. It even also has what seem to be quite interesting temporary exhibitions on too, although we have never found that we have exhausted the rest of the museum with sufficient time to spare to make paying the entrance fee worth it.
So if you are planning on heading in to London some school holiday and can’t face standing in queues all day to catch a sixty second glimpse of an anamatronic T Rex and some increasingly dusty mammal models, this is a very viable alternative. And if you already live in London and haven’t made it to the Horniman Museum, whether or not you have children, what on earth is keeping you away?
Address: 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ
Opening: 10.30am to 5.30pm daily.
Admission: Free, except for the aquarium (Adults £3.50, Kids £1.50, Family £7.50) and any special exhibitions.
By bus: Routes 176, 185, 197, 356, P4 stop outside the Museum and Gardens on London Road, and there are a few more which stop close by.
By train: Forest Hill station is a five to ten uphill walk away. It’s on the Overground network (Highbury and Islington to West Croydon/ Crystal Palace) and also has trains from London Bridge (Northern and Jubilee lines) and Victoria (Victoria, Circle and District lines) as well as others from Croydon and Surrey.
By car: There is no parking at the Horniman itself, except disabled parking. The Horniman website suggests some parking spots in the area you could try but is discouraging about the whole idea of car travel as a good travel option for visiting the museum.