Away from central London's expansive museums of natural history and anthropology, the Horniman Museum and Gardens offers a unique variety of intrigue in architecture, artefacts and taxidermy for South London. One of many Victorian philanthropists turned collector of antiquities, Frederick Horniman travelled the world extensively in order to accumulate items that might be used for the purpose of educating the general public. Initially using his own home, and later a purpose-built institution to house his collections, Horniman's great desire to serve and educate his local community is still very much evident in this unusual museum.
Arguably the most interesting feature of the museum is actually the building itself, with its large-scale employment of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts styles of the late nineteenth century. Designed by Charles Townsend, also architect of the Whitechapel Gallery, the museum is an impressive example of his highly individual style, largely overlooked in his own time and only brought into recognition in recent decades. It is certainly an apt testament to Horniman's desire to "bring the world to Forest Hill" that this unusual looking structure, with its curved square clock tower, round windows and arched entrances, strikes such a surprising form on a regular suburban Dulwich street. A huge mosaic of figures representing the arts, music, charity and wisdom, inspired by Townsend's Romanesque influences, covers most of the building's exterior facade as if to command attention from passers-by and to declare the building an institution of education and intrigue.
And Horniman's collections certainly offer a pretty unusual and eclectic selection of subjects, covering musical instruments through the ages, artworks from Africa, and natural history. These topics actually work quite well together, as after gazing upon various antique horns and lutes it is rather refreshing to move onto a close examination of Voodou altars in the African arts gallery. Horniman gathered an impressive array of items from his travels, and it is fascinating to see the variety of curiosities a small private institution like this was able to accumulate. Particularly interesting items are an ancient Egyptian coffin acquired through Horniman's connections with Howard Carter, the archaeologist who famously excavated Tutankhamun's tomb, as well as a sandstone block with imprinted dinosaur footprints and an oracle bone inscribed with the earliest known form of Chinese script.
The large collection of taxidermied animals in the natural history section is perhaps the most immediately entertaining gallery, with its huge array of specimens of extinct birds, miniature antelopes and the museum's renowned, massive taxidermied walrus taking pride of place at the centre of the exhibition. Slightly more disturbing are the preserved heads of various domestic dogs on show, as well as a dissected cat in a jar, offering an alternative angle from which to consider your beloved family pet. Rather than simply displaying these items, the museum has clearly kept to Horniman's ethos of educating the general public, and as such each section focuses on the wider context of the items on display. The natural history section pays particular attention to explaining the process of evolution, and a collection of giant skulls from extinct ancestors of the elephant is a fresh way of illustrating the process that has lead to such an immense variety of animals. And a particularly well put-together display on the development of the bird foetus within an egg, using real specimens to illustrate the gradual growth from a collection of tissue to a recognisable chick, is very informative for children.
The variety and educational ethos of the Horniman Museum is all the more interesting for its location just outside of the capital city. As a collection of unusual artefacts, library and gardens the institution offers a special, and far more tranquil museum experience than the larger London collections.