The Horniman Museum is a mysterious place.
I remember dawdling in one of its dingy stairwells before a Saturday course for the under tens (we were going to paint insects onto stones and then varnish them) when suddenly an enormous grinning badger bounded up the stairs towards me.
In fact the badger was about 80 years old and was closely followed by what was probably a keen apprentice taxidermist taking it for a weekend spruce up and a re-stuff. But in that split second, I was in Narnia.
A faun might not meet and greet you, but the Horniman is still an enchanted land: a merman is one of its most prized exhibits, and the Centenary Gallery is stocked full of ritualistic paraphernalia, tribal costumes, South American carnival masks and ancestral figures from Papua New Guinea.
What makes the museum so special is the scope of its collection, which includes major galleries dedicated to natural history together with a vast array of musical instruments and an anthropology section. Despite the modernised building, interactive displays and ‘handling collection’, it retains plenty of the original battiness of the place. A haphazard display of birds in bell jars, metal helmets from Iran and ‘reliefs in Alhambra style’ (below) are preserved from the heyday of the eclectic Victorian curiosity cabinet.
Or if pickled nervous systems are more your thing, make sure you browse the deepest darkest corners of the natural history gallery. Have a look at the families of Welsh polecats and Cumberland otters, trace the evolution of the elephant through a series of massive skulls, and check out the insects and arachnids upstairs.
But what’s all this about a walrus?
The Horniman walrus is the quirky centrepiece of the quirky natural history gallery. It is one of the museum’s original exhibits. But the Victorian taxidermists who mounted it in 1870 had never even seen a picture of a real walrus, let alone the real thing, so didn’t know that they are famously wrinkly with huge folds of flesh.
They just kept on stuffing.
Today the bloated, completely un-lifelike walrus is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.
So, heading to the Horniman for the first time? The honey-coloured building is unmissable with its iconic totem pole towering at the top of the hill, ten minutes from Forest Hill station. It is surrounded by whimsical gardens (home to a healthy contingent of South London’s parakeets) with some spectacular views over the city. And there’s a prettily ornate conservatory where you can bring a picnic or get a reasonably priced cuppa from the café – another perk of the suburban museum.
Just remember: never run with badgers.
The Horniman is a ten minute walk from Forest Hill station, now on the London Overground line. Open daily 10.30am – 5.30pm.
While you’re in the area, on the way back to Forest Hill Station, make sure you poke your nose in The Capitol – an elegant 1920’s cinema turned Wetherspoon’s pub.