22 May, 2009

The Horniman is a cabinet of curiosities

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

From live jellyfish to pickled primates, the Horniman Museum’s child-friendly displays are perfect for a bank holiday weekend

If you want to visit a museum in London this weekend and you fancy a change from the big central venues, I have the very place. The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill magically combines eccentricity and accessibility, a rare collection and modern curatorial methods, early 20th-century Art Nouveau architecture and an attractive, spacious modernity. It’s a cabinet of curiosities and particularly good for families, with gardens that mushroom out into a park and a really good cafe with outside seating.

The museum aims a lot of its galleries and events at children. The current exhibition, the Robot Zoo, should be right up their street. Another permanent attraction is an aquarium with beautiful jellyfish, a lobster and, oh yes, Nemo and Dory from the film Finding Nemo. Nearby is a third child-friendly display, a gallery of unusual, beautiful instruments from all over the world. There’s even a side room in which various exotic sound-making devices can be tried out.

There is a gallery that evokes the strangeness of the museum when it first opened in the 1900s, but most wonderfully archaic is the central gallery with its stuffed animals and skeletons. The museum hasn’t hidden away any of its less fashionable items; here you can view all the shrivelled, stuffed pythons and pickled primates that more squeamish museums keep in their back rooms.

However, the Horniman’s real triumph is its African Worlds gallery. Here, an outstanding collection of African art, from Benin bronzes to Egyptian mummy cases, is displayed in a way that I’m afraid to say puts the British Museum‘s Africa gallery to shame. It’s more visual, more aesthetically responsive to continent and diaspora, art and social life, past and present. It’s less preachy, while at the same time being more Afro-centric. It’s brilliant and others should emulate it.

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