The Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill is a Londoner’s favourite. Being outside of the city centre, it doesn’t attract the same tourist footfall as the Natural History Museum or British Museum and it’s so much more relaxed for that. The permanent collection consists of natural history, anthropology and musical instruments. The dodgy taxidermy is legendary and a selfie with the famous stuffed walrus is pretty much obligatory. Having been a long-term South London resident, it’s a place I’ve been to many a time and it never disappoints but since I’ve had Pea I’ve come to love it even more as its so child-friendly.
As a rule, I avoid family-friendly museums and galleries during half term in London because I simply do not have the tolerance threshold for the queuing and the noise and the madness that entails. However, my last visit to Horniman with Pea was indeed during half-term as I really wanted to check out the current temporary exhibition Colour: the Rainbow Revealed and I had limited time to do this before leaving London.
We arrived early, and it was as busy as I’ve ever seen this place with a queue for tickets, a queue in the cafe and both the ground floor buggy storage space and the locker room chock full of buggies, scooters and tricycles. Despite this, it took only a few minutes to queue for our exhibition tickets so we were soon inside, exploring “the many ways in which colour shapes our world”. Except we weren’t really, as it was, as predicted, pretty busy in there, and Pea had just that week started walking. So mostly I spent the time learning that a newly walking child is not really any less terrifying than a crawler, as there’s ample opportunity for them to be trampled. The mood room was nice and the little baby area with rainbow coloured soft play apparatus was very welcome but I don’t think we got the full benefit of this exhibition – I would have liked a bit more on the psychology of colour, and Pea was just a tad too unsteady on his feet at this point to be able to safely roam as he would have liked to.
A trip to Horniman is never wasted though. We went through to the music gallery and had a go on some of the interactive instruments there. It was a bit quieter in there, but poor little Pea still got bulldozed away from the bodhrans by an older girl. We then took a little walk through the aquarium, which is lovely, but Pea was sleepy by this point so it was more for my benefit than his. I didn’t bother with the museum cafe for lunch – it’s great, but was way too crowded on this occasion so I headed back out into Forest Hill and found a cosy little Vietnamese cafe opposite the railway station. It was nice and quiet in there, Pea slept and I got peace to savour a sweet coffee and the nicest Banh Mi I’ve had in London.
After lunch, we went back to the Horniman for a little wander around the gardens and the animal walk. The view over London from the Horniman bandstand is spectacular and it’s worth a visit for this alone. We went back inside the museum to check out Hands On Base, a special gallery filled with items that can be handled. This gallery is only open occasionally so we’d never managed to go before but it’s brilliant and Pea absolutely loved it. Museum staff were there to draw attention to and discuss some of the items, such as Brazilian carnival outfits, Chinese masks and, Pea’s favourite, a taxidermied fox. In addition to the handling items, there was a good selection of children’s books to browse and enough space for Pea to totter around.
Horniman is such a brilliant museum for families and I’ll really miss having a resource like this so nearby. It was a shame we needed to make our last ever visit during half term as I think we would have gotten so much more from the Colour exhibition if we’d gone during a quieter time. However, we wouldn’t have experienced Hands On Base which was easily the most successful part of our day.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens is at 100 London Road, SE23. Admission to the gardens and permanent collection is free, but a fee applies for temporary exhibitions, the aquarium and the butterfly house. The museum has lift access throughout, a really good cafe, buggy storage, lockers and baby change facilities. Colour: the Rainbow Revealed is on until 28th October.