ask tough questions about colonialism, race, and environmental issues
• Learn more about the museums shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 here
The Horniman Museum and Gardens in Forest Hill, south-east London, is an institution of its time looking – optimistically – towards another. A diverse collection, spanning natural history, anthropology and one of the largest collections of musical instruments in the world, is housed in a purpose-built limestone building topped with a distinctive clock tower with rounded corners. This idiosyncratic site is the product of the collecting spree of Frederick Horniman, the Quaker heir to a Victorian tea company.
Horniman had previously stored his expanding collection in the family home, opening its doors to the public twice a week. Legend has it that his wife said it was either the collection or her. Horniman opened the new museum in 1901 and offered it to the public. Today the museum and its extensive gardens are Grade II* listed and run by a charity.
Although the museum’s colonial-era origins have never been hidden, they have been cast in a new light following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. The research into the story of the founder’s fortune was initiated by Nick Merriman, the Horniman’s managing director and chief content officer since 2018. During his time at the museum, Merriman faced perhaps the toughest challenge for a director. of any institution: to assess the merits of its founder and the wealth on which its security depends.
The Horniman is the only museum in London where you can see nature and culture side by side
Nick Merriman, director
“Horniman’s money came, at least initially, from tea in China that was shipped to London. But [the tea] was paid for [with] opium, which was grown by the East India Company in India and smuggled into China,” Merriman explains. The family did not own plantations, he says, and Horniman is widely considered a benevolent philanthropist. However, there were problems in its supply chain. The result of this deep dive into the museum’s history is its “Reset Agenda”, which has “amplified the knowledge” surrounding the family business, both in the museum’s interpretation and on its website. It also affected his schedule.
Although the core collection remains free to view, the museum’s business model has changed over the past decade to include fees for visiting exhibits aimed at children, the Butterfly House and the Aquarium. The Horniman thrived during this time by exploiting the gentrification of Forest Hill. But the demographics shrank as it gained an influx of middle-class white families. “Visitor diversity has declined as numbers have increased,” Merriman says.
The reset program was created to combat this disparity. Last summer, the local Caribbean community was welcomed back with the re-establishment of a ‘jerk cookout’ in their gardens, while the recent exhibition Hair: Untold Stories tackled the global hair trade. More importantly, last year’s Festival 696 – named after the form of racial discrimination used by police to assess who organizes and even attends musical events – looked at “the relationship between public space and black live music”. Resident artists sampled instruments from the collection, intimate concerts were held in the conservatory, and larger concerts in the park drew crowds of up to 2,500 people.
Visitor surveys show that the museum’s actions have borne fruit. In the galleries on a weekday afternoon, you will find visitors of very different ages and backgrounds. There are parents with toddlers and teenagers with friends. As with many Victorian collections, the rooms have their curious objects, from a 17th century Spanish torture chair and a 19th century German apostle clock to Gothic pieces of taxidermy. His enormous stuffed walrus is a local celebrity: Merriman calls him ‘our Dippy’, in reference to the much-loved Diplodocus skeleton that greeted visitors in the main hall of London’s Natural History Museum.
If they win the museum of the year award, Merriman says the prize money would fund continued engagement between youth groups and the music collection, perhaps this time focusing on the community. Asian. “Since our goal is to expand our audience and make ourselves more accessible, music seems like the best route,” he says.
Looking to the future, the museum also aims to address environmental concerns. A new project, Nature + Love, will see the natural history galleries revamped to incorporate climate and extinction information; a former boat basin in the gardens transformed into a nature-themed playground with café; and open access to a wildlife trail on the old railway line to the Crystal Palace (scene painted in 1871 by Camille Pissarro).
These new initiatives, with an international and educational vocation, are part of the founding mission of the museum. Frederick Horniman “wanted to bring the world to Forest Hill”, says Merriman, and the result was “the only museum in London where you can see nature and culture side by side on a global level”.
Essential: Mount stuffed with two extinct passenger pigeons
“I chose these two specimens of male passenger pigeons because the story of the passenger pigeon represents a warning from history. It was once the most populous bird species in North America, with flocks of up to 5 billion birds taking a day to pass a single point. It was also the ingredient of popular pigeon pie. Due to hunting and habitat destruction, numbers have greatly declined by the end of the 19th century, and they were rare enough that Frederick Horniman wanted to acquire a pair of stuffed examples. The last living bird died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.”
Nick Merriman, Director, Horniman Museum and Gardens