Horniman Museum and Gardens

Museums

In pictures: around the world in five objects at London's Horniman Museum

New World Gallery of anthropology lives up to founder’s aim to “bring the world to Forest Hill”

The Horniman Museum and Gardens manages to be both well loved—especially by loyal locals in its south London district of Forest Hill—and totally unknown to “huge swathes” of Londoners, says its newly appointed chief executive, Nick Merriman. The former director of the Manchester Museum joined the Horniman in May and is already on a mission to widen its audience in tune with the “super-diversity” of a city of 270 nationalities and 300 languages. “I want the Horniman to be the most culturally democratic museum in London,” he says.

In the 20 years that his predecessor, Janet Vitmayer, was in charge, visitor numbers to the museum and gardens soared from 200,000 to more than 900,000. “The numbers are fantastic, but the demographics have narrowed,” Merriman says. In gentrifying Forest Hill, “the big growth has been in fairly middle-class, museums-confident visitors”. The Horniman now has the 1 million mark in its sights for 2023, but only 18% of its current audience is BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic). Merriman’s ambition is to shift that to 40% within the next decade, reflecting the population of greater London overall.

He hopes the museum’s eclectic collections—spanning anthropology, natural history and musical instruments, plus living specimens in the aquarium and butterfly house—will be a natural draw. The Horniman has been the only “undivided museum” of nature and culture in London since the British Museum’s natural history material was moved to South Kensington to become the Natural History Museum in the 1880s, Merriman says. As a result, the Horniman “can deal with the whole world and, in relation to that, important contemporary issues”, he says, such as promoting tolerance between different cultures “in increasingly intolerant times” and taking a stand on climate change.

This progressive agenda is already embodied in the free-entry museum’s new World Gallery, which opens to the public today (29 June) with more than 3,000 objects drawn from the 80,000-strong anthropology collection. The dense displays, which are shaped around the world’s five inhabited continents, have taken £4.7m and five years to realise, including fieldwork, conservation, contemporary art commissions and more than 200 consultations with groups from the communities that are represented. Merriman says: “The Horniman curators have always been very rooted in the community, whether it’s a community in Venezuela or in Lewisham [the London borough where the museum is located].”

An upper gallery traces the origins of that philosophy back to the museum’s globetrotting founder, Frederick Horniman, a Victorian tea trader and voracious collector. To “bring the world to Forest Hill”, he threw open his family home to visitors, before building the museum in his name in 1901. Far from a treasure seeker, Horniman was “interested in equality and generosity, and not at all in flashy things”, Merriman says. His anthropology collection was, from the start, “about curiosity, difference and diversity”.

Here, Merriman reveals some of the human stories behind the objects now on view—many for the first time—in the Horniman’s World Gallery.

Asia: “In the Himalayas, Tibet in particular, nomadic goat-herders now have iPhones, so we collected an iPhone. They use them as a really important tool to send photographs to other nomads about the state of the pasture or any hazards. The whole World Gallery is about showing that this isn’t some 19th-century historical collection, but these are living cultures that are still changing.”
Horniman Museum and Gardens

Asia: “In the Himalayas, Tibet in particular, nomadic goat-herders now have iPhones, so we collected an iPhone. They use them as a really important tool to send photographs to other nomads about the state of the pasture or any hazards. The whole World Gallery is about showing that this isn’t some 19th-century historical collection, but these are living cultures that are still changing.”

Africa: “We have one of the smallest Benin collections of any museum in the world. The British Museum has the biggest, at 700 items, and we’ve got 17, all of which are on display here. The label acknowledges that they were plundered by British troops. We did the display in dialogue with colleagues in Lagos and in Benin City. We are observers in the Benin Dialogue Group [of European museums] and very much support the aim to have a display [of loaned artefacts] in Benin City as part of a long-term approach to the future of the dispersed collections.”
Horniman Museum and Gardens

Africa: “We have one of the smallest Benin collections of any museum in the world. The British Museum has the biggest, at 700 items, and we’ve got 17, all of which are on display here. The label acknowledges that they were plundered by British troops. We did the display in dialogue with colleagues in Lagos and in Benin City. We are observers in the Benin Dialogue Group [of European museums] and very much support the aim to have a display [of loaned artefacts] in Benin City as part of a long-term approach to the future of the dispersed collections.”

Oceania: “We are working with contemporary artists; there are around 20 or so new commissions in the gallery. This part-Fijian, part-Kirabati artist, Chris Charteris, has designed an eco-warrior helmet. Shells are very important in the material culture of Kirabati and he wanted to do something that was about being militant about climate change, using the local resources.”
Horniman Museum and Gardens

Oceania: “We are working with contemporary artists; there are around 20 or so new commissions in the gallery. This part-Fijian, part-Kiribati artist, Chris Charteris, has designed an eco-warrior helmet. Shells are very important in the material culture of Kiribati and he wanted to do something that was about being militant about climate change, using the local resources.”

America: “Most people will be very familiar with the Native American material from the Plains. This display talks about the historic but also about the warrior societies that re-emerged in the 1950s and became part of the civil rights movement. They are still very strong now, particularly amongst Native American ex-servicemen and women. This Arapaho cap relates to that.”
Horniman Museum and Gardens

America: “Most people will be very familiar with the Native American material from the Plains. This display talks about the historic but also about the warrior societies that re-emerged in the 1950s and became part of the civil rights movement. They are still very strong now, particularly amongst Native American ex-servicemen and women. This Arapaho cap relates to that.”

EUROPE: “These are English charms carried by soldiers in the First World War—successful or unsuccessful, we’re not sure. There are stones with holes in them which were used to ward off different ailments in different parts of the country. On the other side is a version of a clootie tree, which are associated with wells in Wales and parts of England and Ireland. People went to the holy well with a particular ailment, like a bad hip. You dipped a rag in, rubbed water on [body part] and twisted the rag on a branch, so trees were covered in them. This tree is interactive: we invite people to write a wish and tie it on.”
Horniman Museum and Gardens

Europe: “These are English charms carried by soldiers in the First World War—successful or unsuccessful, we’re not sure. There are stones with holes in them which were used to ward off different ailments in different parts of the country. On the other side is a version of a clootie tree, which are associated with wells in Wales and parts of England and Ireland. People went to the holy well with a particular ailment, like a bad hip. You dipped a rag in, rubbed water on [the body part] and twisted the rag on a branch, so trees were covered in them. This tree is interactive: we invite people to write a wish and tie it on.”