anthropological collection

Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London (UK) houses a wonderful anthropology collection. Over 3,000 objects are on display, offering a wide view into how people all over the world experience their life and seek to understand their surroundings. I had the pleasure of visiting the museum and browse its gallery!

The museum was founded by Frederick Horniman, a tea trader who made a fortune with the company his father started. The museum is very clear about the colonial past of the museum and its collections: the collection of ethnographic objects to educate and inform people in Britain about other cultures was only possible in a colonial setting and with a fortune earned by the exploitation of others. The museum actively works with community researchers, artists and creatives on a continuous basis, and it will be interesting to see how this translates into choices and decisions, for example in regard to the Benin bronzes on display.

The central part of the museum, and the part I came to visit in particular, is the World Gallery. Here, showcases form cubicles that each address a continent. Africa, the Americas, Oceania, Asia and Europe are represented by a selection of objects that highlight varying themes. You will find many beautiful examples of ethnographic art, ranging from clothing and adornment to utensils and tools. What I particularly liked is that these are not only aimed at seeing, but at hearing, smelling and touching as well. With the display of Tuareg craftmanship you will find worked leather and a veil weight which are meant to be touched: feeling the patterns below your fingers makes an object come more to life than just by looking at it. The Asian section offers the possibility to smell the medicine of a Bhutan doctor, and throughout the exhibition sounds of song and music are present. These latter can cause somewhat of a drawback though: as they are audible throughout the Gallery, they create permanent more or less noisy surroundings.

The section on Perspectives shows how people aim to understand, control and categorize their world. Lots of amulets and other meaningful objects illustrate the problems and challenges people faced and how they sought to deal with those. I loved the showcase with all sorts of amulets from Great Britain: holed flint as a charm against nosebleeds, ‘hag stones’ to avert witches and pigeon’s feet against cramp are just a few of those. That did bring me to another drawback (well, at least, to me): the museum shop has many lovely and sustainable gift ideas, but nothing relating to the anthropological collection. There are no museum or exhibition catalogues to offer a deeper level of understanding to visitors wanting to learn more. While the museum works hard to engage visitors during their stay, by offering several moments to reflect on one’s own beliefs, values and thoughts in the exhibition, this ends at the door.

The museum website does offer more information, though. It has a great and searchable overview of the collections: providing the collections with a more detailed description is a work in progress and will provide a great resource for research. On the website, you will also find information on ongoing collaborations, projects under way and an extensive blog with a wide variety of background stories (found more on those ‘hag-stones’ here!), inviting to keep on reading and exploring.

The museum is surrounded by beautiful gardens, and boasts a really good museum café where I enjoyed a lovely outdoor lunch with a view on the conservatory. It also houses a Butterfly House, an Aquarium and a Natural History Gallery: I did not have a chance to visit those, but I will definitely be back to explore more of this beautiful, colourful and lively museum!

Horniman Museum and Gardens: find out more on the museum website