The seven wonders of the Horniman Museum

Meet an over-stuffed walrus, a mummy priestess and their mates at the Horniman Museum


The people of south London should be grateful that when Mrs Horniman threatened ‘either we leave or the collection does’, her husband Frederick John Horniman chose to keep his collection where it was, on the site of what is today the Horniman Museum. Demolished and rebuilt so that the objects could be properly displayed, the museum was re-opened in 1901 and has brought ‘the world to Forest Hill’, allowing us to get up close and personal with objects you might otherwise be unable to see ‘in the flesh’ – or rather ‘without the flesh’ in the case of stuffed animals. Here are seven of the best things you can find there.

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1. Kali and Shiva

Purchased by Frederick Horniman himself on a tour of India in 1894, this papier mâché statue depicts Kali (Goddess of death and destruction) dancing on Shiva (God of destruction). According to Hindu mythology, Kali was asked to kill a monster that was destroying the world. Annoyingly, every time the monster was wounded, 1,000 demons would spring from each drop of blood, which was slightly inconvenient, but Kali simply swallowed the monster in one gulp. Unfortunately, she then started a victory dance so intense that it triggered earthquakes and tsunamis, endangering the people of Earth and essentially causing more trouble than the monster. Eventually Shiva managed to calm her down by lying on the floor (figure that one out) and the world was saved. Happy days.

Find them in the Centenary Gallery

2. A really massive tuba

Meghan Trainor once sang that it was ‘All About That Bass’ so she would be delighted by this tremendous tuba. It’s nearly eight feet tall and the largest of over 8,000 instruments in the Horniman’s collection. Its lowest note – the B flat – is three octaves below middle C (the second lowest note on a piano). However, this particular giant instrument hasn’t seen much musical action, spending a great part of its life as a door sign. It was used first by a company that made brass instruments and then by the famous music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. After borrowing it in 2006, the Horniman successfully raised the £10,000 needed to purchase the tuba and it has been a talking point ever since. 

Find it in the Musical Collection


3. A very well-to-do female mummy

Displayed above the coffin case it was found in (one of the many famous sarcophagi in the Horniman collection), it is likely that this was the body of a priestess of Sokar, a fertility god. Together, the elaborate criss crossing of the bandages, the cartonnage (plastered linen) mask and the inscriptions suggest that she was a noble lady, who was also a musician or singer at the temple of Amun. Hemut Sokar – the name given on her coffin, meaning wife of Sokar – was from the New Kingdom, or 1550 BC; so she’s not looking too bad for an old girl.

Find her in the African Worlds section

4. The Walrus

Originally featured in an 1886 exhibition about the British colonies, which was praised by Queen Victoria, this walrus, along with many other animals, was bought by Horniman for his collection. We can only assume that, like James Henry Hubbard (the curator of the original exhibition), neither Horniman, nor Queen Victoria knew what a walrus actually looked like. The specimen in question has been completely overstuffed, meaning it has lost its natural rolls of skin and is instead sporting a botox-fresh, walrus-shaped beach-ball look. Although, bearing in mind it is over 100 years old, perhaps it should be cut some proverbial slack.

Find the walrus in the Natural History Section 


5. The midnight robber’s headdress

A traditional and beloved character of Trinidad Carnival, the midnight robber is loosely based on the cowboy figure of western cultures, usually dressing in a black satin shirt, pantaloons and a large, brimmed hat, all of which are supposed to endorse his ostentatious claims of wrath and merciless death. Exaggerated to the extreme, this hat is hugely ornate, giving the wearer a towering appearance – although it might not encourage you to take the robber’s curses and threats too seriously.

Find it in the African Worlds section

6. Loads of neon coral

Not to be confused with the interior of ping-pong bar Bounce, the neon glow of this coral is thought by scientists to provide extra light so that extra photosynthesis can take place in the algae that lives on the reef, as this provides the oxygen needed for the coral to survive. Fluorescent pigments can also act like sunblock for coral living in shallower waters, to combat the magnification of the sun’s rays underwater. The coral can be found in the aquarium at basement level (but be aware that this is the only part of the museum that charges a small fee for entry).

Find it shining in the aquarium


7. The Conservatory

The gardens at the Horniman contain hundreds of species, from trees that are centuries old to plants specifically used in traditional dyeing methods. But it’s the cast iron conservatory that stands out. A far cry from your standard PVC affair, it was commissioned and built for the Horniman family house in Croydon in 1894 and wasn’t relocated to the museum until 1989, after falling into disrepair. It was saved by the English Heritage and is now a Grade II-listed structure, providing a stunning, airy space for events at the museum.

Head out to the garden

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