Thursday 10 May 2012

Happy Horniman

It looked a bit grim outside again yesterday. I'm a hardy northerner, brought up on the rainy side of the Pennines. My Grandma tells me that that's why the cotton industry was located there - it's the dampest place in England. I recall my mother putting a catchy tune to the poem Weather, presumably in an attempt to create a motivational anthem for our (often wet) treks around the countryside as a child:
 Whether the weather be fine, 
Or whether the weather be not, 
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We'll weather the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!
   (Author: unknown)

I've found myself resurrecting it in recent days and teaching it to Culturebaby. Will this rain ever stop? (We're supposed to have some perks for the long commute and high prices in the South East). Anyway, it seemed like a day of museuming might be a good antedote to our precipitation-induced cabin fever. Culturebaby's little buddies suggested The Horniman. It's been on my list and we'd never been.

Frederick Horniman was a Victorian chap with a vision. He travelled the globe collecting natural and ethnographic items. He wanted to 'bring the world to Forest Hill' and educate and enrich the lives of the local community. My aforementioned long suffering husband no doubt rather relates to Frederick's wife who reportedly said that 'either the collection goes or we do'. They moved house soon after (and the museum stayed). The period seems to have produced a number of these eccentric/devoted/quirky/visionary (*delete as appropriate) individuals. We recently visited Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds run by the fabulous National Trust. There, the founder Charles Wade, took his family motto 'Let nothing perish' rather seriously and restored an entire Cotswold manor house to display his huge collection of over 22,000 objects and lived in a tiny building next door... Anyway, thank you Fred (and your understanding wife) for your rather diverse and fascinating collection.

 The museum gets great reviews from kid's activity websites, and rightly so. It is varied (to be honest it is seemingly rather random), and very child-centric: hands-on, sensory and engaging; and there are also thoughtful touches such as paper and drawing equipment all around the place. One of my enduring memories of my childhood was my love affair with the Manchester Museum. Its Egyptian collections were the singlemost significant influence on my subsequent academic and career choices. (Mummies beware - no pun - museuming could set your child up for a fabulously happy but financially challenged future...) It also had a great little vivarium, and it was this that I remembered fondly today as we discovered the wonderful aquarium at the Horniman. I think I expected a few small fish tanks, but the collection was impressive. Culturebaby has never been to an aquarium and she was absolutely fascinated.

We have one waterproof bath book. It's about a helpful starfish. We clearly need another as both I and my husband know it by heart and are rather bored with it, but it came in handy today as we peered into a tank of them. Lots of familiar characters from our other books and squirty bath toy collection were also there to greet us! We moved through areas with glowing jellyfish, bright blue poison frogs, butterflies, tropical fish and seahorses. Culturebaby particularly loved a huge tank of bright tropical fish with a special curved glass (making you feel almost inside the tank). She was so excited, I videoed her reaction. She also loved the seahorses as they floated and curled around strands of seaweed. At one point we were invaded by an excited school party, which was rather hectic but actually added to Culturebaby's interest (she loves watching other children), and then at other times we were left peering into the tanks, surrounded by other fascinated babies of a similar age. It's clearly another NCT group hang-out.

A second area of note was a fantastic collection of musical instruments. They come in all shapes and sizes. There are some important pieces, some odd, some enormous. It is impossible to imagine anyone being able to play some of them. My husband, who always seems to champion the quirky, large and bassy instruments in a band or orchestra (and I think rather wishes he had learned to play the double bass, baritone sax or tuba, probably because they look and sound rather funny) would have been suitably impressed by some of the giant pieces in the collection. Highlights of the music gallery for the kids were several 'sound stations' where we were able to select an image of a particular musical instrument and hear it played. We danced to the rhythm of an African drum, to an Irish reel, a Sioux war chant, and heard what many weird and wonderful looking instruments sound like... and nobody told us to shhhhhh! Fabulous! We then made the exciting discovery of a nearby Hands-on Space; a room we had to ourselves full of unusual musical instruments for us to try. Culturebaby enjoyed herself immensely banging on the drums and other more simple instruments, and then watched (and bounced) happily as she watched her toddler buddies demonstrate some of the others. A rather fascinating item was a set of pipes that appeared to be operated by hitting them with a flip flop...


A third hit with the toddlers was the Nature Base. The honeybees appear to have been on holiday, but there was a live mouse, stuffed animals to stroke, discovery games to play and a particularly clever display about animal activity at times of the day - with stuffed animals and a brilliant clock which, when turned, played the sounds associated with certain times, such as the dawn chorus. The associated Natural History collections also held a number of areas of interest with a giant stuffed walrus and other exciting animals. Culturebaby seemed most interested in a rather disquietening collection of dogs heads that were looking right out at the viewer. This part of the museum is rather traditional, perhaps a little tired, but there was still a lot to engage little ones.

Finally, the museum has some rather beautiful outdoor spaces, ideal for kids. The park is undergoing a £2.3m redevelopment and is set to be excellent, with features such as a music garden and live animals. The highlight here for me, however, was the rather unexpected and magnificent view across London. Forest Hill is indeed a proper hill, and I can think of fewer places in London better suited to a summer's day picnic. And if it rains, there is a stunning large Victorian Conservatory set aside as a picnic area.

We had travelled a long way to the museum and I was particularly annoyed with myself for missing the Egyptian collection as we charged down the hill to catch the last off peak train (clutching a new stash of fabulous baby-friendly musical instruments from the shop). But as we now have a year's membership of the aquarium (rather bargainous at £6), we have the perfect excuse to return.

"Those who use their eyes obtain the most enjoyment and knowledge. Those who look but do not see go away no wiser than when they came." (Frederick Horniman)

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