Human emotion at the Horniman Museum, Andrea Terrón (Senior Fellow 2018)

Andrea Terrón (Guatemala, ITP 2017,  Senior Fellow 2018)

Frederick John Horniman started collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860. His overarching mission was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and educate and enrich the lives of the local community. His travels took him across the globe to  destinations such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States, collecting objects which ‘either appealed to his own fancy or that seemed to him likely to interest and inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands’. By the late nineteenth century, these ‘natural, industrial and artistic spoils had accumulated to such an extent that he gave up the whole house to the collections’. Mr. Horniman resolved to donate the museum, collections and adjoining grounds as a free gift to the people in perpetuity with London County Council as Trustees.

More information about the museum and it’s founde at:

During the ITP 2017 summer programme the group visited the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and we had the opportunity to talk to several members of the curatorial staff who gave us a presentation on the changes they were planning for the redesign of the World Gallery, to be opened in 2018. We were also shown the preventive conservation objects were undergoing before being put on permanent display. The renovations and work surrounding the developments were made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant, with additional help from other donations.

As Senior Fellow on the 2018 summer programme I was able to return to the Horniman Museum. Going through the new World Gallery I was happy to see that the objects, now on display, are accompanied by interviews, comments and histories throughout the cases and sections. This is one of the ways visitors can best understand ethnographic collections as it shows that people are alive and have been changing, are fluid, are adapting to the worlds changes and interactions, and not ‘by-gone’ cultures. I noticed that there is a line of questioning throughout the exhibit that makes you connect with the feelings and thoughts one has, about one’s life. What is striking about the gallery is that you may feel how people are living their lives in their own worlds.

The objectives are there, on display, as planned in 2017:  ‘the gallery will draw people in; we will give them a journey abroad that they will want to keep repeating; we will take on different approaches to encourage a wider view of the worlds’ vision emphasising on the appreciation of people’s cultures;  we will open the collection for all the people, showing what it is that we are taking care of, and finally; the gallery will be a combination between scholarship, collection and engagement.’

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In the past I have found that, sometimes, ethnographic museums or anthropological exhibitions present objects outside of modern or contemporary ways of living, and they don’t communicate the fact they are talking about living cultures. At the Horniman Museum in 2018 we can see a change in curators’ perspectives and actions, and researchers recognize that they are dealing with live culture and with people changing their traditions and adapting to worlds’ changes and influences. The main question is: What does it mean to be human and to live a human life in the one world we all inhabit? There is a clear emphasis on the role of human emotion and lived experience.

Some other things we discussed and that were evident in the displays is the idea that ‘through the collections we can discover our shared humanity’; exploring life through diverse points of view we can question preconceived ideas and engage with different ways of understanding. I believe that one of the roles of a museum is to reveal how ethnographic objects function during intelligible daily life and global events and are able to celebrate human creativity, imagination and adaptability and diversity. Thanks to the ITP I could see the process from conservation and planning to the final exhibit result. This museum is a must see, the collections are rich and varied, and one should not want to miss the animals and gardens!

Come an visit..JPG