18 September 2018

Horniman’s New World Gallery

By John Firmin

Successive generations of families from Forest Hill and beyond have enjoyed the Horniman Museum’s collections and gardens. The museum has now brought together in its new World Gallery over 3,000 objects from around the world that explore the fundamental question of what it means to be human.

The World Gallery continues Frederick Horniman’s ambition “to bring the world to Forest Hill”. At the entrance to the gallery is a series of audio-visual digital installations that show people from the Horniman’s community groups, volunteers, collectors and anthropologists talking about objects that have personal meaning to them. Next to the displays are objects selected for their emotional resonances — can you connect with them? Just imagine what it was like 2,000 years ago using the black obsidian mirror on show, and peering at your image in its dark depths.

Next, you find yourself in the first of the five Encounters areas, each corresponding to a continent. Check out the head-hunter ornaments in the Asian area. Before the arrival of Christianity, hunting heads was essential if a man wanted to gain the respect of his community. Each would try to outdo the other in the extravagance of the ornaments they attached to their garments.

Across the aisle in the African area are fascinating objects from across the continent. Check out the monkey crossbow belonging to the Mbendjele people or the life-size camel with its carefully crafted saddle — do you think it would have been comfortable to ride? Have a browse around the Nigerian market.

In the Oceanian area, children will be fascinated by the projection of the ocean onto the floor showing fish swimming. Imagine travelling from island to Pacific island in the small canoe on show — it must have felt tiny to be in it at sea.

The focus of the American area is on native Americans and people of the Arctic. Listen to stories and touch the material used to keep polar hunters warm while they stalked their prey.

In the European area is to be found the Horniman’s own cloutie tree. In Britain in ancient times, scraps of fabric were tied to trees growing near sacred wells or springs as part of a healing ritual. You are invited to write down your wish and attach it to the tree — maybe it will come true! From Eastern Europe there are quirky Turon masks embodying the dark forces of nature — objects I associate with Africa rather than Europe.


The gallery culminates with the Perspectives area, which presents objects in a variety of categories such as Textiles and Curiosities. It poses questions about how we classify the world around us, who decides what a thing is and whose knowledge is important. You are invited to add your perspective on what you have just seen.

Flying above all these wonderful objects is a beautiful display of kites and banners hanging from the newly renovated ceiling vault. Collected and commissioned from Guatemala, China, London and beyond, these emblems signify our human instinct to come together in celebration, play or protest.

If you haven’t already done so, take yourself and your family to the Horniman to see the new World Gallery. It’s well worth the experience!

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