You know how much I enjoy visiting places in London that are new to me. It’s even more fun when I didn’t know they existed before, and they turn out to be idiosyncratic and a bit bonkers. Let me introduce you to The Horniman Museum.
If you live in south east London I expect you’ve heard of it already, but for those of us in the North, it was a mystery. ‘South of the River’ represents a transport challenge we’re not always prepared to scale; south east in particular is one of those areas that, for me, is pretty much a blank on the map. So when my Drawing in Museums class was due to take place there, I was torn: it was good to go somewhere new, but how on earth was I going to get there? It turned out to be surprisingly easy, making use of the Overground lines, (which I have avoided since a particularly miserable journey from Richmond a couple of years ago.) It turns out that some of their trains do actually go to where they say they will.
The Horniman Museum was established by Mr Horniman using the wealth his family had generated through tea trading in the 19th century. His fancy for collecting ‘to bring the world to Forest Hill’ led to the building of a museum which he left to the people of London. His main areas of interest seem to have been in zoological specimens, handicrafts from far flung cultures and musical instruments.
It’s an eccentric collection, but on the day of my visit it was undeniably popular, perhaps too popular, as a destination for the under 10s. A brilliant place for a school trip, for crocodiles of small children to file past glass cases filled with stuffed animals, shells and animal bones before a visit to the aquarium. The noise was astonishing. The barrel ceiling and the wooden and glass cases threw back the squeals and chattering of scores of young voices and the tramp of school shoes on linoleum.
‘Do you do this all the time?’
‘What is it?’
being my particular favourites.
It was quieter in the afternoon, and I spent the time in the Centenary Gallery where I started to sketch a little wooden figure apparently used to decorate the prow of a boat in the Samoan Islands, but my efforts were thwarted when the light that had been illuminating its display case went out. I turned my attention to the chicken mask which is also from the Pacific Islands.
Some museum information shed light on the evolution of the curating philosophy of the Collection. At the outset, much of its purpose was to illustrate ‘primitive’ arts from less advanced peoples to prove the superiority of the evolution of the western European. In post Colonial times, the collection has been entirely reassessed and is now organised to show, in the Centenary Gallery at least, the results of the same preoccupation with masks and the illustration of people in different communities around the world.
Part of the point of having our drawing classes in Museums is to look at entirely unfamiliar objects, and render them on paper. Their unfamiliarity means that it is not possible to fall into the trap of assuming I know what they look like. I find it a surprisingly relaxing and engaging thing to do. I can sit quietly, and draw. It doesn’t matter if I finish or not, it doesn’t matter if it’s any good or not. It’s just a drawing; lines on a piece of paper.
As I’m writing this I realise that I have lost that feeling of freedom to experiment and to fail and it not matter, in my writing. Somehow, if I take it seriously it has to carry more weight and expectation, and it has become correspondingly more difficult.
Now what am I going to do with that realisation….?