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On our recent visit to London at half term, my mother in law suggested we visited the Horniman Museum as a low cost activity to do with the children.
The museum and gardens are located in the Forest Hill area of South London. We got there by car, and even though it was distance wise not far from my husband's childhood home in Greenwich, it was quite a long journey by car to get there as the traffic on the morning of our visit was quite heavy. It is located at 100 London Road, Forest Hill, SE23 3PQ.
On the day of our visit, there were quite a lot of people travelling to the museum, so we travelled over with 3 cars. We found that it was pretty easy to get on street parking which was free, and just outside a gate to the gardens. It is also accesible by bus.
The day of our visit was pretty chilly, but clear, so we did spend a little bit of the time in the gardens, but most of our visit focussed on the museum itself. Entrance to the museum is completely free, though there are donation boxes located around the site to put money in if you wish.
We were visiting this location with children aged 2, 4, and 6, so it was essential we did things that would occupy all three of them. We spent a few hours at the museum, and didn't manage to cover all of it on this particular visit as we had other plans, so I will focus my reviews on the bits that we saw.
The museum opens at 10:30 till 5:30. We arrived about 11am and left about 3pm. When we entered the museum, we noticed the toilets and cafe to the left of the entrance, and a kiosk in front of us. To the right was a guest shop, and there was a gentleman trying to get people to go to a free workshop looking at children's toys from around the world, which we accepted.
We had about 45 minutes to fill before our workshop was due to start, so we went downstairs into the music gallery.
Here, there were packed display cases full of instrument from around the world. Some familiar, some less so. For the children, there were desks with little TV screens on, and buttons, and they could select an instrument and then watch some information about it. The children did find this quite entertaining. Just off this gallery was a much smaller room designed just for children. In this little room there were about 10 very unfamilar instruments that the children could try playing, from some pipes you could hit with a pair of flip flops, to a frog where you moved a beater across its back to make a croaky noise. All 3 children wanted to have a go with everything themselves, as did all the other children using the room. It was quite busy, but they were happy they got to try everything, and the children using the site seemed quite polite and willing to take it in turns.
Toys from around the world exhibition
On the day of our visit there were two workshops designed to be hands on for children. We had high expectations about this, as we were told the children could touch everything. What we actually found was that the lady running this workshop was not very child friendly. She set off talking to the children rather dryly about Guatamalan worry dolls, and it kind of looked like she was going to spend the whole session talking to the children and getting the odd one up to demonstrate a toy. However, with an audience of small children, a few quickly lost concentration and stressed the woman out completely. Our children didn't seem to mind seeing these toys which were an interesting mix of familiar things like Jacob's ladders and Russian stacking dolls, but with interesting items like push along toys made out of completely recycled materials.
The children had fun playing with a few toys, but we kind of wished we had ignored this session and just gone on to explore the museum as it was too long and not hands on enough really.
By the end of this session we needed lunch, and as food and drink cannot be consumed in the museum, we asked where we could eat our pack lunch and we were directed to a room in the gardens for this purpose.
The Lunch Area
This was just a large room with 3 large picnic tables running down the middle of it. It had a couple of rubbish bins and some fan heaters, and it was clean, but it would have been nice to have something in here like a drinks vending machine. It was quite basic and chilly but we were grateful to be able to picnic indoors rather than braving the elements.
After lunch, we explored a small area of the garden. We had a quick look at some sheep that were right next to the packed lunch space, and apparently there is a whole host of animals like goats, chickens, ferrets, rabbits, guinea pigs and alpacas.
We were right near the bandstand which dates from 1912, and we had to walk through the sound garden to get back to the museum so we had a quick look at that, but unfortunately it was too cold to enjoy the garden fully on this visit. It sounds really interesting as there is a wildlife garden, a medicinal garden, a dye garden, a food garden and materials garden. We will definitely have to go back and check this out, and maybe even take the dog with us on our next visit.
The musical garden was not a massive area, but featured things the children could touch, and run sticks along to make noises. The view from the garden was amazing, and my mother in law was pointing out things to me like Battersea power station and the Shard building towards the centre of London. Being up on the hill added to the chilliness I am sure.
Heading back into the museum we decided that we would all enjoy checking out the Aquarium located on the ground floor. There was a minimal charge for this, with a family ticket being about £7 for our family of four. For this price I honestly thought it would not be that good, but I was really surprised at the variety of species on show in the tanks.
My children were delighted to see things that they are familiar with like crabs and sea horses, and star fish, but there were different types of amphibians and reptiles that were quite camouflaged, and it was very challenging to spot some of these in their tanks. There were tanks set up like habitats from around the globe, so there were things to spot like tree frogs, and fun facts around the display tanks to read.
While this was not the largest aquarium I have visited, there was enough to fill a good hour in this part of the museum located on the ground floor.
Natural History exhibition
One permanent exhibition we were keen to visit was the large collection of stuffed wildlife. This is over two floors in a great hall, the centerpiece being a stuffed Walrus. The lower floor is packed completely with exhibits from every species you could imagine, most of these are were collected from this opening in 1901. These exhibits are absolutely amazing as there are animals that I have only ever heard about in books or seen on the computer screen, but it ranged from rodents to reptiles to primates to birds, to butterflies. I could have honestly spent hours in just this room looking round but the children were not as patient.
The upper floor was much smaller animals and more skeletons rather than stuffed exhibits, and while looking round here you were on a balcony the whole way round the upper floor so at all times you could look down at the animals below.
After seeing all these wonderfully preserved exhibits from the exploration of the globe, we took the children into a smaller room that had some interactive things to do like match leaves to the tree it came from, or look inside a honey comb to see the bees. Here there was a stack of papers and pencils for the children to use, and there was a lovely display of childrens work who had previously visited the museum.
By this point our visit was pretty much over as the children were getting pretty tired from walking round the venue. We missed out a wildlife photography exhibit, and an african artefacts collection, and a look of london exhibit, but we would not have enjoyed it if we had forced ourselves to go on.
My mother in law thought this would be a wonderful place to take our children to, and I have to say I agree. I am quite glad that they got to experience it as it was a lovely way to spend the day. I did think there was a lot to keep the children occupied and plenty to interact with. There is a lot of thought into keeping children happy. If we go back again I will likely print off some of the trails that children can do as they walk round some of the areas like the natural history exhibition, and it might then be a bit less dull at points.
I have thought long and hard about what score to give it. I think I was a little put off by the workshop that we went to, as I found it a lot less hands on than I expected it to be. Sure some of the exhibits were old, but some a lot less delicate, so I felt it should have been aimed better at the kids in the audience. We found it dull as adults and we were polite enough to sit there without fidgetting but try getting toddlers to do that.
I also found the children got bored looking at lots of glass cabinets after a little while, so we couldn't look at as much as we wanted to. Once you have seen one stuffed bird you have seen enough if you are 4.
It is however excellent value, and very entertaining, so 4 stars from me.