A few weeks ago I took a train up to south-east London to visit a fab little museum full of interesting collections and exhibits. Frederick John Horniman opened this museum using his father’s tea-trading fortune in 1901, it houses his vast collections of anthropological artifacts, musical instruments and natural curios. I was there primarily to see the temporary exhibit ‘Dinosaurs: Monster Families’ which is on until September.
The building itself is quite an impressive Arts and Crafts style construction – designed by architect Charles Townsend and is set within extensive leafy gardens. The museum is free entry and has plenty of floors to explore, including an aquarium. The dinosaur exhibition was held all in one large room so it did not take too long to go around but it depends on whether you like to read all the information and look closely at every object or skim through it.
There was quite an interesting mix of displays in the exhibit, including framed artwork, fossils (mostly casts) of skeletons and eggs, models, videos, some stuffed modern-day animals for comparison and even a sand pit full of fossils to dig up for the kids. They had definitely made an effort to provide interest for both adults and children, with touchy-feely displays as well as detailed information on the fossils and the dinosaurs behaviour.
The main aspect of the exhibit was exploring the evidence for how dinosaurs cared for their young (if at all), hypothesizing that some may have lain their eggs and then left the young to themselves (e.g. sauropods) or that others may have made nests, incubated and raised their young to independence (ornithomimids for example). There were comparisons to modern day reptiles such as crocodiles (who care for their young after hatching) and obviously to birds. Most interesting was to see some of the amazing fossilized nests and embryos, one even had a parent still crouched over the nest and another was from a giant ornithomimid called Gigantoraptor with the eggs arranged in a circle some 2 metres across!
Of course what everyone goes to see is the massive skeletal mount of a tyrannosaur – except this isn’t the one you’d expect (as one child thought when he ran up to it shouting ‘Look! It’s a T-rex!’) it is actually a Tarbosaurus which is similar but smaller, with a different skull shape and from Asia. They had both a fully mounted skeleton and a couple of very large, scary skulls which were rather impressive I must say. There were a few other skeletal mounts including a very nice Protoceratops with babies and a Probactrosaurus (rather like an Iguanodon).
So that was all very good, however with time to spare we wandered around the Natural History hall to take in the extensive collection of taxidermy and pickled organs. The famous Walrus was grinning away as usual from his central position but it was the smaller objects that I headed for. Along the walls were delightful cabinets full of mollusc shells, corals, fossilized sea-life, skulls, tiny animals and a few cat brains in alcohol. On the other side are cabinets full of stuffed animals representing all the diverse groups of organisms on Earth, including some of the most weird and wonderful such as Pangolin, Platypus and even some miniature inaccurate models of dinosaurs.
The highlight though is the very well stuffed and displayed birds; really though the arrangement in the cases, the variety of species, the quality of the taxidermy are all fantastic. On the balcony above are displayed even more cases full of curios and dead things, mostly invertebrates but with some nice little fossils too which complement the dino exhibit well. There is also a very ornate and intricate clock taller than a man with little models of saints and other holy peoples tucked into it that pop out and ring on bells on the hour – quite over the top but fascinating.
You could easily spend an entire day in this place exploring the other collections (if you’re into musical instruments from around the world) as well as the cafe and gardens, I only had an afternoon but it was well spent. Definitely worth a visit if you have the time, especially while the dinosaur exhibit is still on – after all who doesn’t like dinosaurs?