Monday, May 7th 2012
The weather is not very nice today and as we have been fairly active over the last two days, we fancied a gentler day and an indoor pursuit. Accordingly, we took the bus to deepest Dulwich and paid a visit to the Horniman Museum.
The Horniman is an unusual museum but one that is worth visiting again and again. It dates from 1891 when Frederick Horniman opened his own house to the public but this original building was replaced in 1901 by one specially designed in the Arts & Crafts style by Charles Harrison Townsend. There is so much to see, in both the permanent and the temporary exhibitions, that you cannot do it all justice in one visit. You need to return regularly and concentrate on specific topics or wander freely, looking at whatever catches your eye. Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free and photography is allowed. There may be a charge for temporary exhibitions and photography may be banned from these for copyright reasons. There is a charge for one permanent exhibition, the splendid aquarium, but it is well worth the small fee. You can take photos there as long as you do not use flash as this can damage the sensitive eyes of underwater creatures. (It is also annoying to other humans!)
Today we looked at two exhibitions, one temporary and one permanent. I’ll leave you to guess which one I liked best. Probably, you won’t find that too difficult.
The first exhibition, to which the above attractive portrait belongs, was entitled The Body Adorned: Dressing London. The subject may have been what people in London wear but the more interesting exhibits were those of costumes worn at different periods in different cultures. The idea was to situate London dress within the broader context (a perfectly sound idea) but, for me, it came across as a more generalized exhibition on costume through the ages and across the world. Perhaps I needed to pay closer attention to the information boards.
Thayendanegea, aka Joseph Brant, was a Mohawk who travelled to London twice in the 18th century to assure the British crown of the allegiance of his people during the American Revolution. His costume tended to be part native and part European and he sometimes wore completely European dress, perhaps as a means of reassurance to those Europeans with whom he had contact.
Cigarette cards were made, of course, to encourage brand loyalty. The smoker’s children would badger him or her to buy the same brand in order to complete the set. They were often well produced in good colour and could prove educational as well as addictive. Some tobacco companies sold or gave away albums in which the cards could be stored. This set shows dress around the British Empire while others would show costume worn by trades and professions in London (hence the relevance to this exhibition). I regret the reflection but this is often unavoidable in exhibitions where light from big windows or strong focussed lamps reflects off the glass or off the exhibits themselves.
Something that struck me while viewing this costume – and indeed others – was that even though the costume is “empty”, i.e. hanging on a stand, there is still a sense of presence to it. That shows how costume has a powerful symbolic value and influences us on both the conscience level (e.g. we recognize a police officer by his uniform) and on a subconscious level, creating expectations about the sort of person dressed in that way and his likely behaviour.
This is an example of dress that expresses prestige. As the information panel explains, “Shirts such as this were worn as symbols of honour by the bravest warriors in Plains Indian society. The shirt is made from buckskin and decorated with fringes, bands of beadwork, and locks of human hair. The motifs and colours of such clothing often had symbolic meanings relating to warfare, the land or human values.” I wonder how this relates to special garments handed out in our own culture during competitions, such as the yellow shirt awarded to the day’s lead cyclist in the Tour de France.
The museum invited young people in the age range 14 to 19 to make observations of dress and interview peers about their dress choices. This resulted in a gallery of well produced photos of different styles of clothing. I felt particular sympathy for this young lady as she was described as having a passion for rings.
After visiting the costume exhibition, we went down to the aquarium. This is really very good and comprises a number of very different environments.
Several displays were devoted to the subject of “British Pond”. Beautifully and realistically made, they provided a view of a putative pond both below and above water. In this one, looking carefully into the undergrowth we could see…
…a pair of frogs. Apparently contented with their lot, they seemed unbothered by the human faces passing before them.
(As these photos are taken through glass. there is a slight lessening of sharpness and contrast for which I apologize.)
This blue-lit tank, entitled “Drifters”, is one of the most popular displays and it is therefore quite difficult to photograph because of the almost continual presence of heads and bodies in front of it. The slow drifting movement is as mysterious as it is hypnotic. The continual rise and fall of these transparent shapes is almost like a kind of visual music.
In one of the sea tanks, there resides this magnificent specimen, a large and handsome lobster. He posed for the photo like a professional though I think that in reality he was busy feeding.
A section called the Iwokrama rainforest gives us a glimpse into a tropical zone with a tangle of foliage and colourful blossoms, together with those flying flowers we call butterflies. This one is enjoying the delights of a sliced orange.
As if offering herself for a photo call, this butterfly perched obligingly on the glass where she could be examined in detail. Unfortunately, she seems to be a rather ragged specimen, perhaps having already run most of her life’s course.
Before leaving the museum, we took a look at the magnificent conservatory. Built in 1894, it was originally sited at the Horniman family home at Coombe Cliff in Croydon. It was re-erected here by English Heritage. There is a nice post about this building on Caroline’s Miscellany.
The Horniman Museum was originally set in its own grounds but since then, more and more land has been added, creating gardens in which to stroll or sit in fine weather. Unfortunately, today’s weather was not propitious so we went to the bus stop to begin the journey home. On this visit, as usual, we merely dipped into the treasures available in this museum but we shall return for further enjoyable explorations.