It always astounds me that I can drive for well over an hour and still not reach the opposite side of London from my home. In fact, it’s quicker for me to get to Oxford than south east London. Which is the only reason we haven’t visited the Horniman Museum before today.
With a natural history museum, aquarium, lots of interactive fun and some animals in the gardens outside (plus the fact most of it’s free), the discovery that there’s also a temporary dinosaur exhibition meant all my daughter’s favourite things were under one roof.
So we piled into the car (still quicker for us than going by train) and put our navigational destiny in the hands of Google Maps (risky). And the Horniman was worth every minute of the drive.
From getting our stickers at the admission desk (me: jellyfish, Minnie: walrus) to buying a snapping monkey head on the way out (I’m not quite sure what came over me), it seemed perfect for kids.
There are lots of little touches – toddler steps in the aquarium, exhibits you’re encouraged to touch, and colouring at every turn – which just helped make every stop fun.
And while the museum initially seemed fairly small from an adult point of view, we were there for five hours and barely managed to see all the indoor galleries.
Getting sidetracked by unexpectedly bumping into a friend outside, we had to abandon our plan to visit the animals before making our return trip home too.
First stop was the dinosaurs. It’s a fun twist on the usual by focusing on dinosaur ‘families’ – so there were eggs and replica nests, as well as baby dinosaur skeletons too, not something I’ve really come across on our museum visits elsewhere and a twist on our usual perceptions of these extinct monsters.
Along with a replica of a near-complete dinosaur hatchling skeleton (Baby Louie), there was also one of T-Rex’s cousins, a thoroughly huge Tarbosaurus. But the winner for Minnie, was the discovery pit.
Designed to let children dig for eggs and bones, there are paintbrushes for precision archaeological excavation (or wild enthusiastic sweeping) plus supersize magnifying glasses to examine the finds.
Best of all for me, was the fact that the fake sand/earth was actually tiny bits of brown rubbery material – easy to sweep off, and unlike sand it didn’t get instantly rubbed into Minnie’s eyes.
After some brief digging, she got sidetracked filling the plastic pith helmets with these bits in an impromptu cookery session with a new friend.
The aquarium came a close second in excitement terms – Minnie flatly refused to even contemplate lunch until she’d visited both, finally eating well over an hour later than usual. For a three-year-old, you need to be pretty excited to put off the chance of a kids’ lunchbox and sharing my cake.
Again, it’s small but rather beautifully done. The tanks include British pond and fish life, starfish, seahorses and anemones, as well as tropical reefs and Amazonian creatures – a blue tree frog is hard to beat, I think.
Everywhere were quirky facts and clever designs, so the dull grey tench and bluey grey lobster got as much love as the neon bright fish darting through the coral.
And while Minnie kept a warily respectful distance, I was mesmerised by the jellyfish floating and pulsating in their blue tank, looking delicately transparent.
Finally only the lure of a cheese sandwich (or quiche Lorraine and lemon blueberry cake in my case) convinced her to leave the fish behind.
With single entry tickets, I had an iron-clad excuse why we couldn’t go back – but fortunately, a stuffed walrus was all the reason we needed to keep exploring.
The natural history section, with the famous overstuffed walrus at its centre, is packed with a variety of animals. I always find them slightly odd, in that frenzied Victorian taxidermy way, but it’s an incredible collection for kids to look at.
There’s even a dodo, although my lesson on the perils of hunting and extinction slightly backfired when Minnie assumed everything in the display cases was also wiped out.
Tucked away to one side sits the Nature Base with a few animals to stroke, including a fox and badger (more wariness from Minnie, who took some convincing to believe they weren’t just asleep) but also live bees and mice in special habitats.
Even more fun was being able to turn a wheel and see which animals and birds were awake at different points during the day, and hear their song and cries.
After this, we took the final galleries at speed: the African collections ranged from voudou to Egyptian sarcophagi plus fascinating masks and tribal regalia. I’d have spent longer here if I visited on my own but Minnie’s appreciation of bronze art from Benin is currently limited.
If I’d been more organised in advance, I’d have realised there were activity packs to download which I think she’d have liked.
Happily the centenary gallery, which looks back at the museum’s collections and collectors over the past 100 years, included several items from Burma to remind us of our recent trip. I did subtly shuttle her past the torture chair at the entrance though.
And lastly, the music galleries. If the instruments on display didn’t grab her attention too much (except the huge tuba), the chance to hear them play did.
With the collection displayed in front of you, you could scroll through the different instruments and select the ones you wanted to hear – perfect for a preschooler’s short attention span and desire to press buttons, but I loved being reminded of some of my travels through music as well as hearing a few more obscure instruments.
With the South Circular still to navigate, we had to skip the Nature trail and Animal Walk and barely saw a corner of the 16 acres of grounds and gardens – including a rather impressive view over to the Shard and the skyscrapers of central London.
The capital’s sheer size might not make it easy to venture to every corner, but this is one spot that’s easily worth the journey.
Need to know: Visiting the Horniman museum, London
If you’re wondering about Horniman museum parking, there’s none at the museum itself although there is a pay and display car park near the Sainsbury’s a few streets away. If you’re travelling on a weekday, you could be lucky and snaffle a free space on a nearby side street as we did.
If you can travel by public transport, it’s worth doing that – Forest Hill station is less than 10 minutes’ walk away, and you can catch a bus to take you right outside the museum.
Entrance to the museum and grounds is free, apart from the aquarium and temporary exhibitions. Aquarium tickets cost from £4.50 for adults, £2.50 for children and under-threes are free, with family tickets from £10.50.
Membership costs £36, which gives free unlimited entry – definitely worth picking up if you live a bit closer than we do. And you can buy tickets online even on the day, which will let you skip the queues at busy times: show the printed or electronic copy.
Temporary exhibitions, such as Dinosaurs: Monster Families (running to October 30, 2016) also have a separate cost.
There’s a cafe, toilets on two floors and baby changing, along with buggy parking inside and lockers (bring a £1 coin, which is returned afterwards). It’s worth noting that you can’t eat anywhere else inside the museum.
The museum is open from 10.30am – 5.30pm, with the cafe and gardens open earlier. The animal trail is open from 12.30pm to 4pm.
For my complete set of tips on visiting London’s museums with toddlers and kids, check out my ultimate guide
PIN FOR LATER: HORNIMAN MUSEUM LONDON WITH KIDS
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