I overcame my instinctual bias against the Horniman and wondered if, with the benefit of 40 years since my last childhood visit and some lottery funding, someone had finally dusted the exhibits (or maybe even just thrown the more ropey-looking ones away) and if they had finally got their act together to produce something worth seeing.
The short answer was no they hadn't. What they do have is some substantial building work and some great looking display cases in some of the new exhibition halls. Unfortunately, the Coral Reefs photos we're underwhelming to say the least. Maybe they are the kind of thing you would look at for 5 minutes if you were already visiting the Museum, but I could not say they would justify a specific trip.
However, what the Horniman does have now is an actual aquarium. And this one is so much cheaper (at 3 quid) than the London Aquarium on the South Bank which I looked at going to over the Easter weekend and thought better of because of the crowds. However there is a reason why the Horniman aquarium is so much cheaper than the South Bank and that's because it's so much smaller. I think there are four rooms in all and the biggest fish was a disappointing 10" long. The one saving grace was the jelly-fish (angelic to look at, less friendly in the water) but the rest of the fishy inmates would not have looked out of place in a large Pets-R-Us or a moderately good Chinese restaurant.
So twenty minutes later (fifteen of them spent with the Jelly-fish) I was done. There is a limit to the excitement that sea-horses can generate for a grown adult. Maybe this is a test of adult-hood itself. And, to justify the effort of the whole trip, I dragged myself round all the cases full of dusty, knackered-looking stuffed animals and disturbing Masks of Death from Africa or Haiti which had so put me off the Horniman ever since I was a child. Here are some:
Seriously, it is cannot be right to show a young child these things. With the benefit of a few more years I can reflect upon my own discomfort at these objects. What was it about them that made them so darned creepy? 18 severed heads of Indians sitting on steps? 100 year old taxidermy of once elegant creatures now forever frozen into a motionless tableau? Inane, grinning wooden face-mask from... from... an ethically-sourced voodoo horror show?
Some of my unease comes from a life-long aversion to dust and old things (yes, I know it's sort of a museum's remit to keep old stuff). Some of it from anthropomorphising the sense of imprisonment or torture of once-free animals and small Indians locked in a glass cabinet. I have visited India a number of times and have never found the place populated by such small men. And what happened to their heads? And why are they in a case in Forest Hill?
So that leaves the masks. I don't have an answer yet as to why they are unsettling to me. Are they evil, in and of them selves? No. Objects can be used for bad things but cannot be bad themselves (I'm just trying to think of a counter example). Is it that they resonate with a shadow part of my personality which I do not want to accept and it is this that makes me anxious? That is possible, but I think my shadow is fairly well integrated nowadays. Is it just that they are so darn ugly and I am child of the eighties from which time onward everything is supposed to look nice and cool. Maybe that too is 20% of the answer, but obviosuly it's not a complete response. I will unfortunately have to revisit this topic which may mean revisiting the Horniman. Perhaps that is why these things aren't thown away.
To end on a high note, here's my second prize winner from the actual aquarium, some actual coral.