Tour of the Horniman’s Store Rooms of Mystery

It is no secret that Forest Hill’s Horniman Museum is one of my all-time favourites. Not only does it have an eclectic collection, which means it is toe to top full of the weirdest stuff imaginable – from a  couple of Voodoo Altars to a much loved overstuffed Walrus – and that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. 95% of the museum’s collection is stowed safely away in a secret storage facility somewhere.

Speaking of which… I recently saw this tweet.

Like a ravenous bird of prey I swooped in and claimed the last ticket. How could I miss a chance to see the place where the Horniman keeps 95% of all the weird and wondrous stuff it has?!

Ticket booked, an email comes through; “meet at North Greenwich Station” ran the inscrutable instructions. The treasure trove is top secret, only those who need to know know how to find it, and that’s all I can say of the location

Horniman Museum Badge
Horniman Museum Badge

of the secret stores. I’ve probably said too much already.

Donning my tweed jacket, safely securing a Horniman Museum badge to the lapel, I, along with 15 others head off through the most desolate looking of urban landscapes and into the unknown. For who knows what will await us in the store-room of mystery…

Patches and Poisoned Arrows

Leading us around the rooms piled high with artefact and bric-a-brac, was the Horniman’s Collections Access Officer, whose job it is to… erm… provide access to the collections (on a side note: I do love it when a job title makes sense like that). Although not a curator, Sarah still cares for the Horniman’s objects and was able to provide a really interesting insight into what actually goes on behind the scenes and was able to reveal exactly why that giant walk-in freezer is an essential.

(It’s to kill of pests and parasites, in case you were wondering).

The tour around the Store Rooms of Mystery was refreshingly honest. “This” Sarah would say as she pointed to some old, wooden shelves, “is how stores used to look, lots of wooden shelves. It’s not the best practise,” but instead of just telling us all the facts, she invited us to think about why. “Warping is a big problem…” There were others, but alas, I didn’t have my trusty note-book to hand to jot them all down.

When we reached an example of “good storage” we were again, encouraged to think about what made it ‘good’, the answers flowed. Then we got to see some arrows

Arrows stored in the Horiman Museum's stores
Sarah telling us about the arrows in the Horniman Museum stores


Not just any arrows… some may had poisoned tips! “One of the curators tests for poison by touching them to his tongue” our guide through the Store Rooms of Mystery revealed. “If his tongue goes numb, then it’s poisoned.” I’m assuming this is followed up by some kind of first aid…

When we reached the taxidermy rooms, Sarah introduced us to a double-prep specimen she has dubbed Patches.

double prep dog
Patches, the double prep dog


“We’re not supposed to name things” she tells us, “but I try and give some things a name anyway.”

Curator’s Demonstration

After revealing to us the finer points of the Horniman’s collection, we were handed over to one of the museum’s curators. He was able to reveal the cultural baggage that is attached to objects, demonstrating how even before they go through the painstakingly thorough process of collections management, there are all these things that reveal the object’s story.

Blubber bucket with ivory whales from the Horniman Museum
Blubber bucket with ivory whales from the Horniman Museum
Karibou fur parka from the Horniman Museum
Karibou fur parka from the Horniman Museum


Looking specifically at Arctic cultures, the symbolism behind the manufacture of the humble parka jacket was explored and it made for fascinating listening even if some of the finer points were a bit over my head.

All the objects he talked to us about were interesting, because it was clear that he was interested in them, just when we thought that no more interest could be wrung out of an object – BOOM – “Oh yes,” the curator said casually, “this bit of ivory was brought back by Captian Cook.”

The tour of the Store Rooms of Mystery really reflected the museum it represented. It had the same spirit as the building with the Walrus, there was that same anticipation of never really knowing what to expect. If you ever see it running again BOOK TICKETS AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN – IT IS QUITE LITERALLY AMAZING.

Also, you might stumble across a gem like this:

I wonder what the story is there…

8 Comments Add yours

  1. I like the idea of the store reflecting the museum. I have spent time in the Museum of London archaeological archive but never thought of it that way.

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