When the Horniman Museum and Gardens was announced as Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022, Jenny Waldman, director of Art Fund and chair of the judging panel, described us as "in many ways… the perfect museum".
The Horniman, in south-east London, holds a collection of 350,000 objects, specimens and artefacts from around the world. We have galleries devoted to natural history, music and a World Gallery of anthropology; flexible arts and exhibition spaces; living collections spanning our aquarium, Butterfly House and an animal walk, and award-winning display gardens set among 16 acres of green space with spectacular views across London. The Horniman is London's only museum where environment, ecology and human cultures can be seen side by side at a global scale.
But does having all of this make us perfect? If we ask ourselves "what is a perfect museum?" it calls into question the purpose of a museum and, crucially for the Horniman, who a museum is for. Those questions go to the heart of the Horniman's experience of 2021, and I believe it is the way we addressed and answered those questions that led to our Museum of the Year win.
During 2021, following a period of self-reflection prompted by the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency and the murder of George Floyd, we reimagined the role we could play as a creative hub amongst our local community. The result was a transformational Reset Agenda – an ambitious programme focused on re-orientating our activity to reach diverse audiences more representative of London.
Horniman Museum and Gardens
We drew together strands of work to address long-standing issues of racism and discrimination within our colonial history and collections, and placed interlinked issues of climate, biodiversity and social justice at our heart. Working with an array of collaborators, we created a textured and joyous programme celebrating the creativity and diversity of our south London community – all against the challenging backdrop of restrictions and Museum closure.
The most imaginative example of this Reset Agenda was the 696 Programme, a Black-led interrogation of the power and responsibility public organisations have in supporting local music, which saw the sounds of south London take centre stage. Named for the historic 696 risk assessment form which made it harder for venues to host Black music events, the Programme championed the people disproportionately affected by this legislation to create a summer celebration of the local area's cutting-edge live music scene, from Afrofuturist hip-hop to reggae, jazz and soul. With an exhibition, youth engagement, residencies, and a music festival, we reached diverse audiences through new marketing channels and tactics including using ticketing platform DICE and a "pay what you can afford" pricing model. The sold-out live music festival attracted 8,000 visitors and nearly 20,000 people visited the Dance Can't Nice exhibition, in which interdisciplinary artist Naeem Dxvis reimagined spaces that are home to Black music genres.
Overall the events attracted diverse audiences. 57% were minority ethnic with 95% recommending the Horniman. Our general visitor profile shifted from 18% minority ethnic to 21% across summer.
Augmenting this Black-led programming theme was An Ode to Afrosurrealism, a photographic display exploring contemporary relationships with spiritualism and surrealism, through a Black British lens. We installed textiles display Nigeria 60 and delivered a number of decolonising projects, engaging diaspora communities with African and Caribbean collections.
Alongside, we developed Hair: Untold Stories, an exhibition showcasing unexpected stories from south London salons to global hair trade networks, creatively exploring how hair is used in ingenious ways by many communities for making things like jewellery and clothing, as well as environmental uses of human hair in oil booms and drain covers.
A second huge focus of the Reset Agenda delivery during 2021 was to embed the foundations for our Climate and Ecology Manifesto.
We launched our Environment Champions Club online, mobilising families to deliver change. We installed interpretation to nine empty spaces in the Natural History Gallery, flagging key actions around the climate emergency. These were used as inspiration for a Kids in Museums Takeover day. The Dance Can't Nice installations involved reclaimed and recycled pieces sourced from charity shops and the sets were designed in-house, re-using previous shows" walls. And we crowd-funded and planted a micro-forest in our Gardens, to help combat air pollution along London's South Circular road, which will benefit our community in perpetuity.
Hair - Untold Stories
Community – or rather, communities – were central to our success, from the 15 young people of Black and Mixed Black Heritage who became 696 Promoters, working for 10 weeks to produce events while receiving employability training, to our colleagues across 12 UK museums collaborating in the Museums and Galleries Network for Exhibition Touring (MAGNET) group, founded by the Horniman, for which Hair: Untold Stories was the inaugural exhibition.
Support for our 2021 projects came from within and outside our organisation. The ideas for the various projects sprang from staff working groups and individuals, discussions with external stakeholders, and a determination to reach out to audiences who currently weren't visiting. We gained financial support for the 696 project from the Museums Association/Esmee Fairbairn Foundation Museum Fund and from Art Fund for the MAGNET Touring Exhibition Project. And of course, Art Fund's Museum of the Year accolade recognised the value these and other projects brought.
We were lucky that despite Covid-19, we were able to hold our musical events live and in person. The large scale 696 concerts involving audiences of around 2500 brought new logistical challenges but these were overcome and we learned a lot, particularly to trust your instincts and be bold.
We want everyone to feel welcome when they engage with the Horniman – whether they are visitors, partners, staff or volunteers. We believe that our public funding must benefit all the public and there are profound social, moral and economic reasons to support this. We recognise that by championing diversity we strengthen ourselves, our society and our cultural ecology.
As Jenny Waldman also said of us, "The Horniman Museum and Gardens has now blossomed into a truly holistic museum bringing together art, nature and its myriad collections. Its values are woven through everything it now does, with a passionate team breathing life and meaning into every object, performance, plant and animal."
It's not what you have as a museum that counts but what you do with it.
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