Conserving the Museum of the Year’s historic buildings





When the Horniman Museum and Gardens was announced as Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022, Jenny Waldman, director of Art Fund, described it 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, with galleries devoted to natural history, music and anthropology; flexible arts and exhibition spaces; living collections spanning an aquarium, Butterfly House and an animal walk, and award-winning display gardens and parkland with spectacular views across London.

Each year the Horniman has nearly 1 million visitors across the Museum and Gardens. With so many visitors to the site, and a packed programme of events and exhibitions, it’s important not to lose sight of the need to protect the historic buildings, maintaining them and ensuring they remain fit for purpose.

When the Horniman Museum building was opened to the public in 1901 – by founder Frederick Horniman, to house and share his collections and ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ – it consisted of the landmark Clocktower and two double-storey vaulted galleries, built in the Arts and Crafts style to a design by Charles Harrison Townsend.

In the 120 or so years since, the Horniman has grown considerably – with a lecture hall building added in 1911 by Frederick’s son Emslie, and a centenary extension doubling the Museum’s footprint in 2001. So too have the Gardens grown, now encompassing 16.5 acres at the edge of one of London’s busiest and most diverse boroughs – Lewisham. The building has, since 1973, held Grade II* Listed status, along with Grade II listings for the terraces and railings in front of the Museum, and for the Gardens.

The most recent major upgrade to the interior of the original building was in 2018, as part of a National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported redevelopment. The historic gallery closest to the Clocktower was transformed into the World Gallery of anthropology. Underpinning the redisplay of objects and artefacts was a suite of upgrades and maintenance to the fabric of the building, including reintroducing natural light to the gallery by means of an innovative ceiling baffle – designed by MICA (then known as Rick Mather Architects) and with works carried out by CBRE.

More recently, the Horniman’s attention has turned to the exterior. In the early part of this year, some much needed renovations were undertaken to the stone frontage of the 1901 building, by Capital Stone. Over the course of three months, they stabilised the stonework: carrying out structural repairs to steel beams, repairing spalling and cracks to external stonework and mortar joints and replacing leadwork to the cornices and flashings. They also repainted all the existing metal work on the front façade.  
The past several months have also seen some further major restoration works to another key historic part of the Horniman estate. Nestled between the museum building and the Gardens is the much loved – and much photographed – Horniman Conservatory.


The Grade II listed Victorian Conservatory was originally built at Coombe Cliffe, Croydon, in 1894, with decorative ironwork by MacFarlane and Company of Glasgow and the roof glazed with fish-scale glass tiles.

Coombe Cliffe house had been the home of Frederick Horniman’s parents; his mother lived there until her death in 1900. After being sold in 1903, the house later served as a convalescent home for children, a college of art, an education centre and a teachers’ hub but was eventually left abandoned. Over the years, many voices spoke out for the need for preservation of the Coombe Cliff Conservatory, notably comedian Spike Milligan. The structure was eventually dismantled and moved to its current site at the Horniman, where it was beautifully restored with the help of English Heritage, reopening in 1989.

Now home to spectacular weddings, Horniman events and performances and countless film- and photoshoots, it’s also used as overflow seating for the Horniman Café, so visitors can admire it from within, over a cup of tea and a slice of something delicious. And thanks to this year’s refurbishment work, the view is more spectacular than ever.

The works – led by Donald Insall Associates and carried out by facilities management and professional services company Mitie – have included structural repairs to the cast iron and repainting the metal frame, as well as re-instating ventilation in the upper windows. The roof and upper fish-scales have been re-glazed, with a mix of repurposed original panes and new safety glass panels, supplied by Islington Glass.

This is the second stage of refurbishment works on the Conservatory, with the first stage taking place in 2017, again led by Donald Insall Associates, as part of which the previous quarry tile flooring was replaced with the fabulous Victoriana geometric tiles visitors can see today.

Somewhat like the apocryphal painting of the Forth Road Bridge, the Horniman’s site upgrades and renovations show no signs of coming to an end.

The Arts and Crafts style Sunken Garden, built in 1936, needs some repairs to the masonry walls of its terraced seating area; this will go out to tender in due course.

And a rather more significant scheme has recently been submitted to the Borough of Lewisham for planning – the Nature + Love project. Architects Feilden Fowles, working in collaboration with landscape architects J&L Gibbons, have prepared plans to revitalise three area of the estate, to enable the Horniman to meet its most important objectives: to become more inclusive, and to place environmental sustainability and a commitment to fighting the climate and biodiversity emergencies at the heart of its programming.

Nature + Love will transform previously underused areas of the Gardens into two new outdoor destinations. A Nature Explorers Adventure Zone, will create a nature-themed play area and children’s café, encouraging learning and wellbeing through exploration and play, as well as providing a new departure point for improved access to and better interpretation of the Horniman Nature Trail – the oldest in London.
The second, a Sustainable Gardening Zone, will include a new plant nursery, a horticultural hub with space for community and learning programmes, improved access, and sustainable planting displays encouraging improved health and wellbeing.

Nature + Love will also upgrade the fabric of the 1901 Natural History Gallery, where Feilden Fowles will improve the accessibility and thermal performance of the building, to future-proof the gallery environment for decades to come, alongside a gallery display being redesigned by exhibition designers Studio MB, while utilising many of the existing historic showcases.

The Horniman has received a Stage 1 pass from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF), to fund the development of the Nature + Love concept, and a Stage 2 application was submitted in February, with an outcome anticipated imminently, at the time of writing. Updates will be announced on the Horniman’s website –



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