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The Horniman Museum Butterfly House

Saturday 2 September 2017

I have always loved London’s Horniman Museum since my first visit there over twenty years ago.  It’s quirky and I mean that as a compliment. The museum has just opened a charming new addition, building on its reputation for small but wonderful exhibits.  The new permanent Butterfly House, which will be open 362 days per year, is a pleasure to visit and complements the museum’s other features (exhibitions, events and gardens) perfectly.

On entry to the exhibit, the member of staff on duty takes care to explain a few simple rules to follow once inside – such as be careful where you walk as butterflies land wherever their fancy takes them and are oblivious to the potential squishing they might get at the hands of careless feet (if you see what I mean!). Moreover, we were gently told that touching the butterflies (and the plants, some of which may cause irritation) was not to happen.  The same rule does not apply to the butterflies, however – during our time in the house there were several landings on heads, shoulders, legs and various other parts of the body. However, if they don’t fly off within a reasonable period of time, a friendly member of staff is always there to give the butterfly some gentle encouragement.

Directed through a double set of heavy plastic curtains (in order to stop the butterflies escaping in to the outside, too cold to sustain many of the species on show here for long), prepare to be hit by glass-house temperatures.  The butterfly house is not warm, it’s sticky hot but this is necessary to keep alive the little beauties you can see balletically flying hither and thither the moment you enter.  There are a lot of species in the house – fortunately you’re given a little cheat sheet to use so you can exclaim ‘Oh look, a blue morpho, the superbly iridescent tropical butterfly native to Central and South America’ with quiet confidence and sound almost like David Attenborough... almost, while doing so.

Another rule of the house is that only ten people are allowed in every fifteen minutes (and you also need to book ahead).  This ensures that although the Butterfly House is not huge, there is plenty of space to pad about (although I did inadvertently elbow a young girl in the nose at one point but with not too great an impact; she nonchalantly walked away seemingly unscathed and Social Services did not have to be called).  I guess I should add that if you are the keeper of small people then if they are remotely phobic about flying things this may not be the best place to take them.  One toddler had the screaming habdabs when an owl butterfly landed on his head (although he seemed to regain his composure fairly quickly).

It does sound like I was doing more people than butterfly watching (one gentleman suggested that his wife use a little more of her imagination when she wondered why two butterflies were swirling around each other quite excitedly). Yet the visitors were obviously entranced by the exhibit.  Apart from the occasional shriek (not always from a toddler) the place was, however, quiet with a tropical rain forest soundtrack in the background to add to the overall effect.

Ah, yes – I suppose I had better say something about the butterflies.  There were hundreds of them but the place did not seem lepidopterally overcrowded.  How many species there are I couldn’t tell you (thirty?) – when it occurred to me to start counting it was already too late.  There were butterflies from all over the world from small to fairly hefty looking things and rainbows should frankly start looking for another line of work. There was the postman with its dash of red, the great yellow swallowtail and the stately owl (they seemed to like the fruit a lot). Colour aside, I think my personal favourite was the black and white large tree nymph.  Of course, the museum’s curators could not resist including Horniman's swallowtail, named for the founder of the museum, Frederick John Horniman.

There were also over 60 species of plant representing the flora of the butterflies’ native environment.  The place has only been open two weeks so it does still look like it needs a little ‘settling in’.  However, it is already impressive with species of palms and an umbrella tree giving height and star flowers and passiflora below – seemingly in competition with the butterflies in terms of the vibrancy of their colours.  Add some very pleasant and knowledgeable staff, in as much thrall to the exhibit as the visitors, and you have a fantastic way to spend 15 minutes.

Did I say 15 minutes? We were in there for probably half an hour with no one pointing the exit out to us.  I am guessing that numbers balance out, given that some more hyperactive visitors might walk round for a few minutes and then will have seen it, done it (and while there is some small shame there, it allows those of us who want to be a little more leisurely about the experience to be just that).

Out through another double set of plastic curtains and past the discrete gift area (which I hadn’t noticed on the way in) you can then proceed back in to the real world.  As I mentioned before the Horniman Butterfly House is a wonderful addition to the permanent exhibitions at the museum. It is one which can teach (or at the very least remind) us of our place in the world and we exit more aware of the beauty of the planet and this most beautiful and delicate of insects. One must hope it leaves us a little more determined to help preserve it too.

Please visit the Horniman Musum and Gardens website to book tickets.

All pictures were taken at the exhibit on 2 September 2017 with an iPhone 6.

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