Working at the Horniman as a Visitor Host, I see countless children walk into the Natural History Gallery – eyes wide and transfixed while their jaw is ajar, one arm stretched out pointing, amazed and slowly saying, “Wallllrus!”
The walrus is everyone’s favourite celebrity at the Horniman, including mine. Growing up visiting the Horniman means it has a special place in my heart. Since working here and finding out more about the collections my appreciation for the Horniman has increased.
What is it about the walrus that makes it so loveable? It’s hardly something cute and familiar like a cat or dog. I’ve asked some of the visitors why they like the walrus to find out.
“Because it’s fat!” shouted one little boy on a school trip, “He was here for a long, long time.”
“When I was little I was really scared of the walrus,” a little girl told me and also proudly said how she wasn’t scared anymore and liked him now.
Regular families to the Horniman always come to say hello to the walrus, but it’s not only children that are fond of him.
“I love that story that the Victorians over stuffed him,” a lady told me.
“I guess it’s that all the other animals are real representations of what they are but the walrus is just funny looking because it’s too big. Also walruses look a bit funny with their tusks,” one of our volunteers said while we chatted about the Museum.
This seems to be a popular theme adults like. I also love that one of our most popular exhibits is so popular because it’s not actually correct.
A question we get asked a lot in the Natural History Gallery about everything is, “Is it real?”
Visitors particularly ask this about the walrus. People know it’s wrong but they can’t always put their finger on why. When told the story of it being over stretched (because the people who stuffed it didn’t know what a walrus looked like) always gets a positive reaction.
For me one thing that really made me love the walrus was a story Jo Hatton our Keeper of Natural History told us while she gave a tour of the Gallery.
The walrus wasn’t always the focal point of the Natural History Gallery. You can see in photos of the museum years ago that we had much more larger animals on display including a polar bear.
However, the larger animals were sold to a dealers in Deptford in 1948 who, in turn, sold them on to a photography studio near the Kursaal in Southend-on-Sea as amusements for people to have their photos taken with. The walrus was spared this fate probably because he was so heavy and funny looking. They most likely ran out of room in their truck and decided to leave the walrus behind.
I think this story is so sweet, like The Ugly Duckling, but in the walrus’ story he didn’t turn into a beautiful swan, people just learned to love him for being funny looking.
Why do you love the walrus?
Tell us online using #Horniman.