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London Bids Farewell, for Now, to a Beloved, Overstuffed Walrus

WorldEuropeLondon Bids Farewell, for Now, to a Beloved, Overstuffed Walrus

Southeast London has temporarily lost one of its most famous residents: a giant taxidermy walrus that has been on display for more than a century.

For most of the past 120 years, the walrus has sat in the middle of the Natural History Gallery at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. The museum displays the collection of Frederick Horniman, a wealthy tea trader who lived in Victorian England.

The gallery, which in addition to the walrus holds other taxidermy animals, skeletons and insects, is being shuttered while the museum redevelops the space, with a focus on “environmental sustainability and a commitment to fighting the climate emergency,” according to the museum’s website. (The rest of the museum, which also includes a large collection of musical instruments and an aquarium, will remain open.)

When the gallery reopens, in 2026, visitors will be able to see the walrus in the same spot where they left him — sitting prominently in the middle of the room atop a fake iceberg, said Louis Buckley, a senior curator at the museum. The collection will include more context about how Mr. Horniman came to own the walrus. The museum’s website notes that Mr. Horniman’s wealth was “reliant on the exploitation of people living in the British Empire.”

“It’s an expression in many ways of the British Empire and its relationship with the colonies and Canada in particular,” Mr. Buckley said.

During his lifetime, Mr. Horniman amassed a collection of ethnographic objects, natural history specimens and musical instruments. When his collection grew too large to fit in his home, he commissioned architects to build a museum, which opened in 1901.

In the renovated gallery, the walrus will “encapsulate a lot of different themes we are exploring,” Mr. Buckley said. Other than a closer look at how Mr. Horniman’s objects arrived in the museum, climate change and humans’ relationship to nature will also be explored.

The walrus is the undeniable showstopper of the collection. It’s the only item in the gallery that’s not in a glass case.

Looking at it, however, might make a visitor feel a bit odd — as though something’s off.

“People describe it as a bit too large,” Mr. Buckley said.

Live walruses have skin folds and wrinkles. The one at the museum does not, though the marks of where those skin folds would be are visible. The walrus, Mr. Buckley said, “is fully plumped up, quite a bit larger than it would have been in life.”

Whoever originally stuffed the animal probably had never seen a walrus, Mr. Buckley said. After all, he added, “they’re difficult animals to observe up close.”

Mr. Horniman bought the walrus around 1886 from an exhibition in London. The walrus itself is probably from the Hudson Bay area of Canada, Mr. Buckley said, although it’s unknown who hunted and killed it.

On Sunday, the overriding mood at the museum was one of enthusiasm and walrus appreciation. Against the sounds of squealing — and sometimes crying — children on a rare sunny March day, visitors said they had made a pilgrimage that day specifically to say goodbye.

“We came to greet the walrus,” said Julia King, one of the visitors. It was her first time seeing the walrus in person. “He’s magnificent,” she said.

Ms. King said she enjoyed looking at the absurd things in life, and the walrus lived up to her expectations.

“He’s obviously the star of Southeast London,” said Sian Thomas, another visitor, who said she found the overstuffed animal important as a way to understand how we look at the world differently than people did in Victorian times, and how our scientific understanding has evolved.

As visitors passed by the walrus on Sunday, many of them took photos, explained the animal to their children and marveled at its size. The walrus’s total weight is unknown, but it takes at least five people to move him, Mr. Buckley said.

“I did not expect it to be so big,” said Kasia Kaniuka, a Londoner who was visiting the museum with her boyfriend because they had heard the gallery was closing. “It’s quite overwhelming.”

For Josh Alford, the gallery’s closure was also the main reason to visit on Sunday. He came to see the walrus from East London. “I expected it to be like a seal size,” Mr. Alford said. “That looks like a horse, to be honest.” (He was quick to add that the animal did look “cute enough to hug.”)

Some said they were sad the walrus would be going away for a while, many of them citing it as a family favorite. Others, who had no idea of the impending closure, were pleased with their serendipitous timing.

“I’m gutted,” said Kara Tritton, who grew up in the area and still lives there. She said she remembered seeing the walrus for the first time as a child, and the impression it made on her. Through the museum, she said, she also felt connected to her great-grandparents, who were local residents and who had most likely visited the walrus as well.

“I absolutely had to come today,” she said. “I’ll miss him. Two years will be a long time.”

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