restricted access Private and Public: The Cuming Collection
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Private and Public:
The Cuming Collection

In 1902, the Journal of the British Archaeological Association published the obituary of the collector and antiquarian Henry Syer Cuming. Cuming, born in 1817 in Walworth, South London, had been an active member of the BAA since it was formed in 1843 and was well known within the organization. [End Page 16] The tribute to him details how he “inherited” the collecting habit “in a strong degree” from his father Richard (1777–1870) and how this passion continued unabated throughout his life (“Henry Syer Cuming” 239). Cuming’s home is described as “a private museum, where he stored the choicest specimens . . . carefully arranged, classified, and exhaustively labelled, thus forming a thoroughly educational series to the student of bygone times” (240). The Cuming collection, the obituary claims, was an aid to scholarship, providing the material basis of the nearly two hundred articles that Henry had published in the JBAA over the previous fifty-eight years. Cuming, we learn, “freely imparted information and the kindliest assistance” to those who sought his expertise (240), ensuring that the collection was of benefit to the whole community of antiquarians of which he formed a part, and its continued usefulness was assured when, upon his death, he bequeathed the entire collection to the local authority, with the instruction in his will that it was to be exhibited in “a suitable and spacious Gallery or apartments . . . in connection with Newington Public Library.” He also provided a sum for the salary of a keeper. With relief, the JBAA noted that “the collection he had formed will not be dispersed” (240).

Throughout the nineteenth century, museum modes of classification and display were held up as the gold standard to which collectors ought to aspire.1 Cuming’s obituary illustrates how private collections were celebrated for the good ordering and assiduous documentation that could potentially make them, like museums, useful, accessible sources of knowledge about the world. If “the idea of the museum has become fundamental to collecting practices beyond the museum” (Macdonald 81), then it was in the Victorian period that this association developed, as domestic collectors were encouraged to ape museum standards. John Charles Robinson, a leading figure at the South Kensington Museum, wrote in 1857 that “the establishment of public museums . . . render[s] the taste for collecting almost universal amongst educated persons” (iv–v), and this causal link has remained established in scholarship to the present day; it has recently been claimed that Victorians collected “in homage to museums” (Black 4). But the relationship between public museums and private collections in the nineteenth century was more complex than that of exemplar and imitator. The institutional history of the Cuming collection suggests that the interests of the expanding public, state-funded museums were not always aligned with the passions of private collectors.

The Cuming Museum opened to the public in 1906 and the borough librarian was appointed curator. Its displays changed little over the next forty years. The museum employed what had, in this period, become customary modes of museum display; cabinets, into which numerous objects were set out for visual apprehension, lined and divided the room. Glass cases were filled with displays that grouped together objects from the family’s eclectic collection. The specially-built galleries, appropriately named [End Page 17] “The Works of Nature” and “The Works of Man,” were arranged to illustrate the progress and development of both natural and artificial objects: shoes, hats, weapons, and tools on one side, and specimens of natural history and taxidermy on the other. They suggested connections—lines of development and inheritance—and highlighted both differences and similarities. The Cumings’ objects, thus set out, were lessons. But the methodical, rational objectivity that the displays retroactively conferred on the Cumings’ collecting practices begins to crumble when we probe the discontinuity between the collection’s public incarnation and its earlier life at home.

Totalling over 25,000 items by the time of Henry’s death, the private collection had been housed at the family home in Walworth.2 Five-year-old Richard Cuming had been given a coin and some fossils in 1782 and had started to collect curiosities that appealed...


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