Collecting and childhood

Some literature on collecting seems to suggest that the pursuit of a collection is a wholesome hobby in childhood, but a sinister one in an adult. In his otherwise admirable book Touch, Gabriel Josipovici suggests that 'unfortunately, like so many other childhood passions, this mania for collecting can take on rather more sinister connotations when it passes undiminished into adulthood'. This view seems to haunt some kinds of collecting more than others - we are all probably guilty of sniggering at trainspotters at the station, or those with houses full of stuffed teddy bears.

In fact, Susan Pearce's comprehensive study of collecting behaviours, On Collecting, suggests that collectors are not stuck in some sort of odd, regressive childhood state which has skewed their relationship to material culture. In fact, her review of the evidence suggests that there is no hard and fast correlation between collecting in childhood and maturity. Some child collectors carry their passion into adult life; some don't. Some collectors only begin as adults.

During the course of conversations with friends and colleagues about my thesis, it invariably emerges that most people have kept collections at one time or another; monopoly games, sweet wrappers, stickers. I had several short lived collections, including my Dad's own childhood stamp collection, but I never got further than carefully removing the specimens from their homes (the little sleeves you get around After Eight mints) and carefully putting them back in, aided by some plastic tweezers. I don't think I ever added more to the collection than one or two brightly coloured special issue Christmas stamps, perhaps because I didn't start it myself. Continuing someone else's collection is less appealing than embarking on your own.

My most memorable collection was probably my 'crabby collection', compiled over a week's holiday on the south coast, which consisted of a carrier bag full of dismembered claws, empty shells, and in some very exciting instances, entire dead crabs, which I would religiously lay out on the back step every evening for counting and display. I remember being very upset when I was told it couldn't come in the car for the long drive home, and I remember very vividly the awful smell that was the cause of this ruling.

In the process of collecting for the crabby collection
 In the nineteenth century, children were actively encouraged to start collections. It was felt to be an enriching and worthwhile pastime. Instruction manuals were printed to help the would-be collector on their way. One such book was C. A. Montresor's Some Hobby Horses and How to Ride Them, published in 1888. It gives instruction on the identification and classification of coins, seals, crests, stamps; not natural history as Montresor wants his book to be accessible to 'town children', although ideally, he says,
every house ought to possess a "Museum", even if it is only one shelf in a small cupboard; here, carefully dated and named, should be placed the pretty shells you gather on the sea-shore, the old fossils you find in the rocks, the skeleton leaves you pick up from under the hedges, the strange orchids you find on the downs.
Montresor remembers fondly his childhood collections, but despairs at their disorganised state ('the coins of Great Britain in the time of Queen Anne lay on the top of Roman medals, and both were classed alike as "Antique English"!'), so he sets out to prepare his young readers with the knowledge necessary to 'render your hobbies really valuable'. His advice is to
Learn what you can about each object before you put it in the museum, and docket it not only with its name, but also of the name of the place in which you found it, and the date; many a happy memory will the museum bring back to you years hence, when you and your brothers and sisters, now a happy, even if at times quarrelsome little party at home, will be scattered far over the wide world in homes of your own. For, after all, the greatest delight which a collection of any kind can afford is the memory of the days in which it was formed...
Although none of my collections were ever documented quite as meticulously as Montresor advises, they nevertheless do inspire the happy memories that he says they might; despite the sad loss of the crabby collection, I do remember foraging among the pebbles with my sister and a happy family holiday spent recording the beaches we went to and rating their rockpools out of 10 (this scoresheet survives). Really, what Montresor is advocating is collecting as a way to both create happy memories, and call them to mind at a later time; a sort of material record of childhood, and Pearce finds that many adult collectors use their collections in this way too; 'the collector may view his collection as miniature trains or examples of Victorian lace, but he knows, and the investigator soon discovers, that each piece also acts as a memory which carries a particular narrative of time and place'.

I see nothing 'sinister' in that at all, whether it be adult or child who compiles the collection of memories. Did you have a collection as a child? What memories does it bring back?

Collectors at Calke Abbey

Yesterday I took a trip to sunny Derbyshire with my Mum and Sister to visit Calke Abbey, a National Trust property tucked away down a long winding drive, near the village of Ticknall.

All images either my own or courtesy of Helen Addyman

We spent a marvellous day exploring the extensive grounds, and my family of avid gardeners especially loved the walled gardens, with their impressive array of fruit and veg lovingly tended by National Trust volunteers. In time honoured fashion we chose the only rainy part of the day to embark on our picnic, which we were forced to polish off from the warmth of the car.

I had been encouraged to visit Calke by colleagues at the 'Victorian Things' meeting of MIVSS at Keele University back in June, who had told me about the huge collections of natural history specimens and taxidermy within its walls...and I was not disappointed.

Taxidermy dioramas in the Saloon
Display case of shells in the Saloon

Many of the specimens are on display in the Saloon, an imposing room at the front of the house, which is lined with cases of taxidermy on three of its four walls, and contains several other cabinets piled high with fossils, minerals and shells. There were also cases displaying a few 'Egyptian curiosities' and assortments of natural and man made items which estate residents sent to the owners of Calke Abbey if they came across something which they thought the family might have been interested in. Cabinets of gem stones and more ornithological specimens are littered throughout the rest of the house, most notably in the 'Bird Lobby' (see below).

Taking a closer look at stuffed Kingfishers in the Bird Lobby
Despite the huge number of items making up the collections, many pieces were lost to neglect over the years, or sold after 1924, when Calke's last great collector, Sir Vauncey Harpur Crewe, died. What remains in the house is only a small portion of what must have, at one time, been a collection which threatened to take over the 100+ rooms at Calke.

Calke Abbey was owned by the Harpur family from 1622 to 1985, when it was passed into the hands of the National Trust, and many of the baronets enjoyed the kinds of collecting often associated with the display of good taste or connoisseurship; Sir John Harpur (4th baronet, 1680-1741) collected fine silverware, for example, and Sir George Crewe (8th baronet, 1795-1844) collected paintings of the Italian renaissance.

It is hard to work out at what point the house began to resemble a private museum. By 1840 there were already almost 400 cases of stuffed birds, quadrupeds, and fishes at Calke, but it is tempting to see the sprawl of the collection as a nineteenth century transformation, since this period seems to have produced Calke's most avid collectors; George's son, Sir John Harpur Crewe, who became the 9th baronet in 1844, and his son Sir Vauncey, who was to become 10th baronet when Sir John died in 1886.

Perhaps this impression is strengthened by the preservation of many of the rooms exactly as they were left in this period; not stately rooms only used for formal occasions, but rooms, once used daily, simply abandoned as the family shrunk in size and used an ever diminishing fraction of the enormous property. An example of one such room on the cold, north facing side of Calke, is Sir Vauncey's childhood bedroom.

Sir Vauncey's childhood bedroom, complete with authentic mess
A helpful Guide explained to us that when Sir Vauncey married in Isabel Adderley in 1876, aged 30, he and his wife would have inhabited a different suite of rooms in the house, and that this bedroom would have been simply left, as it was surplus to the requirements of the shrinking family. Our Guide did suspect, however, looking at some of the dates on the mounted deer heads (with their marvellously self congratulatory plaques proclaiming 'SHOT BY ME'), that Sir Vauncey may have returned to the room on occasion, perhaps to escape from the company of others (he was notoriously misanthropic), or perhaps to add odds and ends to the collections of bric a brac in the room, which include walking sticks, hunting trophies, paintings, toys, and a cabinet of fossils and shells. The room was quite enchanting despite (or because of?) its mess - it was like teenage boyhood had been arrested, and preserved.

The fossils and shells in the room I found particularly fascinating, because despite the similarity of the mid-nineteenth century glass case and its contents to those downstairs in the Saloon, it was arranged very differently. Compare this picture below to the one above of shells in the Saloon (the cabinets with shelves were too dark to photograph, though they were similarly piled high).

Fossils and shells in Sir Vauncey's childhood room, neatly arranged in rows
Whilst there is an apparent absence of labels in both cabinets, the one in the bedroom seems to have been arranged on some logical principles, with similar objects grouped together and displayed in lines and rows. In fact, our guide told us that recently an archaeological 'dig' had been carried out on one of the cabinets in the saloon, with the area divided into a grid with string and items lifted out one by one to uncover the specimens beneath which had been hidden for decades.

There are many tempting narratives to be invented here...I like to think that the collection started with an educational aim, comparison and observation being made easier by careful arrangement of specimens, but eventually the drives to acquire and possess overtook the impulse to learn, and so fossils and shells were heaped on top of one another haphazardly, their mere presence in the cabinets becoming more important than what Sir Vauncey could glean from them. It's all supposition, of course, but the collections at Calke seem to invite these tales of eccentricity. It's also hard not to resist the urge to indulge in some rather crude amateur psychology and read a correlation between collecting habits and the desire to withdraw from society which seems to have run in the Harpur Crewe family.

Whatever the family's motivations might have been, the result is magnificent; Calke Abbey is at once glorious and desolate, and well worth repeat visits. You can take a virtual tour here, but with a series of events exploring Calke's grounds on all this week, now is the perfect time for a trip to Derbyshire. Don't forget your picnic rug.

More on hoarding

I can't be the only person to have noticed the proliferation of TV shows about hoarders that have been on recently. On top of Channel 4's one-off show Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder, which I wrote about before, the channel have now added 'The Hoarder Next Door', in which a rather smooth psychotherapist helps hoarders to get rid of vast amounts of stuff, and 'Get Your House in Order', which has collectors as its main focus, though with the underlying premise that they are in danger of becoming hoarders if they can't impose some order and control on their collections. BBC One also recently showed a documentary called 'Britain's Biggest Hoarders', which I didn't manage to catch.

Undoubtedly this deluge is at least in part related to the impending publication, in May 2013, of the next edition of the international diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, which may for the first time include Hoarding Disorder as a listed mental illness. Let's take a look at the proposed criteria for diagnosis;

a) Persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of actual value
b) The above difficulty is associated with strong urges to save items, or distress associated with discarding
c) Accumulation of possessions which fill up and clutter the living space so that it can no longer be used for its original purpose
d) Symptoms cause clinically significant distress in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning
e) and f) state that the hoarding is not related to another medical condition or disorder
Taken from the DSM-5 website, here.

I can understand that if hoarding causes an individual significant distress, then there may be a need to treat it in some way; most of the hoarders featured on the TV programmes express some desire to put a stop to their hoarding and clear out their homes, because the sheer volume of their possessions is having a huge impact on their ability to go about their daily lives.

But there are a few bits in the DSM criteria that I'm not entirely comfortable with, particularly this idea of 'actual value'. The problem is, the criteria makes no attempt to define value in any way, and if there's one thing I've learned through studying objects and collections, it's that value isn't fixed. One object can simultaneously hold several values, which change depending on the context, and who is making the judgment.

Even if we assume that the DSM is talking about monetary value (still, not fixed, and dependent on the object's place within myriad systems), the wording above is ambiguous. The words 'regardless of actual value' suggest that 'hoarding' could be equally applied to a wealthy collector of art and a man who collects cigarette ends, should the rest of the criteria be fulfilled, but the implicit meaning is that objects which have a lower perceived monetary value should be easier to part with.

I wonder if Robert Opie, founder of the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill, would have been disagnosed a hoarder when his collection was still based in the home? The objects that he chose to hang on to are the real effluvia of of modern living, things which people throw away without a second thought, and yet his collection now forms what many see as an irreplaceable archive of British branding and manufacturing.

 Robert Opie, Charles Wade, and Henry Wellcome (Image sources: here, here and here)

What about nineteenth century collectors, like Charles Wade at Snowshill Manor, who collected everything from Samurai armour right down to old candles. He had his own system of value which I hope to explore in another post, and most certainly made his living spaces uninhabitable, moving out into the barn so that his house could be devoted to the collection. Or Henry Wellcome, who, at the time of his death, had amassed over 3 million objects, and had to lease a string of warehouses to keep his collection in. Whilst many of Wellcome's acquisitions were expensive or rare, thousands weren't, and the mammoth task of sorting and disposing of the things deemed unimportant went on for many years after his death.

I wonder what outcome we might get if we applied the DSM criteria to Wade, Wellcome or Opie? Where does the line between a collector and a hoarder lie...and does it really matter? If these three collectors had received therapy to relieve them of their collecting (hoarding?) habits, what would we now be deprived of? I don't doubt that some hoarders are distressed by their own behaviour, but I just wonder if the DSM-5 and its diagnostic criteria threatens to pathologize eccentricity in its policing of our relationship to material culture.

Normal service will resume soon...

To all you thousands of readers, I apologise for my absence. I have a few posts lined up over the next few weeks to rekindle your interest, but in the meantime, just to keep you going, I give you a marvellous account of the fever for collecting which Captain Cook's crew exhibited on his voyages of exploration (alright, it's not Victorian, but it's interesting nonetheless!)
'It was astonishing to see with what eagerness everyone catched at every thing they saw, it even went so far as to become the ridicule of the Natives, by offering pieces of sticks stones and what not to exchange, one waggish Boy took a piece of human excrement on a stick and hild it out to everyone of our people he met with'
Quoted in Entangled Objects by Nicholas Thomas, p. 128.
Royal Mail have angered stamp collectors this year by issuing a proliferation of commemorative stamps, which collectors say is killing their hobby by making it impossible for them to keep up with every stamp issued. Hunter Davies at the Guardian writes that 'there are just so many new issues each year that children and new collectors will be priced out of the market, should they try to keep up with the output'. Clearly, this is only a problem if you're a completist, and Davies has his own rules which allow him to enjoy his hobby without becoming merely a toy in the marketisation of collecting; he tries to collect nothing which is made especially for philatelists.

There's much to provoke thought in Davies' article, not least the part where he says that becoming 'a born-again stamp collector 30 years ago' was 'a normal human process, whereby we regress to our childhood interests'. His view of collecting is deeply rooted in nostalgia, and this is shared by many of those who comment on the article, one of whom says that 'I collect stamps that I can recall from childhood or youth and which therefore have some emotional resonance'. Another rather beautifully puts it thus;
To young mind before the digital age, a single stamp of unfamiliar places and objects is a macro-world in itself. You can look at it for hours. There is no death, no destructions, no nastiness within the little world of stamps
This, to me, is a really evocative statement. I can just imagine the little boy immersed in the pages of his stamp collection, perhaps passed down from his grandfather (always male, these figures...). It's a romantic image of a child experiencing the world vicariously through these little paper shapes. What a lovely thought.

But on reflection, there's something else at work here, and I'm not sure it excludes death, destruction and nastiness to quite the extent this philatelist would like. The adhesive postage stamp was an invention of Victorian Britain, when it was created in reponse to the frequent problem of non-payment which occured in the old system, where the recipient coughed up for the postage price of any mail they received. The first stamp, the Penny Black, featured a profile of Queen Victoria, and even now, even commemorative and decorative stamps still have a little profile silhouette of our Liz tucked into a corner. In fact, the UK, I am reliably informed, is the only country in the world that does not have its name printed on its stamps; we use the head of our monarch instead.

Penny Black stamp

This seems, to me, to be a very potent symbol of state and imperial power. The image of the head of state attached to every written communication in the land. Or, indeed, going out of the land. Although Elihu Burritt, an American who campaigned for international postage stamps, said that his aim was to 'link all nations in trade and peace', doesn't the postage stamp work both to reinforce the boundaries of nation and promulgate the idea that this nation can reach out to penetrate all corners of the globe?

Perhaps (well, almost definitely) I'm on this line of thought because I read Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities last night. But it's not just that. Another collector who read Davies' essay commented;
Pre-decimal issues are beautifully designed and redolent of our nation's history.
How wonderful to hold a silver sixpence from the reign of Queen Anne, proclaiming her queen of Britain, France and Ireland (MAG BR FRA ET HIB REG)
Or of George III - marked LIMA because it was minted in silver from a captured Spanish galleon
Now we have shoddy tat, explaining the offside rule or some other irrelevance.
Admittedly, he's talking about coins here, but they're similarly issued and, perhaps, spread. Stamps and coins carry images and slogans of imperial fantasy and history. Now, in many countries, stamps are issued in their thousands to raise revenue for the state; designs that have no postal value are produced solely to be purchased by collectors. But Davies' article suggests that perhaps stamp collectors are no longer willing to be manipulated in this way.

Where collecting ends and hoarding begins...

What's the difference between a collection and a hoard?

Is it a question of quantity? How much stuff must you own to be a hoarder? What amount of stuff ceases to be a collection?

Or is hoarding about variety? Perhaps an enormous range of disparate items stops being a collection and starts being a hoard. If there is no obvious uniting principle amongst what is being kept, can it still be called a collection?

Is the value the definitive criteria? Are hundreds of old newspapers, drinks cartons or receipts a collection?

This question is something which is coming to trouble me more and more as I research (not lying-awake-at-night sort of troubling, but troubling none the less). It's a question which a lot of people pose to me when I tell them about my thesis, and it's not one which I can confidently answer.

At the start of the year, I thought I had a clear cut definition that I would assuredly reel out when faced with the question, 'what's the difference?' Collections, I would say, strive for completion. Collectors want the whole set; every first edition of Dickens, every Italian stamp issued since 1900, every Pokemon card. Hoarders have no such framework in mind, I would say, no blanks to fill in their scrapbook; they keep whatever falls into their path. Collectors, however, are discerning.

It wasn't long (at all) before the deficiency of this answer became apparent. What if you collect blue glass, or pebbles, or old books? The limits of these categories are far less stable, so surely the collecting activities are far more likely to appear as, or turn into, hoarding.

I'd be interested to hear what you think, because I'm about to delve into the world of clinical psychology and see what the medical profession thinks; Hoarding Disorder is under consideration for inclusion in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), due for publication next year. Is hoarding really a clinical disorder? And if so, where do collectors fit into the picture?

As food for thought, I'll leave you with a link to the recent Channel 4 documentary 'Obsessive Compulsive Hoarder', about Richard Wallace from Surrey, England, and his relationship with hoarding objects. It's hard to watch this programme without both warming to Richard and being amazed at his way of life. It seems he initially started as a collector; he says 'the long term objective is to construct and maintain an archive of newspapers and magazines', but without the bespoke storage facility that he desires, the things seem to take on a life of their own, multiplying to a state far beyond his original intentions.

Despite the documentary's initial treatment of Richard and his position in the village where he lives, which left me feeling rather uncomfortable, it is worth pursuing to the end as Richard finally makes steps, in his own words 'to get back in control of things'.

Stamp Collector by Robert W. Service

I thought I would share with you this rather derisory rendering of the gloomy fate of the collector from Robert William Service...

Stamp Collector

By Robert William Service
My worldly wealth I hoard in albums three,
My life collection of rare postage stamps;
My room is cold and bare as you can see,
My coat is old and shabby as a tramp's;
Yet more to me than balances in banks,
My albums three are worth a million francs.

I keep them in that box beside my bed,
For who would dream such treasures it could hold;
But every day I take them out and spread
Each page, to gloat like miser o'er his gold:
Dearer to me than could be child or wife,
I would defend them with my very life.

They are my very life, for every night
over my catalogues I pore and pore;
I recognize rare items with delight,
Nothing I read but philatelic lore;
And when some specimen of choice I buy,
In all the world there's none more glad than I.

Behold my gem, my British penny black;
To pay its price I starved myself a year;
And many a night my dinner I would lack,
But when I bought it, oh, what radiant cheer!
Hitler made war that day - I did not care,
So long as my collection he would spare.

Look - my triangular Cape of Good Hope.
To purchase it I had to sell my car.
Now in my pocket for some sous I grope
To pay my omnibus when home is far,
And I am cold and hungry and footsore,
In haste to add some beauty to my store.

This very day, ah, what a joy was mine,
When in a dingy dealer's shop I found
This franc vermillion, eighteen forty-nine . . .
How painfully my heart began to pound!
(It's weak they say), I paid the modest price
And tremblingly I vanished in a trice.

But oh, my dream is that some day of days,
I might discover a Mauritius blue,
poking among the stamp-bins of the quais;
Who knows! They say there are but two;
Yet if a third one I should spy,
I think - God help me! I should faint and die. . . .

Poor Monsieur Pns, he's cold and dead,
One of those stamp-collecting cranks.
His garret held no crust of bread,
But albums worth a million francs.
on them his income he would spend,
By philatelic frenzy driven:
What did it profit in the end. . .
You can't take stamps to Heaven.

Borders in the Long 19th Century

On Friday 13th January I attended a fantastic conference at Loughborough University. The conference was a joint venture between MIVSS (Midlands Interdisciplinary Victorian Studies Seminar) and MRS (Midlands Romantic Seminar) and was entitled 'Borders in the Long 19th Century'.

There were six great papers and lots of stimulating discussion about all kinds of borders; physical, social, theoretical and literary, but the paper I was particularly excited to hear was Dr. Kate Hill of the University of Lincoln talking on 'Romantic and Victorian Collecting: Continuity and Change'. Kate's paper sought to explore and question the validity of the differentiation in academic discourse between 'Romantic' collecting, which seeks to invoke curiosity and wonder through the bringing together of disparate and incongruous items, and 'Victorian' collecting, which seeks to demarcate individual objects from others through classification and taxonomic practices which note distinction and divergence. These two categories of collections seem to have different ends in mind; Romantic collections suggest spectacle and wonder, whilst so-called Victorian models are instructive.

I wonder if these two categories are mutually exclusive, and I should credit my new friend and colleague Megan Leyland (on Twitter here) with the observation that collections can work on different levels simultaneously. Take, for instance, the permanent exhibition 'Medicine Man' at the Wellcome collection, which I recently visited for an event about Miniatures (more on that in a post to follow). The display principles of the collection are such that object narratives are hidden, either behind a panel or drawer which must be opened, or in a leaflet which must be picked up. The objects will yield their secrets only if probed. Four glass cases house various objects on a theme, their uses sometimes apparent and sometimes obscure, and the location of the object narratives, a few steps away from the case and hidden behind a panel, encourages the visitor to appreciate the objects aesthetically, specualte as to their composition, origin, and use, and make comparisons, before reading the museum desciptions, if they choose to. Thus the museum simultaneously promotes curiosity and wonder alongside instruction and education. The below image shows a display of masks, with the hinges of the explanatory panel just about visible through the glass on the far right of the picture.

Image credit: Rama Knight/Wellcome Images
Personally, I found this way of exhibiting objects really illuminating. Being a naturally curious person, I wanted to read the descriptions of objects, and I couldn't bear not knowing what things were, so I opened each panel and drawer, and picked up every leaflet. However, the distancing of the objects and their narratives meant that rather than having this desire for facts immediately sated, I was forced to examine objects more closely and form my own aesthetic judgements. Once the panels had revealed the object histories, I found myself reflecting on the judgments I had made and my interactions with each object, whether I had pored over it in some detail or dismissed it almost instantly. I came to ask myself; why am I drawn to these particular objects? What is it about that mask that fascinates me, while its neighbour inspires only revulsion?

Kate talked about Henry Wellcome's collection in its original public form, the Historical Medical Museum, as an example of how a collection which set out to educate actually managed to inspire horror and gruesome excitement in its visitors. It's pleasing to think that Wellcome's objects continue to challenge the classificatory boundaries imposed on them by scholarship in their 21st century museum setting.

Collection of fossil plants rediscovered

This story gets me very excited about my first forays into museum archives next month...who knows what one might find?

This beautifully presented collection of fossilised plants was found in the vaults of the British Geological Survey in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire. It contains slides displaying samples of vegetation from the Midlands, Wales, and far further afield - there are a small number of specimens which appear to have been collected by Charles Darwin whilst aboard the Beagle. Click through to the British Geological Survey website to read the fascinating story of the collection's assembly through networks of explorers, administrators and scientists.
Slide showing a cross section of tree root from the Midlands, collected by Joseph Hooker in 1846.

Source: D. Hooker collection of microscope slides&sortAttributeId=0&sortDescending=false

My favourite collection so far

In the interest of sticking to my aims and ensuring the blog remains a celebration of incredible collections, I thought I'd share with you a collection which inspired much frenzied scribbling and plenty of exclamation marks in my notes. I came across this collection in Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, by Arthur MacGregor.

Carl Schildbach was an estate manager in Germany in the late eighteenth century, who crafted and compiled a 'Holzbibliothek', or 'wooden library', which eventually contained 546 wooden books.

There was a book for each type of tree or shrub on the estate. Each book was made from the bark of the plant, and consequently they varied in size, although Schildbach devised a method of joining together smaller pieces of bark to form the book when the specimen was not very large. Each panel of the book/box was formed of wood from a different stage in the plant's development; the left panel was made of mature wood, and the right was made of wood from a sapling. Affixed to the outside were cubes of bark, and these specimens illustrated the qualities of the bark under different conditions; as charcoal, for instance, or throughout the changing seasons. These principles of construction are consistent throughout the collection.

Inside each box, the life cycle of the tree is represented in miniature, with specimens of seedlings, including the root and first leaves, as well as written details about the typical development, its taxonomy, its parasites and common forms of rot associated with the tree. Details and examples of fruit and flowers in various stages of bud and bloom are also to be found inside.

I'm not the only one to find this collection absolutely incredible, and it became something of a tourist attraction at the time, spawning several imitators. Sadly there are few photographs on the web of this particular Holzbibliothek, aside from this small one from the museum where it is kept, the Naturkundemuseum im Ottoneum.


Isn't it beautiful? And there are 546 of them!

The collection strikes me as a painstaking labour of love, though this attribution is perhaps somewhat unfounded, especially since I have read that Schildbach was commissioned to create the wooden library by his employer. However, I still think that the wooden books manifest not only his great skill as a craftsman but also a great respect for and knowledge of each single specimen of plant. I would love to play with this collection, stroke each book and carefully open it up to turn over its contents in my hands, but I would settle for just seeing it. Admission to the museum is less than two euros! I just need to get to Germany.

There are lots of interesting theoretical questions raised by the Holzbibliothek about the role of the collector in quite literally forming their collection and exerting their creative influence over it, but I'll leave those for another time, and settle for the moment just to bestow it, and Carl Schildbach, with my utmost admiration.

'Transforming Objects' conference at Northumbria University

This conference looks's in my diary.

Transforming Objects
28-29 May 2012
Northumbria University

Gather round, gather round

Welcome to all!

I am very excited to be starting this new blog, The Curious World of Victorian Collecting. My hope is that it will become an exploratory space for me to reflect on what I have discovered in the course of my research, share ideas and test theories, but primarily my focus is celebration of the incredible capacity of the Victorians to collect.

The blog is supposed to be a joyous one, so I hope things don't get too dry, or too abstract, and that you can share in my fascination with collectors.

My intention is to post once a month, and for each post to speak about a Victorian collector or collection which has excited me recently. The first posts which I have lined up to be published soon are about the Cuming Museum in Southwark, and Enid Marx's interest in Folk Art.

Thanks for joining me.