An Infinity of Things: How Sir Henry Wellcome Collected the World

Christopher Turner writes:

In 1881, a 27-year-old American moved into a house on the Marylebone Road that had belonged to an Indian rajah. ‘My collection of curiosities, Indian relics etc tally admirably with the house,’ Henry Wellcome wrote to his business partner, Silas Burroughs, ‘and so everybody seems rather fascinated with the effect, and in fact I rather like it myself. Some call it “Aesthetic”, some say “Heathenish”, some “Bohemian”, “Ideal”, “Artistic”, etc, etc … All in it is very cheerful: I brought my library and museum from America last winter.’ The ‘museum’ is a reference to the collection of ethnographic objects and exotic souvenirs that Wellcome had begun to assemble as a child in Minnesota (where he had lived through the Sioux uprising), and to which he had added while working in Central and South America as a travelling salesman for a New York drugs firm. These items eventually formed the basis for a collection of bewildering scope: by the 1930s more than a million archaeological artefacts, ethnographic specimens and objects pertaining to medical history – spears and surgical instruments, books and amulets, votive offerings and pairs of spectacles, skulls and hunting trophies – were jam-packed in warehouses all over London.

(LRB 13 May 2010)

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