In describing the three essential possessions of a learned man, Francis Bacon identified a good library, an expansive garden, and, for the third,
a goodly, huge cabinet, wherein whatsoever the hand of many by exquisite art or engine has made rare in stuff, form or motion; whatsoever singularity, change, and the shuffle of things hath produced; whatsoever Nature has wrought in things that want life and may be kept; shall be sorted and included.
~ as quoted in An American Cabinet of Curiosities: Thomas Jefferson’s “Indian Hall” at Monticello, by Joyce Henri Robinson, in Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, 2003, p. 17 (link provided below in list of sources).
How had I missed this piece when the issue arrived in the mail? I certainly must have done my usual systematic “page-through” the magazine from back to front (the reverse order makes sense to me because I reach the classnotes and the obituaries sooner that way), but, somehow, I’d failed to spot it. So, on this day of cleanup chores, I was derailed and had a West Cemetery reverie.
On many days during my freshman year at college, on my way to the gym, I walked through West Cemetery, just down a hill to the south behind several of the dormitories. A peaceful place of worn markers, many askew, the sweeping lawns punctuated with sudden stands of markers and monuments and deciduous trees (perhaps maples, I don’t remember, though colors there in the fall come back to me). The whole surrounded by pine trees, a gravel road ran through it.
Over my years at the college, the main attraction in the cemetery for me and a few of my fellow classmates became a particular gravesite, the final resting place of the ashes of a mummy.
How had it come to be here? Nineteenth century Americans gathered, collected, studied, and displayed objects, commonplace things and curiosities, often from the natural or ancient worlds. Whether they did so more than their 18th century predecessors or more contemporary successors, I don’t know, but I suspect that collecting, particularly focused on natural history, was a more widespread phenomenon during that century than it was before or after. Many in those years were busy assembling their cabinets of curiosities. In many cases, these were literally cabinets; in others, a place or room in the home in which to keep a collection. Furniture was designed specifically to hold, protect, and display those objects. In the front hallways or parlors of homes, these cabinets and displays might welcome and instruct visitors.
The impulses behind this collecting were many, among them: theological (finding God in nature, reflecting the divine order), nationalist (disproving the Old World contention that, in the New World, Nature was dissipated), educational (reflecting the expanding reach of learning within the society and recognition of its importance), scientific (contributing to the nascent sciences, still open to amateurs, through the gathering and describing of objects from nature), or historical (as the pace of change accelerated, seeking to hang on to evidence of the virtues and glory of the past). (At the end of this post is a selected list of references.)
Henry Sheldon (1821-1907) lived in Middlebury, Vermont, playing music, serving as town clerk, and, most of all, collecting on a grand scale with an undiscriminating eye – nearly everything was worthy and fair game. As Jan Albers, executive director of the Henry Sheldon Museum (Middlebury, Vermont) has written:
Henry’s first real love was a Diocletian coin he bought for one dollar in 1875. The thrill of holding a tiny piece of ancient Rome in his hand was almost overwhelming. He was determined to collect more such interesting objects. He bought coin after coin, and then turned to other categories: books, pamphlets, letters, diaries, autographs, clocks, guns, furniture, paintings, household objects, agricultural implements and more. (Salisbury Man Founded Sheldon Museum 125 Years Ago, article dated June, 2009, on the Sheldon Museum website.)Albers noted that Sheldon’s focus ultimately narrowed as his collecting shifted to the early, pioneer history of his region and town.
In 1882, he and a friend bought a mansion near the center of the village of Middlebury. This structure, dating from 1829, was built by marble quarry owners Eben Judd and his son-in-law Lebbeus Harris. The new owners divided up the structure, Henry Sheldon taking half of the second floor for his living quarters and installing his growing collection on the third floor.
Though Sheldon shared in the collecting urge of the 19th century, he took a step that most Americans did not and opened a museum in 1884, under an act of incorporation passed by the state legislature. Still, opening a museum in Middlebury was in keeping with a phenomenon of the age – community after community, large and small, took to hosting museums, one of an array of “urban cultural institutions” that reflected towns’ civic pride and a “genuine concern to live as civilized people.” (Thomas Bender, Science and the Culture of American Communities: The Nineteenth Century, History of Education Quarterly, 1976.)
Though, for me, mystery continues to cloak the story, this much is clear, the mummy’s gravesite in the West Cemetery came to be because of Henry Sheldon’s drive to collect. The highlights of the story I’ve recounted below may well all be true. I’ve relied for the most part on the account by Helen Husher in A View from Vermont: Everyday Life in America (2004) (available in part at Google Books), and I’ve also drawn some details from Curious New England: The Unconventional Traveler's Guide to Eccentric Destinations by Joseph A. Citro and Diane E. Foulds (2004) (available in part at Google Books),
Sheldon bought the more than 3,500 year old mummy of a royal Egyptian child for $10 in December, 1886, working the price down from $20 because the mummy was dramatically showing its age. The mummy may have been briefly displayed in the museum, but, because of its condition, it was probably stashed away in the attic soon after it arrived. Sheldon never knew much about what he had purchased, and even what he thought he knew was apparently wrong. After the mummy was rediscovered among the museum’s holdings in 1945, the writing on the plank on which it lay was translated – the mummy of a little girl turned out to be that of a little boy.
Now that it was out of the attic, its fate rested, once again, in strangers’ hands and, finally, it received considerate treatment. George Mead, chair of the Museum’s board of trustees, “did what he clearly believed was the correct, humane, and theologically defensible thing – he arranged to have the child cremated, and then buried the ashes in his own family plot in the Middlebury cemetery.” (Husher, p. 183)
So, today, amid the weathered and often tilted stone markers, stands a simple tombstone with the following chiseled inscription:
Above these words are three symbols. In the center is a simple Christian cross; slightly below them are two Egyptian symbols – to the left (as you face the stone) is the symbol Ankh for life and to the right is Ba symbolizing the soul. Here's how it looked in 1987.
Many years ago, when we were young, some of us would gather occasionally at this gravesite. To what end? Perhaps to celebrate what “the shuffle of things hath produced.”
The following are useful for exploring the collecting impulses in the 19th century (links provided if works available without subscription or payment on the web).
Shirley Teresa Wajda’s “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”: American Children’s Cabinets of Curiosities, and Joyce Henri Robinson’s An American Cabinet of Curiosities: Thomas Jefferson’s “Indian Hall” at Monticello, in Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, edited by Leah Dilworth, 2003. (Portions available at Google Books)
Waste and Wunderkammern: Recycling the American Cabinet of Curiosities, by Zoe Trodd, Verb, 2006.
Science and the Culture of American Communities: The Nineteenth Century, by Thomas Bender, History of Education Quarterly, 1976.
Concluding Remarks: American Natural History and Biology in the Nineteenth Century, by Keith R. Benson, American Zoologist, 1986.
Curiosities and Cabinets: Natural History Museums and Education on the Antebellum Campus, by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Isis, 1988.
Parlors, Primers, and Public Schooling: Education for Science in Nineteenth-Century America, by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Isis, 1990.