One thing my 98 year-old mother did not do in her life time was to collect anything. Well, maybe books.
The CBS Sunday Morning show did a story on a man who collected washing machines. He had started his collecting late in life but had managed to accumulate warehouses – plural—full of every form of washing machine known to mankind. Admittedly, he did clean them up, repair them, and, as much as humanly possible, put them back in working condition. Now, however, reaching the end of his life, he was trying to find some benefactor who would take over the collection and perhaps establish a museum.
We have a local collector here in Huntsville, a gentleman by the name of George Russell. His father, a producer of scholastic film strips, left him a small fortune which he has used to purchase “collections.” He gave Mom and I a tour of one of his “museums.” Like the washing machine collector, George has purchased several warehouses that he uses to store his goods.
Regrettably, the collections of beds, old pottery, books, broken guns, and just stuff are laid out in the warehouses without rhyme or reason, without cards or descriptions, without any indication of provenance, and without any historical reference whatsoever. The entire “collection” was dusty, dirty and covered with cobwebs. In other words, our friend George is a hoarder.
Another wealthy collector who has spent money to display his collections appropriately is J. P. Bryan. A descendant of the 1830s original Texas Austin family, his money comes from his father who, like J.P., was also in the oil business. His father had begun amassing a collection of Western art and items that he gave away at the end of his life, an action that triggered J.P.’s own buying frenzy. Fortunately, J.P. has spent his money wisely. He bought the turn-of-the-century Orphan’s Home in Galveston, a three-story mansion which he has restored. Then he hired curators and professional museum people to display his collections.
The Bryan Museum of Western Art is exquisite. Just F.Y.I. It is located at 1315 21st St, Galveston, Texas, and is open Thursday through Monday, 9 to 5. Not only does he have a staff of 30 people to run the place and keep up the collections, he also has every item described, identified, and placed in magnificent display cases organized historically. His Western memorabilia consists of hand guns, rifles, saddles, bridles, clothing, hats, household items, historical documents, photographs and magnificent paintings, sculptures, and other art. Now, that is a museum worth seeing.
As part of our tour of Huntsville for new faculty, I had, just by chance, stumbled across the University’s Natural History Museum collection. It is tucked away in an office building complex back behind an Exxon station and out on the edge of the campus. It is a rabbits-warren of tiny rooms, inter-connected by narrow halls, and small, cramped offices for faculty and the occasional student. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of corridors and rooms.
Over the years, it appears that faculty and other “friends” of the University have donated their collections to their alma mater or the closest science department. Run by Dr. Will Godwin, the collections consist of every conceivable form of natural artifact from butterflies to sea shells, stuffed animals to stuffed birds, tiny insects to mammoth mastodon bones. Many are beautifully displayed in large, lighted wall cases crammed into already narrow hallways, others in carefully protected boxes stacked atop overflowing bookcases. Others, however, are packed away in file cabinets and metal closets, unseen by mortal man. There are also collections of books on scientific topics that could, conceivably, provide information for interested students.
Fortunately, the University has purchased the old Huntsville High School and will repurpose it as a Natural Science Museum. One of the Art Department faculty members on the tour had already been assigned to work with the Science Department to create display spaces for the Natural History Collection. He had not, however, even known where the collection was or what it consisted of. Now he does. And he has realized the daunting job facing him. Displaying such a varied collection will not be easy—or inexpensive. The best thing both Dr. Godwin and the Art teacher could do is go visit the Bryan museum, and then cry because they will never get the kind of funding from the University that J. P. Bryan has spent on his museum. But at least it won’t be dusty, and cobweb covered.
Someone called Dr. Godwin and asked if he would take a Printing press with all the equipment from a local newspaper. He wrote me and asked if I knew anyone who wanted it. Unless it was a press run by Sam Houston, the Sam Houston Memorial Museum didn’t want it. Unless it was a press run by someone in Walker County, the local county museum didn’t want it. Of course, there is always George Russell. He might take it and add it to one of his warehouses. Just convince him it’s historic and he’ll bite.
Why do we collect things? I think we’ve all known friends who had collections. It might be glass or porcelain frogs, birds, penguins or roosters, Christmas nativity scenes from around the world, small paintings or large sculptures, antique quilts or solid hundred-year-old wardrobes. People with collections are easy to buy for. Just find them another slightly different or unusual item to add to their pile. But what will happen to their collections? Will their children value them as they do? Or will they be like the owner of the washing machines or the press, looking desperately for someone who will care for their beloved collections?
As I look at my computer, lined up below the screen are a dozen or more little creatures. They are mementos I have bought on my various trips. A skiing Santa, an Alaskan bear, a tiny Mexican doll with braids, a rooster, a Yaqui doll from the Copper Canyon, a Pan Bimbo bear, a Frieda Kahlo skeleton, a Spanish bull from a bottle of wine, a Key West pirate ship, an Awesome Teacher heart from two of my worst students. They bring back fond memories as my eye lights on them. But of what real use are they, except as dust collectors? What will happen to them all? They will be swept into the dustbin with no concern whatsoever by whoever has the unfortunate chore of cleaning up my office when it’s my turn to go. Should I get rid of the stuff now and save someone the trouble?
Now that Mom is gone, I am thankful for her ascetic living style. As she and husband Al spent the last thirty-odd years driving North and South with the snowbirds, all they had was the car they lived in. Although the back seat got piled up with Al’s newspapers and magazines, there wasn’t room for any “collections.” I did save Mom’s notebooks for her here at home, and her collection of Lee Childs, but beyond that, she did not keep much.
For which I am eternally grateful.