Recently I’ve been volunteering at the Cuming Musem in Southwark, London. (It’s pronounced “Queue-ming”, by the way.) The collection is made up of all sorts of things, some representing Southwark’s social history and others from around the world, including ethnographic material, art, geological specimens and archaeological finds. And stuffed animals, because why not? This is thanks to the varied interests of the founders, Richard Cuming, and his son, Henry Cuming, who, in the spirit of all 19th century gentleman collectors, collected nearly everything they could get their mitts on.
It’s a fantastically varied collection, and you could honestly write all sorts of dissertations on individual pieces. I was working in the stores, where you can really find anything: there’s a WW1 grenade launcher by the front door, and once I turned a corner to find a mammoth skull lounging right across the shelf I wanted to be at. The building itself is a grand old Victorian place, though unfortunately the museum is closed at the moment, after a fire a couple of years ago. The stores are still in the safe part of the building, while the rest is being renovated and should re-open in a couple of years.
But until you can all go and visit (which you should), here are six objects that particularly caught my eye:
Kicking off with a bit of Southwark history, Captain Wilson was a local boy who fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 while wearing these very gaiters. (Gaiters are garments that cover the lower leg and boot. Modern hikers still wear them today for waterproofing and protection.) If you look closely, you can still see mud around the bottom, and red stains where the red uniform rubbed against them.
Captain Wilson (good surname, that) survived the battle and went on to be a missionary. We came across these while repackaging some of the costume collection, completely by chance on the day of the battle’s bicentenary. A nice coincidence, and a nice example of an “ordinary” artefact linked to one of the most famous British military engagements.
This is an interesting one. The head is the under-jaw of a dolphin with bird feet tied on either side. Under that is a piece of bear skin with bands of shell disk beads, and hair – either bear or, um, human. Made between 1800 and 1850, it’s been identified as probably from the North West American Coast/California, possibly by the Chinook people, but there are mysterious line carvings around the bottom that aren’t from that area. It’s an odd one. Many experts have had a nosy at it, but no-one conclusively knows what the hell it is.
Personally I reckon it’s either a fancy thing to show how important the owner was, or was used to scare small children if they were being naughty (“Oh, what’s that noise at the door? Eat your greens or it’ll get you!”)
Next is this particularly vicious looking club made out of wood and sharks’ teeth. This is probably from Micronesia, and is very sharp. I know this because I touched it.
The Cuming has a wide selection of different clubs from Africa, Oceania and the Americas as part of the extensive ethnographic collection. Some of them have little dints in the ends so you can tell they’ve been used. Walking into an office where there’s a load of them lying on the table is probably one of the best theft-prevention systems you could have.
This was made by Henry Cuming himself when he was in his mid-teens. Puts my early arts-and-crafts to shame a bit. He was clearly a clever lad, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. What worries me slightly was one of the things in the samples box that accompanies the microscope: a small fold of paper with the handwritten label: “Piece of human skin from the neck”.
This skin is almost 200 years old. I can only assume he’s telling the truth as to its origins, because it just looks like a sizeable blister that had come away in one go. The thing is, how did he get it?
“Henry, why is the chambermaid crying?”
You do wonder.
This skull is one of several found at Tottenham, during excavations for the East London Waterworks. Sadly I’m not sure what era it’s from, but the skull plates aren’t completely fused together, suggesting that the skull was once a young person, possibly younger than 20. This is not the most interesting point, however.
Henry wrote meticulous labels in distinctive handwriting, and the one on this skull records that it was “the last specimen handled by his father, Richard Cuming, less than 60 hours before his death on 12th February 1879”.
Again, I can’t help but wonder about this event. Henry seems to me to be the Cuming more obsessed with collecting, due to his wide selection of acquisitions and keen labelling. Did Henry come across Richard analysing an item, or was it Henry bounding up to his dad, enthusiastic to show the old man his recent acquisition?
As part of the social history collection, the Cuming has a lot of Valentines cards from the Victorian era onwards. Sadly none of the ones I looked at had anything written in them. This card is from the 1920s, and I like it because, if forced to send a card, it’s the sort of thing I’d send. (But if anyone sent it to me, I’d box their ears.)
Many thanks to Bryn Hyacinth at the Cuming Museum for providing the photos (and for letting me shuffle around her storerooms for a couple of weeks).