Penman for Monday, February 12, 2018
HISTORY TELLS us that museums began as private collections of odds and ends—Wunderkammer or “rooms of wonder” in German, later to be known as “cabinets of curiosities”—where wealthy Europeans of the 16th century amassed objects from all around the world for the amazement and delectation of their friends. Those objects ranged from stuffed crocodiles and “unicorn” (narwhal) horns to Roman coins, clockwork globes, and such vestiges of defeated empires as the feather crown of the Aztec Montezuma (now in Vienna’s Museum of Ethnology).
Kept and shown in—yes—cabinets (although originally “cabinets” could also mean whole rooms), these collections formed the basis for what later became full-scale and more specialized museums. Those museums are what Beng and I make a beeline for every time we land on foreign territory, eager for the chance to see wondrous objects from the past with our own eyes. Topping that list would be perennials like the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum, the Field Museum, and the New York City Public Library—for which one lifetime seems inadequate to appreciate in their entirety—as well as art palaces such as the Louvre, the Prado, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate, and the Getty.
For reasons we can only guess at, the routing in those places almost always ends at the gift shop, where you can pick up a pewter Colosseum or a Vincent van Gogh fridge magnet (both made, of course, in China) to remember your visit by.
My urges, however, have gone in another direction: instead of spending $24.99 on a fake Lindbergh cap at the Air and Space Museum, I’d rather spend it on a book on early aviation or on a 1927 newspaper marking the historic trans-Atlantic flight. You’d be surprised how inexpensive the real thing can be, compared to the mock memento.
Given that mindset—and the fact that I’ve had more than 30 years of collecting old fountain pens, watches, and other men’s junk behind me—it’s no surprise that I’ve cobbled together my own cabinet of curiosities at home, representing half a lifetime of picking rubbish off the street. Some people would call me a pack rat, for keeping Love Bus tickets ca. 1978 or real plane tickets from back when they used red carbon paper for the passenger coupons.
Lately I’ve been prowling eBay for fine old books, but I get as much pleasure finding treasure in a Cavite junkyard as I do securing a 130-year-old travel book in French online (you’ll see both below).
I’ll leave it for Beng and Demi to sort everything out when I myself become a candidate for taxidermy, but here’s a sampler of what a visitor to my mini-museum will find:
- A man’s black umbrella with a classic bent-bamboo handle, found for P120 in a Japanese surplus store in Bacoor. Beng rhapsodizes over the ceramics in these stores, and rightly so, but I’ve been strangely attracted to wooden umbrellas, clocks, and boxes;
- A silver “Dos Mundos” coin from 1771, big and fat, from my home island of Tablas in Romblon, reputed to be a pirate haven in Spanish times.
- A gold-tinted medallion given out to luminaries and guests at the Independence Day celebration on July 4, 1946, the kind gift of a dear family friend, whose father was one of those guests;
- A Form 5 (at it was already called then) that a student registered with at the University of the Philippines in the 1930s, accompanied by a booklet of course offerings for that time.
- A 900-page travel book, published in Paris in 1878, with 360 beautiful engravings of scenes from Australia, Java, Japan, and China, sourced from Funchal in Portugal;
- A gold Hamilton railroad watch from around 1925, large and bright, so-called because railroads required precise timekeeping down to the exact second to avoid collisions, and such watches were synchronized by telegraphy;
- The original iPhone from 2007 (of which I must sheepishly admit I have three, two of which still function perfectly), which I predict will be tomorrow’s great collectible (alongside my EasyCall pager, which still glows when turned on, a near-mint BlackBerry, and four Palm PDAs);
- A copy of The Gentleman’s Magazine from November 1773—no, not an early version of Playboy or Penthouse, but the very first publication to call itself a magazine, or a collection of general-interest articles, including the title story on “The Frugal Housewife, wherein the art of dressing all sorts of viands with cleanliness, decency, and elegance, is explained….”; and
- An array of French-made 19th-century toothbrushes with bone handles and boar bristles.
I could go on and on—but it only gets worse (or more fascinating, if you like extracted teeth, gallstones, and other wonders of the natural world). Don’t be shy, come on in!