I visited the Cuming Museum on the 23rd March 2013, less than 48 hours later a fire started on the roof of the museum and as yet unknown amounts of the building, which is shared with the Newington Library, were consumed. At time of writing I cannot say how much of the museum’s collection has been damaged or destroyed – if any, however the damage looks to be considerable. 30 people were evacuated from the building and there were no casualties.
Given the seriousness of these events, I am in the unpleasant duty of writing an obituary for the museum, I can only hope it is a temporary one and that the Cuming will soon be able to reopen with its collection intact.
The museum was in three sections, one room housing rotating collections, which when I visited the museum had the fine and imaginative pottery of the locally based Martin brothers. A middle room contained a collection devoted to Southwark history (which falls outside of the gamut of this blog) and the room at which guests enter housed the Cuming family’s collections of curious objects- by far the most fascinating part for the visitor.
Richard and Henry Cuming, father and son respectively, did not collect for the sake of opening a museum. Henry died in 1902 and left his objects to the Borough of Southwark. In 1906 the collection was made into a public museum. The Cumings could be described as hoarders, for there doesn’t at first seem to have been any particular focus to their collections. If it was of interest to them, they collected it. There was certainly and anthropological and archaeological slant to the collection, however within that the periods range from Ancient Egyptian through Byzantine, Medieval, up to contemporary times and the wide range of artefacts goes from the exotic to the local- take for example a grizzly woolly hat with teeth sown onto the edge, as worn by a local dentist who perhaps wanted to demonstrate his skill in extraction.
When, in his youth, Henry Cuming was given a foreign coin and three different fossils it was the start of two lifetimes spent collecting (gathered from 1780 – 1902) and the very different nature of those items set the precedent. Objects were gathered at auctions or acquired from other collectors, in general Richard collecting objects from around the world, whilst Henry more focussed towards objects from London. Henry Cuming was particularly interested in royalty- on display in the museum were Queen Anne’s shoes, Queen Victoria’s gloves, the tooth of King Alphonso VI of Portugal and a tiny sliver of Edward VII’s wedding cake (somewhat past the sell by date), for example.
In the small and packed room of the collection beautifully carved wooden masks, a stuffed bear, three inch long Chinese lotus shoes (caused by the grotesque binding of feet – a traditon which survived as late as 1930) shared wonderfully diverse display cases with scary looking tribal weaponry, the heart of a cow, inuit eyeshades carved from bone, and many other unique or strange items which we can only hope will have survived the fire. The range of the objects was also a testament to London’s status at the time – artefacts were gathered from across the empire and its branching trade routes. These were then brought to London for exhibition at the likes of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly and afterwards sold to the likes of the Cumings, whose wealth was inherited from their Shropshire family and their time spent in studying natural science (the Cumings themselves never travelled) and, we are told, taking the odd walk.
My favourite object, I am very sorry to say, must surely have melted in the fire. These were chocolate nails (as in hammer and nails) created for a Parisian “Passion Week” celebration in 1847. These nails were angular, sharp chocolate versions of Christ’s nails – giving believers both a tasteful and tasty way to celebrate the sacrifice of their saviour.
The children of the Cuming family grew up around the collection. It must have inspired their imaginations, excited and perhaps in some ways terrified them – but they must surely have treasured it. How sad then that objects so lovingly protected, first by the family and then by the museum’s dedicated and friendly staff, may now be lost forever, and their ability to capture the imagination for generations to come may be lost.
When I visited the curator told me the display was around 2% of the collection. Here’s hoping the other 98% is safe and that the museum can rise from the ashes.