Robert H. Lamborn: An Atypical Collector in 19th Century Philadelphia

April 22, 2018

By Sheridan Small, Penn Museum Fellow 2017-2018

Although I never had a chance to meet Robert Henry Lamborn, I feel like we have become close friends. I have studied him over the past seven months through my research for my senior honors thesis in Anthropology as a Penn Museum Fellow. I have spent hours in the archives of three different Philadelphia museums and searched through the online databases of libraries around the world, not to mention reading tomes of early anthropological theory and looking at objects in the Penn Museum’s collection with extraordinarily helpful staff and faculty. This work has helped me understand the thoughts and opinions of a 19th-century collector who played a defining role in building the Penn Museum’s collection.

Image 1: Lamborn’s notes on some of the jewelry in his collection. He purchased these three necklaces from Australia at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Image 2: A letter between Lamborn and Stewart Culin, a curator at the Penn Museum, concerning the labeling of Lamborn’s objects. Image 3: A letter to another Penn Museum founder, Francis C. Macauley, in which Lamborn expresses his pride in Philadelphia and the new Penn Museum. All three letters located in the Penn Museum Archives.

My first goal was to reconstruct Lamborn’s collection. Nearly 2,000 of his objects now reside in every curatorial section of the Penn Museum, but few have detailed contextual information so I sought to establish a comprehensive list of his collection and consequently a better understanding of Lamborn as a collector. As my research proceeded, I realized that it would be extremely difficult to make an exact accounting of Lamborn’s diverse and scattered collection because he never kept a complete list, his objects are located in multiple museums in Philadelphia and New York, and his objects moved around a lot during his life and after his death. Unexpectedly, learning about Lamborn’s goals and methods as a collector led me to a larger topic, and an astoundingly fruitful one, for my thesis – the intersection of modernizing museums and the newly developing discipline of anthropology during the 19th century.

Sheridan (center) inspects some of Lamborn’s Roman glass collection with Madeline Fried (left) and Claudia Epley (right). All three are conducting research as Penn Museum Fellows. Photo by Kelsea Gustavson.

Robert H. Lamborn (1835-1895) was an atypical collector for the 19th century. He was unusual in the way he approached collecting as both a personal scholarly pursuit and as a socially engaging educational project. Lamborn was interested in studying culture and history through new concepts emerging in anthropology, and he wanted to make anthropological inquiry available to the public through museum displays. He collected thousands of objects from six continents, maintaining a detailed understanding of the individual objects in his collection and the ways they worked together in groups to illustrate anthropological theories about cultural change and development. He donated all of his objects to museums, arranging them in interesting and informative displays.

A staged photograph of Lamborn (with his back to us in the foreground) and Dalton Dorr, curator, in Lamborn’s room at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in Memorial Hall, Fairmount Park. Lamborn’s collection of colonial Mexican paintings hangs on the walls. He felt that this subject had been sorely neglected by art historians, and he built his collection with the aim of filling a gap in scholarly knowledge. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
While most collectors purchased beautiful objects or curious souvenirs to fill their homes, Lamborn traveled constantly and never owned a home, staying in luxury hotels throughout the United States and Europe. Consequently, he had nowhere to put the objects in his vast collections (by my estimate, around 5,000 objects) except in storage or a museum. The former would leave the objects unstudied, so Lamborn sent all of his objects directly to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia Museum of Art), the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and the newly founded Penn Museum (known by various names over the years and housed in Furness Library – the main library of the University of Pennsylvania – during Lamborn’s life). In fact, Lamborn helped found the Penn Museum as a vice president of the fundraising body known as the Archaeological Association.

Lamborn’s interests ranged across space and time. He collected objects and requested that they be displayed to teach visitors about the history of human development. He planned exhibits that used contemporary anthropological concepts and innovative display ideas. Like a modern museum curator, Lamborn kept multiple projects in his mind at once, selecting specific pieces to fill out his collections and complete his object groups. He frequently wrote to museum curators, instructing them on how to label and display his objects properly.

The author examining Lamborn’s extensive collection of Etruscan bucchero pottery with Dr. Jean MacIntosh Turfa, Consulting Scholar in the Mediterranean Section at the Penn Museum. Lamborn believed that his bucchero collection could illustrate the development of Etruscan civilization.

His objects and letters provide evidence of some of his displays. He created complete “series” of objects designed to illustrate the development of a single “technology” such as jewelry or fire. He organized typological displays of pottery and stone tools that showed subtle changes over time. His comparative displays juxtaposed art from different geographical areas to show their similarities, and his interactive exhibits included a sparking gun flint and vibrating glass gem models.

These three images show some of the pieces of jewelry Lamborn collected, including a necklace of weathered iridescent shells from Australia, a ring from ancient Rome, and a necklace from East Africa.

These groups of objects allowed museum visitors to see cultural variation and changes for themselves. For example, Lamborn designed an exhibit on “personal adornment” at Furness Library “for the purpose of illustrating the history and development of personal ornaments, from primitive ages to modern times.”[i] In addition, Lamborn was passionate about the importance of a pictorial buffalo robe in his collection, exhorting the curator at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art, Dalton Dorr, to hang it next to the museum’s replica of the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, as Lamborn believed it would “show that the picture writing of our ancestors and that of the Sioux was not widely dissimilar. Also that the wild indians [sic] art was not childish – but that the artist seriously sought to tell a clear story to those who came after him. – as seriously as [the 19th-century French painter Horace] Vernet did when he painted his battle scenes.”[ii]

Dalton Dorr did not feel Lamborn’s buffalo robe should be hung next to the Bayeux Tapestry, so Lamborn put the robe “on deposit” at the Penn Museum. The robe in the rectangular frame on the far wall in this picture, taken in Furness Library in 1898, might be Lamborn’s but it is unclear. Photograph by William H. Rau, image no. 153359, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Archives.

Lamborn provides a useful case study for how 19th-century anthropological scholars used objects in museums to understand the diversity of cultures and how they changed through time. As my research shows, Lamborn thought carefully about how to illustrate his ideas in exhibitions designed for the public. Although Lamborn has been largely forgotten today, and museum displays are dramatically different from their crowded 19th-century predecessors, this thesis project shows how careful contextual examination of one collector can lead to a new understanding of his objects, their use within museums, and the goals of museums over time.


I could not have completed this thesis without the help of many people at the Penn Museum, including the keepers (Steve Lang, Dwaune Latimer, William Wierzbowski) and consulting scholars (Jean MacIntosh Turfa) who examined material with me, the knowledgeable and accommodating archivists Alessandro Pezzati and Eric Schnittke, my wonderful advisors Megan Kassabaum and Ann Blair Brownlee, both of whom have helped me with theoretical research and object examination, and the amazing Academic Engagement staff, especially Emily Moore for coordinating object sessions and Sarah Linn for all the advice and editing.


Sheridan Small is one of three Penn Museum Fellows selected for the 2017-2018 academic year. The Penn Museum Fellows program supports and promotes outstanding undergraduate research utilizing collections, archives, or laboratories in the Penn Museum. Over the course of the year, Fellows conduct research under the supervision of a project advisor, provide support and feedback to one another through peer review, and present the outcomes of their projects at poster sessions and academic symposia. 


[i] Philadelphia Inquirer, 1894, Penn Museum Archives

[ii] Lamborn to Dorr, 8 June 1889, Box 4, Folder 2, Letter 171, Philadelphia Museum of Art Library and Archives