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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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]
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