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History of the Cuming family collection and the Cuming Museum

The Cuming collection
The Cuming Museum is a special resource housed in the Borough of Southwark in South East London. It was the result of over 100 years of collecting between 1780 and 1900 by father and son, Richard and Henry Cuming. They were able to acquire many beautiful and significant objects at a time when a gentleman collector living in London could purchase objects from any part of the world.

Richard and Henry Cuming collected anything and everything from ancient Egyptian artefacts to the paper bags their bread came in! Today the collection of over 25,000 artefacts that they amassed consists of archaeology, British social history, ethnography, British popular art, decorative art, geology, textiles, natural history, prints, coins, ceramics, ancient history including Egyptian and Etruscan objects.
History Of The Cuming Museum
Richard Cuming (1777 to 1870) was the son of a tinplater from Devon. The family moved to 3 Dean's Row in the Walworth Road in 1779 when Richard Cuming was two years old. The site of 3 Dean's Row is approximately where the McDonald's is on the Walworth Road.

Richard became interested in collecting when his aunt gave him three fossils and an old Mogul (Indian) coin. He described this gift as the: "Nucleus of his vast and varied collections of natural and artificial curiosities." Richard Cuming's first major purchases were from the sale of the Leverian Museum in 1806. He continued to collect throughout his life from a range of sources including from auctions, sales and from neighbors and friends who made gifts and donations to him.

Geology was Richard Cuming's first enthusiasm. He kept his shells and rocks in a cabinet he made, which is now part of the collection. His nickname when young was "the young philosopher", showing his passion for reading and learning about the things he collected. Later he became particularly interested in science and natural history, attending the Chemical Society of London, building scientific apparatus and buying stuffed animals. As his interest in collecting grew, he began to concentrate on 'Artificial Curiosities', or man made objects. He was able to amass a huge collection of objects, many of them rare and curious examples of things from all over the world.

Henry Syer Cuming (1817 to 1902) continued his father's work of collecting things from the everyday lives of people all over the world, but his special interests were the archaeology of London, folklore and British popular art and the lives of the people of South London. He collected many thousands of objects that revealed the ordinary lives of South Londoners in the 1800s, from theatre adverts and rail tickets to cheap toys and good luck charms.

During Henry's lifetime the growing antiques market was flooded with fakes which Henry enjoyed collecting and exposing.

When he died in 1902 he left the Cuming family collection to the people of the parish of St Mary Newington (now the Borough of Southwark). His will stated "My museum illustrative of natural history, archaeology and ethnology with my coins and medals and along with all other curios" be exhibited in "a suitable and spacious gallery or apartments in connection with Newington Public Library."

The museum was to be known as the Cuming Museum and he left a sum of money to employ a curator. The museum was opened in 1906 by Lord Rothschild.

The Cuming Museum and collection from 1906
When the Cuming Museum opened to the public in 1906, the exhibits were all from the Cuming family's original collection. After the opening, local people and other collectors quickly began to donate other objects to the museum. As the borough of Southwark developed and grew, objects relating to the history of the borough were deposited in the collection, including archaeology from excavations in the 1960's and 1970's.

The Lovett collections of London supersititions was donated by Edward Lovett in the 1920's, recieved a great deal of press coverage and quickly became a favourite part of the Cuming Museum displays.

The museum was very popular with local visitors until the outbreak of war in 1939 and a hit from an incendiary bomb in 1941 lead to its closure until the museum was reopened in 1951, when it concentrated on displays of Southwark's history.

Today the collection gives a fascinating insight into the history of Southwark and of cultures around the world. The museum continues to collect material relating to the people and history of Southwark.

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