Private passion - Museums Association

Private passion

Sharon Heal visits west London to see how order has been restored to the vast and eclectic collection of Thomas Layton
A rat- and bird-infested collection, with erratic or non-existent records, piled high in boxes and distributed around 30 outhouses and sheds - it hardly sounds like a curator's dream. But this was the state of Thomas Layton's collection when it was passed to the people of Brentford in 1911.

There is little evidence remaining about why Layton collected what he did. His taste was catholic and everything from mounted insects to rare books, human remains and ethnographic material turned up in his collection. There are clues: as a long-serving local councillor, he was aware of the worth of local identity and civic pride; and as the owner of a dredging company, and a coal merchant, he had ready access to the rich archaeology of the Thames.

There was also an altruistic motive for his hoarding. Layton wanted his large array of books, prints, maps, coins and archaeological objects to stay in the local area and he gave over his home to his collections with the intention that it should become a museum after his death. He also set up a trust to care for and display the objects.

The hitch was not the chaos in which the objects were left, but that his will also allowed for his nephew to live in the house. In the spirit of a good Victorian melodrama, the nephew contested the will - and won. A desperate battle ensued to save the collection before it went under the hammer.

Fortunately, Fred Turner, the local librarian stepped in. Lured by the prospect of thousands of books, including rare and unique volumes, he searched Layton's house, working by candlelight and in freezing conditions, to save the best of the collection.

He managed to save 8,000 books, more than 4,000 maps and prints and nearly 9,000 objects. Back in the safe haven of Brentford Library, he began cataloguing the collection for the first time. Turner became the de facto curator and created a public display in the library - he later expressed pride at having rescued the Layton collection from a 'bewildering state of confusion'. But on Turner's retirement in the 1930s, there was no one to champion the collection. It ended up scattered around the borough in poor storage for the next few decades.

In 1959, a large chunk of the archaeological material went on a long-term loan to what became the Museum of London (the best of which is on display in the London Before London gallery). The books had to wait another 30 years before they found salvation in the form of the London Borough of Hounslow. In exchange for a proper home for the books, the council took overall control of the Layton Trust. The painstaking job of restoring the books, and fundraising to pay for the restoration, continues today.

Now parts of the collection are on display again, some of them for the first time, in an exhibition called A Most Confusing Private Museum, at Gunnersbury Park Museum. The show, which runs until 13 January, is part of a two-year project known as Layton's Legacy: Celebrating a Brentford Treasure. It is backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), and aims to put Layton, the man and his collection, back on the map.

The project won £49,500, nearly the maximum amount available from the HLF under the Your Heritage strand. The money has gone towards a heritage trail, the exhibition, which will show at other local venues, a website and publications.

The exhibition has been produced on a relative shoestring and it shows in parts. The display looks rather rough around the edges, with cracked glass on the side of one case and gaffer tape holding another together. Despite this, some of the objects are remarkable; the Maori feather box, the ceramic model of a six-toed foot made as an offering to the gods and the collection of flints stand out.

The intriguing story of the rise and fall of Layton's collection is shown through graphic panels that surround the central display of objects. The story is clearly and effectively told and the selection of quotes and images brings colour to Layton's life and collection - although the amount of text may be off-putting.

Despite being a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Layton appears to have been uninterested in the research potential of his collection. He kept very few records, published no academic papers and gave no lectures. His aim seems to have been to collect a lot of stuff - his motivation could have been the thrill of the chase. Mike Galer, the project officer for the Layton Trust, says he likes to think that if Layton was alive today, he would be buying stuff on eBay.

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