- Historic Sites
A Fascination With The Common Place
The vast jumble of objects that once brought solace to an eccentric heiress has become a great museum of the middle class
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
When Margaret Woodbury Strong died in her sleep on July 17, 1969, the demise of the seventytwo-year-old widow did not go unnoticed in Rochester, New York. For one thing, Mrs. Strong was one of Rochester’s richest inhabitants. She also wore sneakers and dressed, people said, “like a charwoman.” Most of all, Mrs. Strong was a notoriously avid collector of objects that few people collect at all—massproduced paperweights, decorated doorknobs, glass toothpick holders, old inkwells, buttons, plaster figurines, cheap tinplate toys, and honeymoon souvenirs from Niagara Falls. Mrs. Strong loved mass-produced nineteenth-century playthings and gewgaws with a passion commonly reserved for the rare and the beautiful. By 1969 she had not only filled twenty-five rooms of her thirty-room mansion with her eccentric collection, she had disfigured its architecture by adding two concrete blocks to each end of it in order to provide more space for what she called her museum of fascinations.
“Margaret Strong’s stuff a museum? You’ve got to be kidding,” was the prevailing Rochester sentiment when the will was made public. In it, Mrs. Strong had expressed her firm wish to perpetuate a public “Museum of Fascination” for the “display of my various collections,” but how much would be needed to accomplish this Mrs. Strong sensibly left to the “sole discretion of my executors and trustees.” Whatever the museum did not require from a $77 million estate was to be divided equally among the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and seventeen other eminently worthy institutions. As a local newspaper said, “Mrs. Strong was a difficult person for many to understand, but she left a will that was thoughtful, generous and flexible.” It also left her executors in a painful quandary. Suppose Mrs. Strong’s “various collections” did not constitute a museum that the state of New York was willing to charter.
What then? The executors might well find themselves in court battling against lawyers for nineteen residual legatees backed by a sizable portion of Rochester public opinion.
That Mrs. Strong’s personal “Museum of Fascination “did not have the “educational” value required of an accredited New York State museum the executors themselves suspected. Museum experts confirmed their fears. “What Mrs. Strong found in her lifetime,” said one, “is a personal collection, not a museum.” Changing that collection into a museum presented “almost impossible problems” said a second. There was only one way to convert this “personal collection into a publiclyvalid museum,” said a museum director named Hoiman J. Swinney, and that was to bring all the subtlety of modern social history to bear on Mrs. Strong’s “stuff” in order to extract its “cultural significance.” The executors accepted the advice, committed $60 million to creating a “publicly-valid museum,” and hired Swinney himself to supervise the enterprise.
Without in the least intending it, Margaret Woodbury Strong had set historians, scholars, and curators an awesome and fruitful challenge; to extract social and cultural meaning from three hundred thousand objects that had, for deeply personal reasons, delighted the hungry heart of a rich and lonely old woman.
“From the time I was eight years old my father and mother would take me out of school and away we would go to foreign countries.” So Margaret Strong recalled some sixty years later when memories of childhood bliss had become the anchorsheet of her life. It had been, in truth, a blissful childhood, but it was a deeply defective one as well, rather like that of some precocious child in a Henry James story who spends too much time alone, too much time in hotels, too much time in the company of sophisticated adults, who, in Margaret’s case, were already thirty-seven years old when their only child was born in 1897. Margaret’s mother, Alice Motley Woodbury, was completely absorbed in a passion for tiny, carved Japanese utensils. “Kyoto is lovely,” Mrs. Woodbury writes home in 1905, the year Margaret made her first voyage round the world. “Such beautiful things are to be bought here. I have reveled in the shops and we have lots of things that are to be shipped home”—eventually to find a place in the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum. Margaret’s father, a retired manufacturer (and investor in Eastman Kodak’s wonderfully lucrative stock), was an avid collector of coins.