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(Michael Harry de Young, 1849-1925)

Photo of Michael Harry [M.H.] de YoungYou ask me to tell you something about the early history and other interesting points connected with the foundation of our Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. When I was a very young man I had a great desire to acquire curious things, especially antiquities, and always felt that I would like to make a collection. I do not know just what impelled me in that direction, but I commenced by making a collection of stuffed birds. During a number of years, while a young man fighting the battle of life, I kept adding to this collection and secured a number of specimens that were extinct, which I thought an very valuable. I installed my birds in a room in my house, providing shelves and cases for them, and used to get a great deal of satisfaction inspecting them and showing them to my friends.

As the years rolled by my fad took another form, and one day I bought a large collection of Chinese wood carvings. The question then arose: Where shall I install them? As no place could be found in my house but the room where the birds were, out they went, and the room was devoted to the carvings and other objects harmonizing with them. It is still maintained, and my friends know it as the Chinese room. Then came the question of what to do with the discard. An elephant on one’s hands is a troublesome thing, but it does not have much on a collection of birds which no one seemed to want. There was no place where I could present them. I went to see the Park Commissioners and asked if they would accept them as a donation to the park, but they replied that there was no suitable building or place to put them, and they declined with regrets. Finally I put them up at auction because I could not keep them any longer, and they were sold, and after paying auctioneer’s expenses, for the small sum of $26. I have never forgotten that sale and the pang it gave me when I thought my little treasures were being thrown away.

vase on display at the 1894 California Mid-Winter Fair at San Francisco A few years after this experience the Mid-Winter Exposition was launched and during its progress the desire to create a museum took possession of me, and I gave a great deal of study to the matter. I had repeated interviews with Mr. Stowe, president of the Park Commission, urging on him the desirability of such an institution. At first he seemed very fixed in his determination not to allow any of the Exposition buildings to be kept in the park. But I persisted and finally got his consent to keep the Art Building by impressing upon him that there was only one suitable place in San Francisco to establish a museum, and that was in Golden Gate Park, where the people could enjoy it on the days when they take their outing, when whole families would visit the Art Building both for amusement and education.

I then turned my attention to the facilities afforded by the Mid-Winter Exposition and began to make purchases. The Exposition contained many beautiful things that had been specially made for the Colombian Exposition, among them the great Doré Vase, the Versailles Groups, and other interesting exhibits. I also went East and purchased many other interesting objects that had been exhibited at the Chicago Exposition, and then in the year 1895, March 23, before a large gathering of interested people I formally presented the museum to the park with the understanding that it was to remain in Golden Gate Park under the title of the Memorial Museum and to be open free every day in the week. Its doors were then thrown open.

Subsequently, nearly every year, I took a trip to some part of the world and devoted part of my time to making purchases for the museum, spending each year a certain amount of my own money for that purpose. During the twenty-one years that I have been thus engaged I have managed to secure over 300,000 articles which are now on exhibition in the Memorial Museum. While abroad I consulted with various museum authorities, talking over the matter with them, absorbing a lot of information which came in very handy for me. I soon found out that the cost of making a collection could easily become something fabulous. I remember seeing one in Tiffany’s, New York, wholly of knives and forks, for which they asked $80,000; another of stirrups was valued at $8,000.

I soon became convinced that to attempt to buy a ready-made collection would take millions, and after a great deal of thought I determined to do my own collecting, and during the past twenty years I have taken up different fads on each trip, and worked and worked gathering to complete the particular specialty. I made a collection of knives and forks that took me years to gather, and one of powder horns, picked up at different places all over the globe. The fans filling a number of cases in the present museum were assembled in the same way, as were also the guns and pistols, which were picked up one by one. I used to carry them with me on trams in my hand bag until I got to a place where I could ship them back to the museum.

It was most interesting work. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now. I heard that art collectors were making a collection of clocks of the Napoleonic period. I took the hint. I remember going around Paris one day, and kept at it until I bought seventeen clocks. They were old clocks, but not what you would call antiques, but still they were good examples of those used eighty or one hundred years ago.

Then I tried to pick up old furniture, but that was not so easy; but we have succeeded in making a nice collection interesting to every one. Later I took up the fad for jades, Chinese snuff bottles, jewelry, and precious stones. The museum now boasts of a collection of each. I started in on a collection of bronze medals of the popes and of the great churches. The museum now has a very fine collection of both. I never fail when I go to the museum to look at these things. I never see the magnificent collection without recalling the heart burns and the worries that I had trying to get many of these things and the fabulous prices asked for them. But the collecting instinct is mighty stimulating, and I always wanted to make a collection.

I remember making a collection of keys, and in doing so I suppose I spent more time and more thought trying to remember the keys I had bought so as to avoid duplicating them, than the collection might warrant, but the outcome certainly is a fine collection of keys. One part of it, that of Gold Chamberlain keys, is especially interesting, as they originally belonged to the petty German courts that now compose the great empires of Germany and Austria. During this present Exposition I was able to make numerous purchases, which have been added to the large collection already installed in the museum, which now ranks sixth in the United States.

One of the most interesting departments in the Memorial Museum, one which we may expect to expand greatly, is that devoted to the relics and the pictures of the pioneers of San Francisco and California generally. It is a collection that could not be bought; one that could only be assembled by a great deal of personal effort, to which the families of the pioneers are responding, presenting gradually to the museum objects which will one day make the collection a priceless one and the pride of the Golden State.

California Living