We should probably be thankful for some people’s obsessions. Without them we wouldn’t have some of the most delightful museums around the world, put together because someone couldn’t resist buying ‘just one more’. Many of the world’s major museums began as private collections…and also some of the world’s most weird, wonderful and winsome.
The Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a perfect case in point. Wander around the museum and you’ll find it hard to believe that the twenty-thousand pair display of fat chefs, ruby red tomatoes, guardsmen in bear skins, The Beatles, Santa’s feet sticking out of a chimney, pistols and potatoes, a copy of the salt and pepper shaker cufflinks that Lady Diana wore, (which, fortunately, are sealed, or their contents would have sprayed everywhere when she shook hands), have any other reason for coming together than simply being someone’s idea of being collectable – but they do.
Far from being just a wacky Belgian lady with a fetish for salt shakers, Andrea Ludden’s collection began from a totally different direction than something simply to display on the shelves in her kitchen. As an archaeologist she had spent many years working in South America, where her main interest had been in how people travelled and communicated.
“When we moved to the States there was no work in archaeology so I began to look at social anthropology,” says Andrea. “It’s often by looking at the apparently more mundane articles in everyday life that you can build up a broad picture of a specific period.” And that’s what Andrea began to do.
Andrea’s collection of over forty thousand pairs, half in the family museum in Gatlinburg and half in their new museum in Guadalest in eastern Spain, started by the simple purchase of a pepper mill at a garage sale, shortly after the family moved to the US – but it didn’t work!
“When that first one didn’t work I bought a couple more. I used to stand them on the window ledge of my kitchen, and neighbours thought I was building a collection. Nothing could have been further from my mind! They began to bring me some beautiful ones, and eventually I had about 14,000 on shelves all over the house, even in the bedrooms. One day my husband, Rolf, said, “Andrea, you either find somewhere to put these things or it’s a divorce!” So we decided to create a museum.”
A museum like Andrea’s is different from a big municipal institution because it deals with things on a very personal basis. Even though there are so many shakers, you begin to recognise ones your grandmother used to have, or you saw when you went on vacation somewhere, or you gave as a gift once. “People come back over and over again and think that we are adding to the displays,” says Andrea, “but we aren’t, it’s just that they didn’t see them first time around.”
Displaying the almost endless selection of models in no mean feat, but Andrea has an excellent eye for how it should be done. “It’s almost impossible to categorise them, because you can work by style, age, subject matter, colour etc, but I try and do it to combine all these elements at the same time. I have a very visual memory, and I can walk into an antique shop or go to a garage sale and know instantly if I see one for sale that I have in the collection or not, even if it is just the salt or pepper shaker and not a pair.
And will the collection ever end? “Never! It’s the hunt I love, the hope that I’ll find something different, something special. And ‘special’ doesn’t necessarily mean the most ornate or the most expensive, it can be something quite simple that I fall in love with the moment I see it.”
So the next time you see a museum that’s full of the weird and wonderful, don’t immediately think, “What on earth is someone collecting this lot for?” because it might be yet another delve into social anthropology and not someone’s bizarre obsession – but there again, it just might!