Nathan Dunn (1782- 1844) was a Quaker merchant and philanthropist who embarked on a mission to collect cultural artifacts from China to both educate and entertain Americans. In 1838, he opened his “Chinese Museum” in Philadelphia, more commonly referred to as Ten Thousand Chinese Things. The collection was a spectacle and quite popular with the public, garnering over 100,000 visitors in its first year. A published guidebook was offered as way to promote the collection and educate visitors. In 1842, after financial troubles, Dunn moved the collection to London, where it was housed in a pagoda-like exhibition hall at Hyde Park Corner. Queen Victoria was its first visitor at the June opening. The collection was equally popular in London, as it was in Philadelphia, with some 70,000 to 80,000 catalogs sold in the U.S. and England. This Harvard Library copy of the 1843 revised catalog provides history, background, and a complete list of the exhibits, remaining one of the few resources left to indicate what was in the museum. The collection was unlike any other at its time, apart from artifacts, specimens, and dioramas, the museum also had life-size clay mannequins accurately modeled after some 50 real Chinese acquaintances of Dunn. The collection could be considered a forerunner to museum period rooms, with recreated shops and interiors encompassing all of Chinese society, from mandarins, priests, barbers, shoemakers, soldiers, merchants, and beggars. At its time, collections and exhibitions such as this one were looked upon as possible substitutes for travel abroad. E . C. Wines announced that one no longer had to “subject one’s self to the hazards and privations of a six months’ voyage on distant and dangerous seas, to enjoy a peep at the Celestial Empire.”
The revised catalog for London opens with acknowledgement of the recent Opium War:
The present crisis of affairs in China has awakened in the public
mind a deep and powerful feeling of inquiry towards this singular and
The particular object with which the following pages are so immediately
associated, proving beyond all other means, a useful and pleasing
medium of conveying the information sought for; and the copious
remarks contained in former Catalogues of the Chinese Collection
having been so favourably received by the public (of which upwards of
80,000 copies have been sold), the author has been induced to increase
the size of the present volume by the addition of much original matter,
together with information obtained by an abridgment of the latest and
The object desired in the present publication is to present to the
reader, and the visitor of the Collection, the greatest amount of knowledge
in the smallest possible space.
The Illustrated London News described the exhibition and its significance–
Upon the left-hand side of the inclined plane, extending iron Hyde Park Corner to Knightsbridge, and towards the extremity of St. George’s.-place, a grotesque erection has lately sprung up with all the cupidity which distinguishes the building operations of the present day. As the work proceeded, many were the guesses at the purpose for which it was intended; and, to feed the suspense of the many thousands who daily pass this thoroughfare, the work was covered with canvas until just completed. The structure in question is the entrance to an extensive apartment filled with “curiosities of China.” In design this entrance is characteristically Chinese, and is taken from the model of a summer residence now in the collection. It is of two stories, the veranda roof of the lower one being supported by vermilion-coloured columns, with pure white capitals, and over the doorway is inscribed, in Chinese characters, “Ten Thousand Chinese Things.” Such summer-houses as the above are usual in the gardens of the wealthy, in the southern provinces of China, often standing in the midst of a sheet of water, and approached by bridges and sometimes they have mother-of- pearl windows. Although the above building in raised from the pathway, whence it is approached by a flight of steps, it is somewhat squatly proportioned. But such is the character of Chinese buildings, so that when the Emperor Kesen-king saw a perspective view of a street in Paris or London, he observed, “that territory must be very small whose inhabitants are obliged to pile their houses to the clouds;” and, in a poem on London, by a Chinese visitor, it is stated,-“The houses are so lofty that you may pluck the stars.”
The collection we are about to notice has been formed by an American gentleman, Mr. Nathan Dunn, who resided in China for a period of twelve years, and experienced more courtesy from the Chinese than generally falls to the lot of foreigners. Mr. Dunn was, moreover, assisted in his labours by Howqua, Tingqua, and other Hong merchants of note and who, in this instance, seemed to rise above the prejudices of their countrymen, in being most “willing to communicate.” The design at first was merely to collect a few rare specimens for a private cabinet; but the appetite grew with what it fed upon, and thus Mr. Dunn has assembled what may, without exaggeration, be termed the Chinese world in miniature . . .
Dunn died in 1844 and the fate of his unique collection still remains somewhat sketchy. Most evidence points to the collection being picked up by showmen, including P.T. Barnum, before it eventually became dispersed through auctions to private collectors and perhaps lost to time.
Replica of an apartment of a Chinese Nobleman
Replica of a bedroom
Examples of furnishings
Hatching eggs by artificial heat
- Langdon, William B. Ten thousand things relating to China and the Chinese :an epitome of the genius, government, history, literature, agriculture, arts, trade, manners, customs, and social life of the people of the celestial empire, together with a synopsis of the Chinese collection.
- Persistent Link:
- Widener Library
- Harvard University