Collecting, Obsession, and Wealth
What an odd natural history museum taught me about privilege and the human desire to acquire
This past year, I made it my personal mission to visit as many local museums as possible. The more bizarre or niche, the better. One of the first on my list was the Natural History Museum at Tring.
Yes, it’s a slightly creepy and probably haunted Victorian building containing the taxidermic corpses of hundreds of long-dead animals. Yes, it’s often buzzing with screeching British children delighting at the dead. And yes, all of this does sound vaguely reminiscent of something out of an arty A24 horror film.
But if you can look past all of that, you’ll see that this museum is an ode to oddity. A monument to a trope that still captures the collective cultural imagination: the eccentric rich person.
There’s a meme, one I believe started on Twitter, that poses the question, “What’s classy if you’re rich and trashy if you’re poor?”
Speaking two languages. Asking for money (begging vs. fundraising). Police escorts. Fake teeth.
And my favorite answer, which sort of sums it all up: If you’re weird and rich, people just call you eccentric, but if you’re weird and poor, people call you crazy.
In HBO’s The White Lotus, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) personifies this assertion. We love watching her because she’s a train wreck, but more-so because she’s a fabulously wealthy train wreck. She’s ridiculous and wishy-washy and self-absorbed, traits that we admire, or love to hate, in the ultra-wealthy, and even more specifically, the white ultra-wealthy. Think the Kardashians. Jude Law’s character in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Donald Trump. Carole Baskin. Elon Musk. Ed Norton’s character in Glass Onion.
When I was growing up, I had a friend whose mother was married five times. We’ll call her mother Susan. Susan sipped wine coolers from a travel mug while driving us to Taco Bell to pick up dinner. She dressed like she was on an eternal vacation, shuffling around in flip flops, tugging at the bikini top she wore under her t-shirts. No one looked at Susan and thought, wow, what a glamorous lifestyle, what a fascinating creature. Most people just glanced up from…