Memphis’ Most Versatile Art Collector

Louis Phillip Wulff has the honor of being the Memphis Museum’s (Pink Palace’s) most frequent donor. Wulff was a professional interior designer and a world traveler. He was also a painter who served on the museum’s Advisory Board from 1934-5 and 1950-6. His broad interests led him to collect documents, fighting equipment, stamps and natural history specimen. Additionally, Wulff was an amateur archaeologist who collected hundreds of Native American artifacts from the Mid-South.

Wulff was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and moved to a farm in Nebraska when he was 6. According to a newspaper biography, he went to sea as a cabin boy when he was 12 and returned home two years later. He was known for taking off on trains or horseback to go on collecting expeditions. His collecting habit got substantially broader when he received an inheritance from his mother. At 22, he took his new bride on an extended honeymoon and returned home with a sizable number of artifacts from around the world.

Initially, Wulff leant items from his personal collections to the new Memphis Museum, which opened in 1930 with sparse exhibits. From 1931-1951, he loaned bird eggs, lithographs, marine specimen, Roman coins, Audubon bird prints, Native American artifacts, decorative arts pieces and more. In May 1951, he decided to permanently donate 650 of his loaned artifacts. He also gave his collections to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Brooks Museum of Art, Southwestern (Rhodes College) and the Cossitt Library.

Museum director Ruth Bush said that his objects “were scattered more or less in places [all] over the Museum.” At one point, she mentioned to him that she would like to have a flamingo. On a trip to Haiti, he sent her a letter saying that he had picked up a stuffed one for her. Since the law forbade him from shipping the bird to the United States, he decided to cut his trip short and bring it back on the plane with him. He also had a habit of loaning objects to the museum and then coming in to remove some things from cases and replace them with different objects. Mrs. Bush found that to be “a little bit upsetting, but we put up with it because he was so nice.”

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Quotes from an oral history interview done with Ruth Bush on November 5, 1983.

Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and she enjoys reading the museum’s old newspaper scrapbooks.

 

 

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