Visitors to Brown University's John Hay Library are often surprised to find a collection of 6,000 miniature toy soldiers on display in the third-floor gallery. The building has been home to the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection since 1981, when it was donated by Mrs. John Nicholas Brown who married into the family of the university benefactors in 1930. In fact, it was on her honeymoon to Europe that year that she purchased a number of sets of military miniatures from toy shops. Upon examining the figures, Mrs. Brown became fascinated by the range and variety of military costume to the extent that she devoted the rest of her life to the study of military uniforms.
What began as a hobby quickly turned into an obsession to comprehensively acquire graphic and textual documentation. The destruction of such material in Europe during the Second World War only made her more determined to create an all-inclusive collection devoted to the history and iconography of soldiers and soldiering from all periods, especially circa 1500 to 1945. In addition to books, she purchased portraits of soldiers, military caricatures, engravings of battle scenes, watercolors of soldiers on campaign, luxurious volumes of colored lithographic plates of uniforms, original photographs, sheet music covers bearing images of obscure militia units, sheets of paper soldiers, and illustrated manuscripts. While uniforms were the main focus, she bought complementary material on early military science, weapons, flags, medals and heraldry, world royalty and ceremony, regimental and unit histories, army lists, and thousands of albums, sketchbooks, scrapbooks, and portfolios. While Europe and North America are most heavily represented, there are sections on virtually every country that has ever employed armed forces.
This endowed collection continues to grow and still enjoys the support of the Brown family. Gifts have been an important source of new material, none more so than the World War II art collection. A chance meeting with the granddaughter of a World War II official artist led to a major project to acquire original artwork created by artists who served in the armed forces of the United States between 1942 and 1945, and material is still being added to this major archive, which currently numbers over 1,600 items.
The Military Collection is recognized as a leading source for images by national and international publishers, filmmakers, scholars, and museums. While there are national collections of military history and iconography around the world, the unique aspect of the Browns' collection is that it is international in focus. The collection serves a major role in the Brown community as a source for research and exhibitions, as it contains extensive material for historians and students of visual arts in virtually all media. Recent student projects have included the digitization and study of an original watercolor scroll painted by a Japanese artist depicting scenes from Admiral Perry's expedition in the early 1850s; this has subsequently been used by schoolchildren and students as well as scholars in Japan.
Collection Profile: Peter Harrington
Overview: Samuel A. Streit
Ilustrations: Benjamin Tyler