Wander through Merv Weston’s hallway, past bits of Mt. Everest and the Eiffel Tower, chunks from Machu Picchu and Hitler’s suicide bunker, and you’ll soon see why he says the biggest problem he faces is lack of room. Not his lack, however — the Manchester home where he and wife Ruthanne live has plenty of places to display the trophies of a lifetime of traveling — but somebody else’s.
“Everybody is interested in these, but it’s the space, that’s the thing. You need, oh, 20 by 25 feet to display it all,” says the 85-year-old Weston, gesturing at walls crowded with what he calls the Weston Gallery of Historic Icons. “Maybe in the airport; it would be a nice thing for people who hang around for an hour to look at.” Look at and touch, actually: When most of your gallery is chunks of rock or cement, visitors don’t have to be too cautious.
“Gallery” is the right term. This isn’t a museum in the modern sense, even though the 92 items are of historical or anthropological interest, nicely labeled and framed. If he was a gentleman of Victorian-era Britain, you would call it his miscellany: An intriguing collection of stuff gathered during a lifetime of wandering to 110 countries, lacking any academic theme. There’s a discarded bit of Old Ironsides; a piece of crumbled wall masonry from the room depicted in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”; stones from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, from Tikal in Guatemala, from the Wall of Jericho; items as old as a fossilized trilobite and as new as the 2004 South Asian tsunami; even a piece of metal from an Israeli tank destroyed near the Suez Canal during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Weston, knowing that nothing lasts forever, has been seeking a new home for his collection for three years, starting with his alma mater Clark University and progressing through various area institutions. His four sons say they’d hate to see the collection broken up, but who has room for that kind of hand-me-down? For that matter, who would create that kind of hand-me-down?
Merv Weston is best known in New Hampshire not as a traveler but for his years owning the Weston Advertising Agency, which he incorporated in 1955 with a partner after returning to his native New England from Los Angeles, and for his work with nine Democratic presidential campaigns. His collection grew during decades of wandering; from his World War II service as a meteorologist in the Yukon and Alaska to backpacking trips, making documentary films, and doing work for his advertising firm. The wanderlust may have a genetic component, since his parents emigrated as teenagers (his mother from Poland, his father from Russia) and he has “a picture of Dad in South Africa in 1911, seeking his fortune in gold.”
“I’ve always been interested in, curious about, various societies of the world,” says Weston. “I’m a frustrated cultural anthropologist.” Over the years Weston has made documentary travel films from east Africa to Finland.
He spent weeks hiking to the base camp of Mt. Everest. He lived with an anthropologist in a primitive Amazonian village on the border of Colombia, where he obtained a mean-looking blowgun from people who had been headhunters within living memory. And he got an equally mean-looking harpoon from the Azores, where he filmed a whale hunt conducted with hand-held spears from canoe-like boats. (He notes that it cost only $12 to live there for a week with locals while making the movie. Globe-trotting is affordable if your standards are flexible.)
Weston’s travel stories can be alarming. Around 1979 he was backpacking in the Middle East by himself when he suddenly went blind. He ended up in Amman, Jordan, on the way, ironically, to Damascus; it turned out that he had a brain abscess. “The ophthalmologist said go home, you’re going to die,” he recalls, but instead he got better. And in Russia, when it was still the Soviet Union, he was briefly thrown in jail and questioned as a possible American spy for taking photos of a collective farm. “That was interesting,” he says.
Still, there are plenty of people who travel around the world in interesting ways but don’t end up with a museum. They end up with photos — as has Weston, who has an estimated 25,000 slides — but not two rocks from the world’s highest navigable lake. Weston’s collection began on a whim in Red Square, after he toured St.
Basil’s Cathedral and picked up a bit of 16th-century floor tile from the ground, partly because he was still angry at having been arrested and questioned by the Soviets. He tossed it in a trash can but at a friend’s urging took it out again that night, and his collection was born. “It just sort of grew, like Topsy,” he says.
Weston is the first to admit there are some ethical questions raised by his collection: If everybody carried a stone away from the Parthenon, it would soon be denuded. In fact, he says, “I wouldn’t do it today.” But his collection was mostly created three or four decades ago, when travelers thought differently. “This was not considered unethical then. Thinking has changed,” he says, noting as an aside that many of the world’s finest museums have items gathered under what might be called questionable circumstances at best. He also says he was never destructive. “I never took a hammer and chisel, just picked up pieces, a bit of rubble, put it in my camera bag and walked away. If there were signs saying don’t go there, I didn’t go there.”
Occasionally he’d even get willing help, such as a worker at the Eiffel Tower who paused in the middle of a welding job to hand over a chunk of metal when Weston asked for it. Now he needs help again, to keep his collection together. He hopes this article might help spur interest because it would be a shame for so many pieces of the world to have traveled so far and not to be appreciated.
“I had a fourth-grader here once, and when I told him he was touching a piece of Mount Everest, he was just so excited,” says Weston, smiling at the memory. “There’s something about being that close to an actual piece of history.” NH
This article appears in the August 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine