HORROR VACUI, in other words a fear of empty spaces, could be seen to have shaped the tightly stuffed home of New Yorker brothers Homer and Langley Collyer, whose reclusive existence has been the subject of fascination since their deaths over sixty years ago. After living alone together for almost three decades, Homer and Langley died within ten feet and one week of each other. Entombed in 103 tons of hoarded possessions in their Harlem home, Langley was killed by his own booby trap and Homer died later, helpless without his brother to care for him.

With the help of police photos and newspaper articles from the time of their death, 2078 Fifth Avenue reconstructs the Collyers’ home from the main material of the Collyers’ hoard – newspaper – and from gold leaf. The Collyers’ Harlem brownstone house was literally inseparable from its hoarded collection; following the brothers’ deaths, the clearance of the Collyers’ hoard from the house led to the building’s collapse.

“We became fascinated by the way that the Collyer brothers literally built themselves into their own personal world with its own distinct value system. Their hoard had been rumoured to be full of valuable treasures, a myth that was debunked following their deaths. Most of the hoard consisted of old newspapers that Langley had collected for the day when his blind brother regained his sight and would need to catch up with decades of news. What interests us is the alchemy that occurs when an object loses its value in one system (like an artefact found to be a fake), but then suddenly becomes a rich mine for something else. The sheer mass and density of the Collyers’ collection has been a source of fascination since their deaths and has been plundered ever since as a source of stories for books, plays,
films and artworks.”


The Collyer brothers’ house on 2078 Fifth Avenue was a bulwark warding off the chaos and meaninglessness of existence. Like any attempt at imposing true order, it depended heavily on denial. There is no such thing as true order. Order is necessarily subjective and arbitrary. Nevertheless we continue to seek or construct it, with templates lent us by the likes of Darwin and Linnaeus. As so many Adams naming the animals, we fight off the meaningless void by classifying, categorizing, and grouping the phenomena of the world. Pascal’s terror of the vacuum harks back to our common primal fear of losing ourselves in a perpetually fluctuating world. By knowing things we fix them in place, and thereby we fixate ourselves.

[…] I may cite Pascal’s obsession: he always thought he saw an abyss on his left hand “after he had nearly been thrown into the Seine in his coach”.


“[When] M. Pascal, a few years before his death, [went] for an outing across the Neuilly bridge with some of his friends in a four or six horse carriage, the two lead horses took the bit in their teeth at the place on the bridge where there was no parapet, and falling into the water, the reins that attached them to the rear broke in such a way that the carriage remained on the brink of the precipice, which made M. Pascal resolve to cease his outings and live in complete solitude.”

ANTHONY VIDLER (quoting from Pascal’s Oeuvres Complètes)

On display are some of the many fakes, forgeries and imitations in the museum’s possession. The museum keeps this collection as a standard of reference against which to compare potential new acquisitions. A small number of these forgeries are salvaged from this collection and brought back to their former glory by later generations of scholars discovering them to be genuine after all. More often, however, it is the other way around. Purchases thought to be genuine turn out to be forgeries. One example is a pair of Delft vases famously pronounced by the then director Emil Hannover to be “so fake that a cow would notice it even with her tail turned towards them.” The basis of any collection is sound criteria for what is to be included and what is to be left out. These criteria are in many ways arbitrary but must nevertheless be strictly adhered to if the collection is to have scholarly merit.