Courtesy of Peter Ang

A portion of Ang's extensive collection is photographed above.

March 1, 2020

More Than Just Memorabilia: Alum Collection Worth Almost a Year of Cornell Tuition

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After graduation, many alumni find themselves holding onto their alma mater by keeping up with campus publications, attending college reunions or staying active in online alumni groups.

But for Peter Ang ’86, his love and growing interest for Cornell and its history manifests through his collection of school memorabilia overflowing the cabinets in his house.

Ang, who currently lives in his hometown of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, realized nearly three decades after leaving the Hill that he had barely any physical items to honor his time on campus.

“I never even bought a Cornell sweatshirt in my four years there,” Ang said in an interview with The Sun. “I left Cornell with one plastic mug with the Cornell seal, which was on sale for $1.99 at the Cornell Campus Store.”

For the past five years, Ang, who was the first in his family to attend college, has been collecting various Cornell memorabilia, particularly those that reflect the evolution of the University’s seal.

Ang’s unique hobby began after a Hong Kong celebration of Cornell’s 150th anniversary in late 2014, when he realized that the University emblem he remembered from the 1980s had changed.

“No one knows about the evolution of the seal, and it’s such an enduring legacy,” Ang said.

His collection has grown to include vintage mugs, seals, pins, medallions, fob pendants and plates displaying each iteration of Cornell’s 150-year-old seal. He also boasts an autobiography excerpt from Andrew Dickson White addressed to the University co-founder’s great-grandniece.

His daughter Ginger Ang ’21, now a Cornellian herself, estimated that the total collection is worth tens of thousands of dollars. But Ang himself isn’t sure of its total worth, having never counted it up because “my wife and daughter [would] kill me.”

Ordering items from the Internet or directly from previous owners, Ang said the most expensive part of the process was often not the price of the object itself, but high shipping costs.

“It’s a long journey these things have travelled,” Ang said. “One even ended up in India.”

Because Ang is more interested in the story behind the objects than just their appearances, he develops extensive notes for every single piece — a sometimes arduous process of tracking each item’s provenance and date.   

Once, Ang even consulted Cornell postcards to track the growth of trees and ivy in the background of a plate’s engraving. He eventually figured out that the plate was from the early 1900s, as the exterior of McGraw Tower depicted on the plate had not changed.

Much of the memorabilia in his collection are hand-engraved and hand-made — intricate details that he says reveal so much about the history of the United States. For instance, Ang described how the seals — and changes in the origin of their “Made In” production labels — over the years trace the rise and decline of American manufacturing.

“It’s really sad,” Ang said about the current state of U.S. production, highlighting the fall of industries once centered in Ohio and New Jersey. “America made amazing things, beautiful things, and now they don’t make anything.”

Ang believes that his collection is the largest collection of memorabilia related to Cornell seals in the world, and one of the only significant collections of Cornell memorabilia outside the U.S.

“Collecting things is for the story, it’s not the thing,” Ang said. “The thing only tells the story, and that’s the real value of collecting.”

Despite being an engineering student, Ang mentioned that the college that had the greatest influence on him during his undergraduate years was the College of Arts and Sciences. There, he found an interest in art history, which helped him realize that art enables one to understand history, the world and people.

Ang keeps most of the memorabilia in a cabinet or tucked away in custom-made wooden boxes, with the intention of one day shipping them back to Ithaca to give to the University.

“You’re not buying an expensive watch or jewelry or a gold bar. It’s a mug, for most people,” Ang said. “But it’s for the love of Cornell and the history of Cornell and the history of the United States.”