On Collecting and Collectors
Posted by Darin Hayton on 12/31 at 12:54 AM
Recently an author, a couple of collectors, two psychologists, and an organization and motivation expert discussed “Why We Collect Stuff” at the NY Times’s “Room for Debate.” Most focused not on the social or cultural function of collecting but instead tried to determine when collecting shifted from a healthy hobby to an obsession, to hoarding. By shifting the focus from why we collect to when is collecting a pathology, they avoided the actual topic: why we collect stuff and the related questions of why we organize and display that stuff. Two of the contributors did have interesting things to say, though it seems the limited space they were given curtailed what the could say.
Philipp Blom emphasized that collecting is not about monetary value. As he pointed out, “the real value of a piece lies not in its auction price, but in the importance it has in a collection.” What he doesn’t then say (though he might in his book, To Have and To Hold: An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting) is that the importance an object has in a collection relates to its function in extending or completing a series of objects and thereby allowing the collector to claim to have all the objects in that particular series, or at least the greatest number of such objects. Further, by making that claim, the collector is denying other collectors that claim. In other words, adding another object to a series is an expression of authority and power. The auction price Blom mentions is not insignificant here. Collectors will often pay considerably more for a piece at auction precisely because their status is at risk, because they cannot afford to let another collector outbid them and thereby deny them access to that object. Baudrillard’s “The System of Collecting” provides useful reading here.
Blom continues, pointing out that “[c]ollected objects are like holy relics: conduits to another world. They have shed their original function and become totems, fetishes. Collecting by its very nature is animist and transcendental.” He identifies two functions for collected objects: object as fetish, desire to conquer and possess, and object as totem, as guarantor of immortality. Blom nails it here. When something becomes collectible it is divested of its original, quotidian function and becomes something special. It takes on new symbolic value that it couldn’t have when it was functioning as it was intended to function. Objects come to serve as guarantors of the possessor’s status and provide some privileged access to some sacred space or knowledge or authority. At the same time, the act of collecting and assembling these objects makes invests them with special authority and virtue. Like some holy relic, both the possessor and the possessed are enhanced by the act of collecting and displaying the object.
Some areas I wish Blom had spent some time exploring include arranging, displaying and mediating access to collected objects. How is it that collectors use their collections to establish and project intellectual, social, and political authority? How is the status of the possessor enhanced by having the authority to arrange objects, to establish relationships between those objects, by displaying them in particular ways? How does that person’s authority increase by controlling access to that body of objects? It is fascinating to think about these power dynamics on a personal level, but what happens when they are transferred onto larger institutions? Institutions like academies and museums are not simply conduits for accepted scientific knowledge but instead actively shape that knowledge through processes of collecting, housing, arranging, and displaying artifacts. Efforts to restrict or facilitate access to their collections further complicate both the knowledge claims and the uses to which those claims are put. There is a constellation of related questions here: how and why has knowledge been collected, classified, codified, and presented. By whom and for whom was it collected? Who pays for the collection and display of artifacts, and how does that inform both the process of collecting and the aesthetics of display? How does where knowledge is collected and what artifacts are used to represent that knowledge exercise political and social power? How are certain audiences excluded by the institution’s architecture or the institution’s location?
When I teach my course on collecting, I try to get students to think about these issues in concrete terms by taking them to three different local museums: The Mütter Museum in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, The Wagner Free Institute of Science, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The differences between these three are unmistakable.
Fascinatingly, Jamie Kitman recognizes the totemic nature of his collection: He justifies his collection of cars by admitting that while he does not look as good as he once did, his cars are able to escape the ravages of time: “If I can’t be beautiful, at least my cars can be. Riding around in them, I can turn back the clock to a simpler time….” His hero is a man whose collection of 3,500 is going to become the basis for a museum. Clearly, for Kitman, collecting is a means of establishing immortality.
What, then, are we to make of Harry Spiller? He has amassed a collection of more than 400 packs of chewing gum, 10,000 Chinese menus, pictures of food, and spoons. He maintains his own website: Inspector Collector. I recommend listening to his interview for StoryCorps a few years back: “I have close to a million objects in my apartment.” I fear the “Room for Debate” participants will too quickly dismiss him as a pathological, obsessive compulsive hoarder without trying to understand the function of collecting, arranging, and displaying objects.