I collect, therefore I am

I wrote my Master Thesis on collecting a couple of years ago and I’m still very interested in the collecting drive – why do we collect and what do we gain from it? I guess most of us heavy readers collect books to some extent but it’s worth considering whether collecting books that you actually intend to read, serves the same purpose as collecting precious first editions – or romance paperbacks. On of my arguments is that it doesn’t matter what you collect, the urge to collect is the same no matter what it’s subject is.

Title: ‘I collect, therefore I am’. The collection as an example of the human relation to the material reality

This thesis is an investigation into the role material culture plays in our life, or more precisely, the way things influence us, especially with regard to the things that are part of collections.

I begin by examining what a collection is as well as what a collector is and discuss various ways collecting has been defined after which I define a collection as:

A collection consists of a group of carefully and intentionally chosen things, often by separating them from the context that normally gives them their use value and meaning. These things always have certain relations that are closely controlled by the collector. The collector gets a positive feeling by each new thing added to the collection and by spending time on the collection, whether by taking care of it, searching for more knowledge about it or by simply contemplating the things.

Having settled on this preliminary definition I took a closer look at how human beings and things influence each other, and how things affect the way we look at ourselves. Theories that focused on things being alive to some extent and what it means to choose a thing and select it for a collection or a museum was then investigated. John Locke’s arguments concerning the primary and secondary qualities in things along with a third set of qualities is presented in this context, with a natural focus on the third set of qualities being the ability of one thing to change something, ie. the power of fire to melt wax and how things produce ideas in us.

Martin Heidegger’s views are then enquired into. It is discussed how the way we use things and the use and meaning context things are a part of, influence how we see things and how these things carries their past connections with them and thereby are able to give us knowledge, we don’t just see the things, we see the whole of which they are a part.

The next chapter focuses on Michael Thompson’s theory about rubbish and how things quickly loose their value and go from being at first new things, transients, to being rubbish – and from this rubbish category can be saved and elevated to a category of durables. This chapter is a discussion of value with regard to things – how one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and how value in collections is established on subjective grounds and for that reason everything can in principle be part of a collection.

This leads to a discussion in chapter 4 about how we keep spending in an effort to achieve happiness, but despite that it is striking how each new purchase doesn’t seem to be able to hold our interest for more than a little while, after which we feel we have to spend yet more money. This can be explained by a theory of modern hedonism that connects spending with daydreaming in a way, where every thing in the collection is trying to live up to a dream and therefore, inevitably, always fall short when reality catches up with both the collector and the thing itself.

The following parts of this thesis focus on collecting – and we start out with a chapter discussing why we collect and looking for various explanations for this. Firstly, an element of taste is obviously involved, but it is also interesting to notice how we as children are basically trained and groomed into being consumers. Also, we look closer into why we collect the things we do and how the things we surround ourselves with are helping us create and establish our own identity, especially the things that are part of our homes. It is established that collecting is something we do because we feel a need for it, while at the same time being addicted to the constant consumption of new things, and that things are helping us separate ourselves as individuals.

The next chapter focuses on the collector and discusses three different aspects of the collector’s role. Firstly, that things are so important to the collector and play such a big part of his life that they end up actually being a part of his own person, as a consequence extending his self. Secondly and thirdly, I discuss two metaphors that help explain the collector’s passion for his collection activity: a hunting metaphor that focuses on the actual acquisition of each new thing, and a metaphor focusing on the passion, the Don Juan or Casanova aspects of collecting, and how the collector has deep feeling for his collection and view his collection as something living, perhaps even a mirror of himself.

We then look at the mystique that is part of the collection and how collections first helped science rid the world of anything mysterious by giving the scientists the necessary empiric material to help them rationally explain the world and now instead are helping collectors bring the magic back by bringing meaning to lives led in a material world by using rituals, speech act etc. to help the thing transcend from being merely a thing to being a part of a bigger whole, a collection.

By now we also see how the collection is able to help the collector transcend the ultimate end, death itself. In creating a collection, the collector can use his things to become part of a bigger whole and have his name live on after his physical form has ended.

The next two chapters discuss the role collections plays in science and as the foundation that museums are build on. Science has used things to classify the world and in this chapter we take a look at the collection’s way from curiosity cabinets to more modern collections.

With regard to collections in the museum world, I discuss how the collection works in a museum and the enormous responsibility anybody in charge of creating exhibitions have as well as the future museums face and how they can benefit by working closely together with private collectors.

In the end, the preliminary definition is examined again and the following is added to it:

At the same time the collection gives the collector a sense of purpose in life that influence both the collector’s self-concept as well as enable the collector to better cope with the challenges in life.

Finally, the thesis ends with asking whether we really ought to have this major focus on things, and if it might not be better if we instead tried to diminish the influence material culture has on our life. I also ask of museums to focus on throwing light on this aspect and to start creating exhibitions that shows how the very things that are so big a part of our own lives are influencing us by giving a different view on the familiar and thereby trying to achieve knowledge about what it means to be a modern human being in a material world.

4 thoughts on “I collect, therefore I am

  1. Me again, Christina… I took several art history courses from a woman named Anne Higonnet who writes about collecting from that point of view. You might like her book, “A Museum of One’s Own” which is about house museums in the US and Europe. She’s very thoughtful and a good writer.

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