at The Proud Archivist, London, N1
Thursday 21st – Saturday 23rd January 2016
“An immersive exhibition celebrating the lives and loves of some the UK’s greatest collectors. Showcasing some of the most intriguing and unusual collections from across the nation.”
We may think that collecting is a wonderfully eccentric British obsession – nearly seventy one percent of Britons say they are collectors – though it is not solely confined to these shores. This exhibition, however, highlights collecting in a uniquely British historical context where collecting had once been a noble pastime and the practice of adventurers and amateur scholars. Some of the greatest museums in the world owe their existence to the acquisitive instincts of private collectors from the Ashmolean in Oxford to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London. Henry Wellcome, the pharmacist, collected over a million sharp objects that he felt represented the history of medical science and later opened his museum.
For many people who amass collections, their value is not monetary but emotional. Collections allow people to relive their childhoods, to connect themselves to a period in their history, or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections may help them to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present. Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. Collecting is much like a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be complete; an itch which can never be eased. Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning. Some people find the act of arranging, organizing and presenting serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed.
Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect. They highlight the controlling and impulsive side to collecting, the need for people to have ‘an object of desire’ and hence the innate propensity to collect begins at birth, stemming from unresolved toilet training conflict, say the Freudians. They maintain, therefore, that the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their ‘possessions’ which have long since been flushed down the loo.
Jung had a more reasonable theory about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behaviour, embedded in, what he termed, our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of nuts and berries, once needed for survival by our early ancestors.
At some point in history, obsessive acquisitiveness began to be seen as something suspect, infantile or just plain strange – stamp collecting became the epitome of suburban small-mindedness – and those inchoate accumulations were completed out of sight. But in the late twentieth century came a second wave of collectors and those supposedly worthless assemblages of ephemera started to make serious money; a piece of chewing gum spat out by Britney Spears at Wembley Arena in 2000 being sold on eBay for $14,000.
Some commerce-motivated collectors hunt for collectables only to turn them into profit soon after – think the TV programme Four Rooms. However, most autograph seekers are emotionally motivated to collect with, apparently, over ninety percent of autograph collectors having no intention to sell their trophies. Happiness is derived from adding a new find or signature to the collection; the excitement of the hunt, and the social camaraderie when sharing a collection with others.
A neurologist who studies hoarding behaviour agrees with Jung that the need to collect stems from a basic drive to collect supplies such as food that goes back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and that this drive originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. He has found that many compulsive hoarders had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a region of their brain that regulates cognitive behaviours like decision making, information processing, and organizing behaviour.
So collecting can be many things to many people, different motives are not mutually exclusive and different motives can combine in each collector for a multitude of reasons. A positive and healing occupation; a way of passing the time; a symptom of brain malfunction. Someone, one day, will probably make a collection of collectors, keep them in suspended animation and refer to them as curiosities. I’d pay to see that.