Uncovering the history behind collecting
November 13, 2013 § 1 Comment
by Diane Fricke
People have been collecting for centuries. These collections range from rare baseball cards worth thousands of dollars to the exotic gems that glisten in display cases, showing their wealth.
However, more collections are comprised of oddities that have little value beyond the sentiment for the collector. Even with a collection of high dollar value, it isn’t often that a collector sells the collection to claim the money. Why, then, would someone put so much time and effort into amassing a collection?
Terry Shoptaugh, University archirist and instructor at Minnesota State University Moorhead, can shine some light on why people collect. In his article, “Why Do We Like Old Things? Some Ruminations on History and Memory,” Shoptaugh offers the idea that collecting is based on a need to inspire recoluction. People collect in an effort to remember and relive the past.
“We use keepsakes to stimulate memory, especially to trigger fond memories,” Shoptaugh writes. “But even if memory cannot be relied upon to faithfully reproduce a record of the past, it remains vital to our understanding of the past.”
This may explain why people collect old war memorabilia in an effort to remember the romantic aspects of war while not forgetting the true horror of such times.
As an anthropologist from the University of California, Marjorie Akin is an expert on the subject of why people collect. Her essay, “Passionate Possession: The Formation of Private Collections,” shares Shoptaugh’s idea that people collect for a connection to the past and memories. “Objects can connect the collector to the historic, valued past,” Akin writes.
Stetond the past, Akin also includes four other reasons why people collect. The first is to satisfy a sense of personal aesthetics. Some collect to please personal tastes. Others collect items that are weird or unusual to show individualism. Another reason is for the collector’s need to be complete. Akin said she has seen people cry out in relief once their collection is complete.
While Akin says many know the value of their collection to the penny, but never sell a thing, she believes some people collect for money and profit.
Kim A. Herzinger, an English professor, award-winning author and avid collector, provides yet another twist on obsession with collecting.
“Collecting is a means by which one relieves a basic sense of incompletion brought on by unfulfilled childhood needs,” Herzinger said. “It functions as a form of wish fulfilment, which eases deep-rooted uncertainties and existential dread.”
Psychologist Werner Muensterberger shares Herzinger’s idea. In his book titled “Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives,” Muensterberger says that control of the object collected brings “relief of the child’s anxiety and frustration that comes with feeling helpless and being alone.”
While collecting stems from incompletion of the past, Herzinger adds that it’s also a passion. “Collecting, like most passions, has the capacity to let (the collector) live in another world for a while. If I could tell you why passion allows us to inhabit another world, I would stop collecting.”
Herzinger says the collector is engaged in a kind of worship. “(The collector) is experiencing the kind of sensory transcendence that we most closely associate with religion or love. And, like religion or love, his collection is a kind of security against uncertainty and loss.”
The sense of completion is one of the main drives collectors. Experience however, Herzinger continues to explain that it’s important for collectors to maintain a sense of control over their own collection. To collect every baseball card would be impossible, leaving the collector with a feeling of always being overwhelmed. To cure this, the collector narrows the field from baseball cards to, let’s say, the New York Yankees cards. As the collection becomes more advanced, so does the procedure for collecting more cards. The collection goes from New York Yankees to Roger Maris. In this way, the collector can maintain the balance of control and completion.
Herzinger also warns that while the collection brings much love and joy to the collector, there will always be disappointment. “I once had a very good friend, a record collector, who was showing me around his jazz collection. At some point, after itemizing some of the choicest items, he fell into a kind of silent ache, apparently disappointed with my response, or lack of it.”
Many people feel they have a special bond with their collection and can’t help but feel frustrated that no one seems to appreciate it as much as they do.
However, if the thought of collecting due to nostalgia and need for control seem impossible to agree with, Kurt Kuersteiner offers one more reason.
In his article, “Collecting Collections,” Kuersteiner says, “I believe the main reason people collect something is a basic interest in the topic.”
Can it really be that simple? The debate over the reasons people collect continues to go on, but the one truth that cannot be denied is that people will always continue to collect, whatever the reason.