Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession
‘Obsession: Collectors, Collections and Collecting’, was an exhibition I put on a while back, reflecting the passion of collectors for their objects. Part of the exhibition involved defining what a collector was and how they differ from hoarders and accumulators. The crucial differences in defining whether someone is a collector, a hoarder or an accumulator is the way in which they go about adding to their possessions and what they mean to them.
You’ve probably seen the programmes on television about hoarders, such as the famous ‘Life of Grime’, which featured Mr Trebus and his houseful of possessions – so many possessions, in fact, that he couldn’t move about in the house, had no idea what was in it and had rats within the piles of stored items. Mr Trebus, and many like him, are hoarders. They cannot bear to throw items away as they ‘might come in useful one day’ or ‘it’s wasteful’ or they ‘need’ them. Accumulators have often suffered trauma in the past which makes them view every object with an inherent and deeply felt desire to use, possess or save the item. Their objects become a physical barrier to the world around them, a world from which the owners become increasingly detached. Hoarders are strongly emotionally attached to their items, even if they are what others would class as waste, and feel that to part with their items is to lose themselves. This kind of collecting is seen as a treatable disorder.
Accumulators store items in much the same way as hoarders do – they want to use, possess or save the item but have no concerns about throwing things out when necessary and no particular emotional attachment to most of them. Items are brought into the collection in a haphazard way. In this type of collection, a collector might have multiples of identical items, items which add no new knowledge to the collection, damaged duplicates and extremely similar items. Often this type of collector will see value in quantity over quality. Accumulators often collect as an emotional response and their collections lack historical or scientific importance; for instance groups of china frogs or souvenir teapots, fridge magnets or stuffed toys.
A collector collects with a specific aim – to have one good representative example of everything that it’s possible to own on the subject. This collector looks for areas that aren’t represented and searches out items to fill those holes. This collector does not duplicate excessively but might, for instance, collect the same image printed at different times by different people, seeing a value in those differences. The collection will be well thought out and the collector will be able to define parameters; for example ‘British First World War Medals’ or ‘prints of the County of Oxfordshire’ or ‘Georgian silver teaspoons’. They will be able to cite the reasons why they collect and what they hope to achieve. Often, these collectors spend many hours establishing histories and provenances and will usually have documentation for each item as well as a catalogue of their collections.
While preparing for that long-ago exhibition about collectors, it became evident that many collectors were obsessed. Their collection was their main hobby; their focus; their motive. Collecting takes over their lives, informing where they holiday (there’s a medal in that museum I’d like to see/a dealer I’d like to meet/a type of item only available from one place), costing a great deal of money and taking up a great deal of time. Often called eccentrics, these people are the backbone of museums over the world, often donating their well-preserved, beautifully catalogued, documented collections to museums and writing books in their subject areas. The late Colin White, when in his role as the director of the Royal Naval Museum at Portsmouth, once told me “The world needs experts” and these collectors are often the world’s experts. Long live the true, obsessed, eccentric collector!