Image of a museum exhibition text panel about collecting and collectors

Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession

Posted 1 CommentPosted in Exhibit, museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, Using archives and collections

Hoarder, accumulator, collector: a collective obsession

Image of a museum exhibition text panel about collecting and collectors' obsession
Obsession – hoarders, accumulators and collectors

‘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.

Hoarders

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

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.

Collectors

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.

Obsession

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!

photo of memory box of photos

5 things to save in a fire

Posted Posted in museums, libraries, archives, collections, Opinion, Other

Recently an article in Cotswold Life caught my eye. Adam Edwards was asking what five things you’d save from your home in a fire, assuming that children, pets and photographs had been saved.

Easy, I thought, I’d take the…the…hmm. After the children, pets and photographs? Nothing else would seem of that much importance.  You start to think about what’s significant to you, don’t you?

So, assuming that this fire was terribly slow and that we had all the time we needed and could access every room, the children’s memory boxes are very significant, if financially valueless. I could take them if they aren’t too much in the photo category; they are a collection of bits and pieces from their lives – artwork, baby shoes, clothes, hospital bracelets, cards – the little important things I treasure from  the time when they were small (and cute, but that’s another story). So they could count as one.

Next, I thought, my Victorian tables? We have a lovely breakfast table and a pretty dressing table. They’d come next. I’ve worked hard to do them up and make them just so and I love their aesthetically pleasing shapes and lines. Can they be a job lot and count as one?

Then I’d take the African artefacts that we’ve collected – can I squeeze them in as one? Some were inherited from my grandfather when he was out in Colonial Africa; others are ours; rugs, bowls, mirrors, art from the places we’ve visited. Am I cheating badly if I say that’s one?

Next thing; my jewellery collection. It’s not much, just pieces I’ve been given or bought that have special significance to me. Nobody else would make much of it but each piece is important to me and I love it as a collection too (which is why it keeps quietly growing).

One more. Tricky, but I think it would have to be my rock, fossil and mineral collection. I’ve been adding to this for over 20 years and it comprises finds from my Grandfather’s garden, finds from our various gardens and items I’ve bought and been given.; again, nothing spectacular but important to me.

And then it dawned on me: they are all either collections or they are old, or they are collections of old stuff. I couldn’t separate them and just take one item from each, for as Aristotle said ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.  Is this just because I love collections and collecting? Or is it because a single item might have little value but when in a collection, it becomes so much more when connected to other items? Even the children’s memory boxes (just junk to other people) are, unwittingly, a carefully curated collection of items which provoke memories of ideas, moods, times, places and people.

It appears that I also practice what I preach – the art of collecting, sorting and caring for collected items – and even though I don’t think of myself as a collector (surely that’s best left to the Gettys, Rothschilds and stamp collectors?) I clearly am. I’ve had various collections in my lifetime – lists of the charts in the 80s, candles, shells, books, shoes and handbags – none of them exceptional to anyone else but important to me because I collected them. That’s the nature of collecting, and it’s important because we can define ourselves through it and create memories through it. Come on then, what five things would you take?