By choosing to pick up and accumulate things, the mundane objects become exceedingly interesting. Looking for something, searching for something, choosing an object, giving a value to an object that is essentially valueless, accumulating more than one—these are all signs that a collection has been born. The tendency to collect is a natural human instinct.
The Desire to Collect
The desire to collect changes over time. For example, a child may want to buy what other children have, like trading cards and plastic figurines. It is rare that the goal is to find a specific card or figurine. Instead, it is more about gathering as many cards and as many figurines as possible. Quantity generally rules the day.
As they grow, however, they may attach a hierarchy and order to their collections, wanting not any old trading card but one with a higher currency or monetary value. The focus shifts to accumulation by competing for an object of value. Essentially, all this time, children are learning what it takes to build a collection.
Most probably, we all have collections of our own as well: salt and pepper shakers, dolls, nutcrackers, tools, furniture, photographs, natural objects, and oddities.
The tendency to collect is a natural human instinct. The desire to search for an object and choose that object because of its beauty, rarity, humor, or history is embedded in each one of us just as much as the desire to express ourselves. Collecting is part of how we grow our knowledge and expand our visual literacy.
This is a transcript from the video series Visual Literacy Skills: How to See. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Cause for Happiness
Besides the natural human instinct to collect, what other reasons could be there for someone to start a collection? Starting a collection could make one happy. For instance, if someone likes owls, they decide to start buying everything with an owl on it. Owls simply bring them pleasure. And before they know it, they have a collection of owl paraphernalia.
One of my favorite stories of collectors is of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, two civil servants in New York City who began to collect artwork a little bit at a time. They loved art and their passion drove them to prioritize buying work from living artists. Their collection is now considered one of the strongest collections of minimalist art anywhere. All because it made them happy to surround themselves with art.
Starting a collection could bring one knowledge and intellectual satisfaction. For instance, maybe someone is interested in fashion, and they decide to start collecting dresses from different periods in history. The more they learn, the more specific and knowledgeable they become about the dresses they buy. One could also be an academic; like an entomologist collecting bugs for information.
This is how a naturalist spent his twenties in the Smoky Mountains at Western North Carolina University. He was looking for spiders to classify and he tried to define spider communities in grassy heath balds. After sucking up a spider with a piece of spider capture equipment called a pooter, he would take them back to the lab to identify the species. For three years, he collected all sorts of cool little furry arachnids. It sounds a little odd, but naturalists of all kinds have to collect to learn about their subject.
The Thrill of the Hunt
One may even like the thrill of the hunt when looking for an object. Maybe someone likes rare books, and the search while looking for a specific rare book brings them joy. Maybe someone likes first edition rare screenplays that have written notes by actors. Now we are getting even more specific.
Once it is decided what is being collected, most people establish some basic rules that serve as parameters for their search, and it can be a really enjoyable challenge to work within those parameters.
One could be an archaeologist, historian, or amateur archivist and want to preserve the past. Any archaeologist knows that we learn important things from objects of the past. If there is someone who likes to search for cultural artifacts, they are not the only ones. To be able to collect artifacts from a particular time and culture is a thrilling experience. Some of the most important collections in the museums of the world were donated by individual patrons who established clear collection guidelines and rules.
Remembering Personal Past
Maybe someone wants to remember something from their own personal past. They may start a collection because they want to remember a vacation spot or maybe a specific type of object that reminds them of someone in their family.
Maybe they document their travels by buying a spoon or a stamp from every location where they have traveled. Or they are nostalgic or sentimental about an idea, a time-period, or purpose. We have a Christmas ornament collection. Every year we buy a new one. It’s a collection that keeps our emotional past in the present.
Form of Self-expression
One may also collect as a form of self-expression or portraiture. Think of collections of books, music, cars, and art.
Our collections express who we are as individuals. Collections are often used as a tool to reflect a wealthy or powerful position in society. Certainly, individuals have done this in all corners of the world, as well as religious institutions.
Common Questions about Why We Collect Things
The desire to search for an object and choose that object because of its beauty, rarity, humor, or history is embedded in each person as much as the desire to express themselves. Collecting is part of how people grow their knowledge and expand their visual literacy.
Herb and Dorothy Vogel were two civil servants in New York City who began to collect artwork a little bit at a time. They loved art and their passion drove them to prioritize buying work from living artists. Their collection is now considered one of the strongest collections of minimalist art anywhere.
People’s collections express who they are as individuals. Collections are often used as a tool to reflect a wealthy or powerful position in society. Individuals have done this in all corners of the world, as well as religious institutions.