Why Do We Collect?

As mentioned before, collecting stuff (whatever it may be–to each his own) may offer some relief in a world of chaos–it brings a level of safety to a life otherwise spinning out of control. But why? How does it help us manage our lives? Is that the only motivator?

Recently I went looking for something else in the garage, in a box that hadn’t been opened in about twenty years and buried inside was a folder filled with one of my first collections–paper placemats from restaurants (mostly from around the West–a totally retro collection of ’60s graphic design and kitsch.) I hadn’t even remembered still having it, although I’d discussed it recently with my partner as we tried to plumb the depths of the collecting habit. I look back at growing up and remember that my grandparents had interesting objects from travels, along with paintings and craft-y things in their homes. My mother also traveled with a collection of objects that were important to her, inculcating me with the collecting habit. But paper placemats? Well, for one, they were free (great for a kid;) two, they reminded you of places you’d been (more on this later;) and three, they were artistic (someone had thought about the message.) For a few years (from about the age of 6 until I was 8 or 9) they were thumbtacked to the walls of my bedroom. Each new one was loving displayed and cherished–each with its own acquisition story (I’d actually been there or someone I knew had sent it to me from their travels.)

They seemed exotic and romantic and smart. There must be at least 100 of them…and they are evocative of the time and place for me now. The scent of the honeysuckle bush blooming outside my bedroom window on a hot summer afternoon, the rush of the winter wind pushing the snow across the yard while I was comfortably cocooned in the warmth of my room, my home. Is this the answer?

As I grew older, the collections changed; model cars (which I hated but felt compelled to have–a beard if ever there were one,) maps, books, and eventually art. As my friendships developed and my world grew larger–artists began to be a part of my circle of friends and acquaintances. Potters, painters, print-makers all shared their work with me and my collection grew. Although my non-artist friends had ‘art’ (mostly posters) in their homes, I, on the other hand, had original works from my artist friends along with treasures found in second-hand and antique stores and the occasional dumpster dive (other people’s garbage has been very good to me.)

But why me and not others? Are we hard-wired for collecting? Can the need to collect be developed? Is it a little nature and a little nurture? I remember the mini-epiphany about collecting I had when I learned that the British and Americans of the 19th century, on their grand tours of Europe, would buy Canaletto’s paintings of Venice (for instance) like a 20th century traveler would buy a postcard–as a remembrance of where they’d been. Traveling and buying a work of art as a reminder of your trip seems like one of the great pleasures of all time–but even better is that with every painting, print, pot, whatever — there is a story, a memory, a life (well-lived.)


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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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