I have an obsession. So does my husband. We collect things. As artists, objects are very important to us. They inspire us, push us beyond our creative boundaries, hold magic for us. Every journey we make, even the most mundane, becomes an opportunity to discover a new “gift” for our collection. These items are not always purchasable. Most of the time these objects are found discarded on a street or washed ashore.
As an 8th grade humanities teacher, I use pieces of our collection as “show and tell” for my students– as artifacts of a particular time period, as prompts for writing, as illustrations of particular processes, as a means of creatively making some kind of point about “life,” or simply as pure enjoyment. The students love “show and tell.” It feels informal but important. It is a relaxed experience but requires great focus. It also draws stories out from all the students which connect to the objects being passed around. It has also encouraged them to share their own collections.
When you live in the midst of a huge collection, you don’t see it as unusual. This summer I visited the Walters Collection in Baltimore and was reminded of home when I stepped into the Chamber of Wonders. This is a recreation of how collections in the 16th and 17th century looked, collected by the rising bourgeoisie. Their intent was to exhibit the wonder of the world. In a period of time (Renaissance) when there was a desire to learn what the world was about, breaking the bounds of theological definition, these Cabinets of Wonder, these kunstkammera, wunderkammern, Cabinets of Curiosities were a way for people to accumulate, marvel, and try to understand the natural world as well as cultural difference. Lawrence Wechsler, the author of Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, said, “The point is that for a good century and a half after the discovery of the Americas, Europe’s mind was blown. That was the animating spirit behind, and the enduring significance of, the profusion of Wunderkammern.” Of course, they were also a demonstration of accumulated wealth and colonial power.
These idiosyncratic collections might contain: “.. holy relics from a Spanish ship; earthen pitchers and porcelain from China; a Madonna made of feathers, a chain made of monkey teeth, stone shears, a back-scratcher, and a canoe with paddles, all from ‘India;’ a Javanese costume, Arabian coats; the horn and tail of a rhinoceros, the horn of a bull seal, a round horn that had grown on an Englishwoman’s forehead, a unicorn’s tail; the baubles and bells of Henry VIII’s fool, the Turkish emperor’s golden seal … ” (recorded in the 1599 diary of a Swiss visitor to the Kensington Castle of Sir Walter Cope).
Samuel Quiccheberg (1529-1567) , a curator of cabinets and the writer of the earliest known museum treatise, wrote that these collections “were a theatre of the universe, keys to the whole of knowledge.” These collections eventually became our first museums.
Now our collection is definitely NOT a sign of wealth but we do ascribe to the sense of wonder piece. Often when people first visit our home they are shocked and surprised at our intentional accumulation of objects. In order to get people to interact with our collection we will ask one or two people to select an item or two from the collection and place it on a shelf by the front door specifically for this purpose. We live with their selection until the next selected guests make their choices.
Both my brother and sister are avid collectors too and perhaps on a future blog I’ll try to wrap my mind around why we are all so driven. Needless to say, many of my friends are obsessed in a similar fashion. My dear friend Michael has accumulated, over a lifetime, a collection of miniatures. His collection is now part of the Children’s Museum of Art in Chicago and it will have a grand opening in March of next year. His site, Michael’s Museum, (link is to the right under Blogroll) is filled with lots of information about his collection but also about the act of collecting itself. And, of course, details about his opening at the Museum will be found there.