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I found this week’s discussion question very interesting and a touch more complicated that the simplicity of the question implies. Immediately, my mind did summersaults down a kaleidoscopic rabbit hole of related questions. How museums collect, what they do with what’s collected, and how it’s represented, including how collecting caused and continues to cause harm. My mind takes the question further, how far did or will we go in the name of collecting, and images of raiding tombs and destroying structures to get inside spring to mind, pillaging culture to put it behind glass while destroying it in the same move.

There are a number of reasons why museums choose to collect certain objects, mainly rotating around grand ideals of education and accessibility, preserving history in order to learn from it, with reasons for particular collections depending on the specific goals and mission of an institution.  However, those altruistic ideals from their onset sprang from somewhat dubious roots. We learned in the first weeks about cabinets of curiosities and how their contents were the earliest examples of collection and cataloging of flora, fauna and other trinkets. When going over essentially the birth of museums, it’s easy to understand why, in the beginning, wealthy men wanted to collect. It was a way to explore and understand the wide world that was being discovered, while at the same time owning that world in some small way for themselves. When I consider the ongoing discussions about ownership and reparations that occur within the modern museum landscape, it often time feels like those roots of control still very much have a firm grip on the museum as an institution, despite the best intentions of those who work in the name of the institution. While I recognize a growing concern for repairing these issues of collection, I’m not sure they can ever be fully be remedied, as the world they were collect from doesn’t exist anymore. These issues are complex and multifaceted with no real black and white answer, but ignoring my death spiral into the negative side of museums, collecting obviously has played a role in understand our past and our world.

I accept, and understand that museums played a huge role in our self education where collections of objects lead to so many areas of study, too long to list. That aspect of collection and display it truly amazing. So is the way that collecting IS able to preserve culture that has been erased or overlooked. Especially, when displayed by those of who represent the culture.

The last facet of the question for me is how it related to the personal. Why do we as humans collect. I think in many ways the reasons mimic those of larger institutions. I know that for me, collecting is about connecting. Whether it’s the photos of my family on my fridge, the mugs from ceramics friends in the cupboard, or the trinkets, pinecones, and pebbles from various adventures, these objects connect me to those I love, the places I’m from, my memories. I’ve said before my apartment consistently reminds me of my own cabinet of curiosity to other people. To me that’s a somewhat beautiful thought, that through my collecting, you can see into my life, where I’ve been and what is important to me.

Do you enjoy collecting? How do you feel about curating your own space?


4 Thoughts to “Why Museums Collect”

  1. Michael Hubert

    I don’t consider myself a collector, like the traditional collector of baseball cards or comics, or even art and things. I do keep some things that are personal to me but not a lot of things. as I have gotten older I do appreciate certain items or things more than I did when I was younger. I think it would have to be something that I felt really special about in order to collect the item. that would then feed into your second question. I would then need the space to collect and that I would not mind if I had the space.

  2. Martin Gutoski

    I too am a hoarder of certain things which revolves around many interests scattered about. When the space Shuttle was first launched in 1981 my interest in space exploration was piqued from early childhood fascination with Sputnik in Oct 1957. As many boys my age in the 1950’s the push into the Space Race started the explosion of toys and models that harkened in the US. Being caught up in the development of rocketry in this era resulted in a collection of these objects that ended with the shuttle program being discontinued. Seeing the surviving shuttles being transported to several museums ended my collection. I had amassed over 100 space toys in the shuttle era for display in my home geek-a-torium. Moving out of Fairbanks for the winters and getting our house of 40 years ready for the market to sell this fall forced me to take stock of what to do with my collection. I had already donated a collection of unassembled space models to the local Pioneer Air Museum in Fairbanks to distribute to their summer youth space camp.
    I finally contacted an astronaut who was put in touch by a fellow friend to ask about donating it to a museum. It resulted in inquiring at the Museum of Flight in Seattle if they were interested.
    Although this topic is not of great interest today because the shuttle era is so close to modern memory, they were supportive because they have very few shuttle toys in their collection. The curator was very forward thinking as a museum professional noting that what is of little interest today can become a poignant chronicler of the past as times get further from these historical events. That to me was the crux of why museums collect.
    What are tagged as hoarders today may become the basis for donors who gift seemingly insignificant junk at the time.

  3. Erin Gingrich

    I enjoy collecting, through I’m not sure I could explain my process of collecting to anyone! Curating my space is very important to me personally, I have been called a “nester”, it is very important to me that my spaces bring me joy, comfort, thought, feeling and inspiration. I have also been gifted with several family heirlooms that have been passed on to me and it is my duty to take care of them I feel. I agree that the answer to the question, “why do museums collect?” ends up being personal, we can only reflect with our own experiences of collecting and the topic of why someone collects is not one often explored I feel, so hearing multiple perspectives on it rare. Quyana for sharing!

  4. Angela Linn

    Xochi, I’m glad this question caused you to think deeply about your own collections and how we as individuals help drive the collecting in museums. Your point about that process of collecting leading to the destruction of cultures is important and timely, and one we’ll continue to think about throughout our course and I hope outside the confines of this class. Many museums are beginning to look into their own histories of collecting, the motivations and techniques and considering the social context of those transactions. Were they made in good faith or under duress? What can be done to address these inequities in the power relations? What do museums have the legal authority to change in response to this examination?

    Examining our own motivations for collecting and curating our spaces is essential -museum professionals often do not (or cannot) develop their own personal collections, and in fact, we have sections in our codes of ethics where we can report/describe our personal collections so they are not in conflict with our professional collecting/curating duties. Personally, I guess I collect office supplies… I have more pens and pencils than I will ever be able to use but I love to buy them when I travel – they’re cheap, easy to pack, but highly symbolic of an experience I want to remember.

    I also have important keepsakes that have been given to me as personal “thank yous” from individuals who have used our collections for their own research or personal growth, and these are items I treasure. They symbolize the way we connected through the museum collections and are deeply personal in what we shared in those interactions.

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