Collecting as an art form is an idea that has finally been absorbed by society at large: previously collecting was the preserve of the wealthy and well
connected, and for centuries the major collections of books, paintings, furniture and antiques have been kept within the great families. In the 19th century the fortunes made out of the industrial
revolution led to more collections being compiled by the mega rich industrialists and eccentrics, who continued the process of ransacking the world of fine art and antiquity. Although many of these
collections have since become museums, they were essentially the creation of the elite for the elite, and so hidden from the majority of the population.
The last few decades however, have seen a huge change in the kind of people who collect, and what they collect. The entertainment industry and the consumer society has fuelled a huge interest in the artifacts that surround us, and make up the world we live in; the ability of TV and the movies to preserve what was previously ephemeral has led to an obsession, based on nostalgia for the world we used to know, and the world our parents knew: the 20th century has become the antiquity that we now ransack, and every one of us has the ability to travel the world courtesy of the internet and bring back those elusive prizes that form the new 21st century collections.
These collections are very different from the great collections of the past, and formed by very different collectors; but what hasn't changed is the ability to see what is important and culturally valuable; the ability to make connections between what seem to be disparate objects and to form them into a pattern that can make sense out of the bewildering array of information and objects that make up the society we live in. A real collection is more than just an accumulation of objects, and quantity is no guide to its value and purpose. Many people have lots of items in their possession, but these are no more a collection than a supermarket shelf is a meal: it takes a collector to sort and chose and combine in such a way that something is revealed, created even, that was not there before: a collection is more than the sum of its individual parts.
A collector is born, not made (I won't elaborate on Freud's theory on this - most collectors are familiar with the "anal" jibe that comes our way), and formed by an initial interest, experience, and curiosity about why we feel the way we do about certain things that have coloured our lives since childhood, and which we are reluctant to abandon. A collector works at his passion: we spend years scouring junk shops, jumble sales, auctions and antique shops; sometimes we buy cheap, sometimes we dig deep (no collection is formed on the cheap, there are times we all pay more than we should, but money is transient, the pleasure of owning that special item is forever); collectors learn all the time - our research takes us into unexpected areas, and we are always adding more to the jig saw that makes up our own unique version of the world. Collectors add to the sum of human knowledge, informing the rest of society about the patterns and trends that lie behind the otherwise fragmented memories and feelings they have about their lives - the past is a living, palpable entity that lurks just out of sight to most people, but which still affects everything they feel about their lives - collectors bring it into the light and reveal what had been long forgotten by the conscious mind but still stirs in the darkness of the sub-conscious.
Collectors have one further important function that adds immeasurably to the wealth of the nation: we are the modern alchemists, we have discovered the secret of turning base metal into gold. We take an unregarded, unremarked item that would otherwise be discarded, and reveal it as a valuable, often revered, treasure that makes money (sometimes a great deal of money) for the original owner, and thereafter becomes part of the fabric of the country for future generations to admire and learn from. Collectors nurture their collections and guard them until the time comes for them to pass into other hands; but however many times over the years they are broken and re-formed in different ways, however much they increase or decrease in value, each individual item will still in some way bear the imprint of the collector who first recognised its true worth and saved it from oblivion: we are important - we are immortal.
One final thought:
Consider "Citizen Kane" as the story of a collector manqué: he is haunted by the demons of his childhood and seeks an answer in accumulating a mountain of collectable artefacts; but he is not a collector, he sees no meaning or pattern in the things he aquires, (an accumulation is not a collection remember ); the meaning was there - but only a born collector could have found it.
©Peter Cossey 2009