Owning Things

Compulsive hoarding can be defined as an obsessive-compulsive disorder. That doesn’t mean that all hoarding is a disorder, however. Moreover, there are distinctions to be drawn between “hoarding,” “accumulating” and the more positively connoted “collecting.”

These differentiations were among the issues discussed during a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Center for Humanities at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Most of us never think much about why we collect or accumulate things, we just do. Wouldn’t you know, however, there’s something called “thing theory” and there are lots of people, five on this panel alone, with collecting theories on just why we collect things.

From Wikipedia, Thing theory is a branch of critical theory that focuses on the role of things in literature and culture. It borrows from Heidegger’s distinction between objects and things, whereby an object becomes a thing when it is somehow made to stand out against the backdrop of the world it exists in.

Collections of these things range across a broad spectrum and can be anything from belly button lint to paintings. One of the first quotes of the evening may not fully explain the why of the collecting, but can give some sense of reason for it.  It makes us happy.  And “how can you fault someone for figuring out how to be happy.”

In listening to the talks, I couldn’t help but wonder whether collecting and accumulating were somehow different. I recalled a chapter in book, a copy of which I initially notices in a display case in the Winterthur Museum and later purchased, The Charm of the Antique.

The book, published in 1914, explores a number of charms including the charm of acquisition, the charm of the thing you didn’t get, the charm of specializing, the charm of the unexpected and finally the charm of posession. It’s this final charm I suspect the panelists would find most interesting. It touches on the differentiation between hoarding and collecting and the collector who hoardes.

The collector who possesses to hoard has always existed and will always exist. “What toil did honest Curio take, what strict inquiries did he make”—thus wrote Matt Prior many a generation ago, for collecting seems to be the satisfying of a natural instinct and has always had a vogue.  Prior goes on: “’Tis found, oan O his happy lot! ‘Tis bought, locked up, and lies forgot.”

In the chapter titled “The Charm of the Thing You didn’t Get,” the author touches more on the topic.

There are times when you see an article, and admire its charm, but do not acquire it because you really have enough of that particular kind of thing. Of what use is another tall clock or sideboard if you really have no need for it! There are, indeed, some enthusiasts who cannot resist the appeal of another and another so long as they have the space to crowd them. But that is accumulating rather than collecting; and between accumulating and collecting there is a difference. The lure of mere accumulation is strong, because of its being based on a very strong love for the old, but the collector should realise that not only does he keep the treasure from other collectors without any real advantage to himself, but that by crowding and cluttering his house he defeats the main purpose of collecting and home-making, which is, having the house look its very best—which it cannot do if antiques are jammed into every corner—or even stored like cordwood, as we know of forty four-post beds being kept!

The book then describes an aspect of collecting I am recently familiar with. Having packed your own home, you continually lend things to friends and family to keep until you have a bigger house (or send them to storage).

It is exasperating to find people clinging to antiques with no appreciation of what they really are but with stubborn determination to hold them because other people would like to have them; but even in such cases the charm of the things themselves is felt by the collector who doesn’t get them from the dog in the manger.

When panelist Judith Pascoe, Professor of English at the University of Iowa, passed around a scrap book with samples of stitching patterns some person from the past had meticulously assembled, one attendee came close to scolding her ascing about the lines between collecting and preservation. Pascoe replied that she had herself dealt with this issue and made a consious decision to pass around the real object being discussed because, while care and preservation was important, if it can’t be used and learned from by living people, “what good is it?”

One of the reasons for collecting described by the panel is the immortalization of the self. This is undoubtedly the case for many of the big collectors of art, Like Henry Clay Frick in the Gilded Age and Alice Walton today. For the regular collector, the book touches on what to do with the furniture for the future and suggests that giving it to museums is often a misguided effort. “Merely to throw ones things at the nearest museum may be just as foolish as to make a bonfire of them; but, on the other hand, there is no finer destination than an excellent museum that needs them.” Founding your own museum of course is a different issue entirely.

Yet another issue touched on was the value in a thing itself vs. the value of the provenance. That brought to mind a recent old masters exhibit at the Met arranged not chronologically or by artist, but by who had donated the paintings.

I’ve personally started several collections over the years, and in most cases I have disposed of those collections only to start collecting something else. Most recently it’s stereoview cards from a particular photographer, and secondarily glass slides. Sometimes we collect things for what they symbolize. One participant spoke of days when gays and lesbians had to be more discreet and used object and patterns in their homes to define express themselves. It turns out there’s someone working on a book about this very subject.

At one point I was collecting postcards, mostly of well-known buildings like Grand Central Terminal and the Empire State Building. My friend commented that I should seek out rare cards, not these common ones. To me rare cards weren’t interesting. These common cards symbolized New York, the place I knew I wanted to one day live. Today the cards are in storage, and I am here pondering my long-ago reason for their purchase.

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