Cultures of Collecting: Pros and Cons
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Published: Thu, 14 Jun 2018
Why do people collect? What are the oppressive and the more therapeutic aspects of the ‘cultures of collecting’?
The phenomenon of collecting is a universal feature of societies across the world. Current research recognises that museums organised over the last 150 years
‘represent all sorts of possibilities for exploring other times, places and ways of life,’ yet as Gosden and Knowles state, there has been little ‘in-depth’ research into the meaning and status of collections . This essay seeks to define the major approaches to studying the phenomenon of collecting, and how these approaches have been informed by a historical understanding of collections that has developed over time. Particular focus will be given to a Euro-centric understanding of collecting and how collecting has been used to represent autonomy and preserve cultures which are under threat.
Susan Pearce, from the University of Leicester, suggests that in modern post-Renaissance western society, museums are the ‘political and cultural institutions entrusted with holding the material evidence, real things, which constitute much modern knowledge.’ Pearce’s paper examines how and why museums are perceived to embody set knowledge and values, while recognising that study of museums and collections has three distinctive approaches. Firstly, each museum object and specimen can be seen as individual, secondly, there exists the professional care approach that seeks to better understand the mechanisms and motivations behind the collections themselves, and thirdly there are interpretive approaches which examine the nature of collections. Scholarship recognises that the inclination to collect can be most clearly identified to have originated in the eighteenth century (eg: Benedict, 2001). Benedict identifies her study as an examination of “the representation of curiosity, of curiosities, and of curious people”, again – like Pearce – suggesting that the cultures of collecting are to be considered in direct relation to all three distinctions. Curiosity – that Benedict argues lies at the heart of collecting – was manifested in a variety of forms in the eighteenth century. In his review of Benedict’s book Dennis Todd writes that these manifestations can be seen in novels, satiric poetry and drama, journalism, trial transcripts, prints, and reports of scientific experiments; as well as in museums, exhibitions, and cabinets of curiosities; and in works by Shadwell, Swift, Pope, Defoe, Walpole, Beckford, Samuel Johnson, Radcliffe, Godwin, and Mary Shelley.
Collecting in early societies has been identified as being closely associated with exhibiting – as a process through which to display a collector’s knowledge and education. For example, Wolfram Koeppe, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, states that pre-Renaissance societies had a taste for collecting the strange and the curious, and that this inclination had long been part of human evolution. Suetonius (died 122 A.D.) records that Augustus, the Roman Emperor “had his houses embellished, not only with statues and pictures but also with objects which were curious by reason of their age and rarity, like the huge remains of monstrous beasts which had been discovered on the Island of Capri, called giants’ bones or heroes’ weapons.” The desire to showcase collections as symbols of power, knowledge and authority has meant that some collections have tended to possess less artistic merit and are more assertive and thus oppressive in their content and organisation. For example, African museum contents have proven to be a strong area for museum researchers to focus on. The Scramble for Art in Central Africa is a study of a group of collectors, such as Torday, Frobenius and Schweinfurth, who worked in the Belgian Congo at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and were interested in how objects such as carved figures or metal items reflected local social forms. As Gosden and Knowles explain, ‘this is a process by which Africa was invented for the West, arriving back in the northern hemisphere stripped of context and presented in private collections and museums so as to create particular impressions of African tribalism and designs.’ By removing objects from their original context and moving them to suit the commercial and social aspirations of a very different culture, the objects’ meaning is thus obscured and essentially altered. Although collecting objects in this way can, in some cases, preserve the existence of the objects, the motives behind the desire to possess the objects in the first instance are questionable. Many collectors in early twentieth-century England were unscrupulous in their acquirement and handling of unusual and collectable items. For example, the archaeologist and antiquarian collector known as Edward Cunnington developed a poor reputation for removing objects that he particularly ‘liked’ and keeping them at his own premises.
Benedict highlights the phenomenon of collecting to be intrinsically linked to ambition – both personal and national, often with hegemonic motivation. In the eighteenth century, curiosity was associated with an ‘empirical bent of mind’ in relation to new social opportunities and a new commercial culture that echoed ‘curiosity’s desire for novelty and for the personal, intellectual, and moral development.’ Todd writes that collecting ‘had an air of menace’: that ‘in its restless exploration of new realities, curiosity was dangerous, subversive [..] By definition, it was motivated by a discontent with what one knew or with what one was. Its essence was ambition.’ It is the opinions of many scholars that European countries have attempted to build strongholds for themselves by using collections to their economic and imperialistic advantage, thus asserting their independence from, and authority over, other countries. Cultural imperialism as constructed through Eurocentric means of production, imbued with Western ideologies, has resulted in biased interpretations of historical events. This means that ways of representing and exhibiting material can often tend to favour and reinforce historical events which place Western societies in a strong and favourable light, focussing less on historical events or material that suggests otherwise. In Photography, as suggested by Mark Sealy – Director of ‘Autograph’, the Association of Black Photographers – a ‘Eurocentric hierarchy’ has developed from ‘the propagation of canonical figures to sustain hegemonic control across the cultural and commercial industries.’ Sealy highlights Photography and the associated control of the distribution of images as being a ‘vital component in the execution of Western, colonial policies, especially in relation to extreme, exploitative and aggressive imperial desires that endorsed systems such as slavery, suppression of tribal peoples and national independence movements.’ Although in the more obvious cases – such as British photography of African culture – this approach may be valid, the view that Eurocentric hegemonic control is all-pervading is damaging to the artistic credibility of collections which seek only to further and sustain the culture that they represent.
Understanding the phenomenon of collecting as a means of preserving and repatriating heritage can afford a more insightful perspective on the motivations of collections. In present cultures across the world the impulse to collect grows stronger in light of fading cultural distinctions and the spread of Westernised society. With a shrinking island of opportunity for indigenous cultures to reassert their position and maintain their existence in specific geographical areas or types of landscape, collections can become celebrations of originality and uniqueness that is consistently threatened by the universality and uniformity of Western ideals. Collecting becomes a near-desperate attempt to keep hold of livelihoods and traditional ways of life. A good example of a culture under threat is the Cree Indians of Moosonee, Canada, whose ‘Cree Village’ reconstruction offers tourists the opportunity to see a history of 300 years of the fur trade history. However, such museums can often fall short of Western expectations, being overpriced or poorly organised. Kylie Message in her 2007 publication, New Museums and the Making of Culture, speaks of the term ‘survivance’; meaning ‘more than survival [..] raising our social and political consciousness.’ As a way of defending against the threatening spread of Western living, a museum called the National Museum of the North American Indian in Washington, DC has exhibits which actively try to erase the stamp of Euro-centric Imperialism on its culture. Opened in 2004 the museum was developed collaboratively between architecture groups and Native American Indians, with the main exhibits integrating religious, mythical themes and a series of displays created by diverse communities. These include a welcome wall that spells the word ‘welcome’ in hundreds of native languages, objects, stories; all put together with the universal goal of political advocacy and the need to promote cultural rights.
In contrast to the socio-political aspirations of indigenous cultures, the therapeutic qualities of collecting or collections are noted by Lois Silverman to include significant benefits or positive changes for individuals or groups. Participating in programme activities at museums can offer the chance to ‘experience’ the problems and demands of lifestyles over time, and can be related to one’s own difficulties. Being able to observe the shapes, forms, and meanings of certain arrangements of objects can offer revelatory experiences, and afford the psychological space to better endure one’s own difficulties, while promoting positive change. This phenomenon – although only recently qualified as such – has long been a feature of the museum experience. For example, in his essay “On Experience,” Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) reflects: “For in my opinion, the most ordinary things, the most common and familiar, if we could see them in their true light, would turn out to be the grandest miracles of nature and the most marvellous examples, especially as regards the subject of the action of men.” The role of memory in the understanding of cultural heritage is also closely linked to the therapeutic aspect of museum experience. Programmed events or tours are designed to dispel feelings of disassociation and to help the viewer engage with what they see rather than view it as a relic or something that bears little relation to themselves or their understanding of the world. Such an experience can precipitate remembrance of past events in the viewer’s own life that can help them to come to terms or better cope with life-threatening illnesses and behavioural health issues.
In conclusion, the notion of collecting is a diverse concept, our understanding of which is often historically informed. Contemporary understandings of collections and collecting involve forays into the therapeutic and psychological effects of collections which can be experienced by the viewer. Caution must be exercised in the study of Western representations and interpretations of foreign cultures: although, arguably, it is already too late, as Imperialist ideals are entrenched in the Western methods of design, portrayal and interpretation of ‘other’ cultures. It is a stirring thought that Eurocentric ideology has had such a damaging effect on the welfare and existence of other cultures. As Sealy so keenly expressed ‘the greater Africa’s exposure through the lens of European anthropologists, the greater was Africa’s cultural erasure.’ Since the eighteenth century understandings of the collector have changed from the image of the dusty antiquarian, to the more diverse and culturally aware motivation to collect that places socio-political aspirations at the forefront of collections. These understandings of collecting continue to be discussed by scholars today, and continue to develop according to changing social and academic trends.
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