the subject of collectors/collecting is back. for those who
didn't read/see it before, i'm attaching this article again.
i think it is very pertinent. i agree with most of it. i see
myself in a lot of it. knowing of these points of view allows
me to legitimize/justify some of my quirks regarding collecting, myself. there is no rational reason to want any
of these things we hold in such high regard; knowing they exist(ed)
should be enough of a treasure. seeking them, chasing after them,
owning them...these traits defy logic. i, however, have not been
able to heed this; i collect!

January 22, 2000, Saturday
Arts & Ideas/Cultural Desk

Why Hunt and Gather A Trove of Stuff?; Studying the
Ageless Need To Amass Collections


In prehistoric caves dating back 40,000 years, archaeologists
have discovered strange curios, including shells and oddly shaped
lumps of iron pyrite. They are, the scientists believe, the first
evidence of the human impulse to collect.

The practice of collecting has certainly come a long way since.
Indeed, today it has become a cliche that virtually anything --
from high art to swizzle sticks -- is being collected by somebody
somewhere. The tremendous popularity of auction sites on the Internet
has opened a window on a world in which thousands of people are
willing to bid for objects that even some of the sellers previously
thought were worthless.

What is it that compels people to collect? For years the collections
themselves received the most attention. In the 1920's, researchers
compiled inventories of them. But more recently the motivations of
collectors have become a hot topic among academics as part of an
intensifying focus on material culture and consumerism.

Susan M. Pearce, a professor at the University of Leicester in
England who has done research on collecting, said the act itself
received little academic attention in the past because it is on
the cusp of several disciplines including psychology, sociology,
history, economics and archaeology.

But in the last decade, she added, social scientists have begun
to look more closely at the relationship between people and objects
after spending years focusing on the production of goods. She is now
supervising graduate students who are researching dissertations on
collecting, in the ancient world and now.

If collectors were largely ignored by academics in the past, they
have been a preoccupation of novelists, filmmakers and journalists.
The popular image they have shaped is often contradictory. Balzac's
"Cousin Pons," published in 1847, depicted a collector who does not
appreciate the value of his collection and is duped by his wealthy
relatives. John Fowles's 1963 novel ''The Collector'' is about a
psychotic butterfly collector who kidnaps a beautiful art student.

The title character in "Utz," a 1989 novel by Bruce Chatwin, is
obsessed with his collection of Meissen porcelain figurines. And
last year's "Orchid Thief," by the New Yorker writer Susan Orlean,
is a study of a man so passionate about the flowers that he is willing
to risk arrest to obtain and clone a rare specimen.

These books and others portray the collector as, at best, a harmless
or pathetic eccentric and, at worst, a malevolent demon. In both cases,
the objects collected become substitutes for failed human relationships.

But there are also the rival images of the collector, fostered mostly
by the press, as an erudite preserver of civilization, generous philanthropist
and wily speculator.

Collectors themselves do not always mind the negative stereotype.
"People use 'obsession,' 'addiction' and 'collectaholic' to describe
their own behavior in a way they wouldn't if they were addicted to alcohol
or drugs," said Russell W. Belk, a professor at the University of Utah
who studies collecting.

Much of the new academic research contradicts the idea that collecting
represents aberrant behavior. Both Ms. Pearce, working in Britain, and
Mr. Belk, working in the United States, found that about one of every
three people in both countries collect something.

Mr. Belk said that his research did not include collections of records,
CD's or photographs, which would categorize virtually everyone as a
collector. He defines a collection as a coherent set that is filled
in a systematic and continuing way. In addition, items that enter a
collection are taken out of use, or they are used only on a special
occasion. But a collection does not have to contain objects only. Bird
watchers can be seen as collecting their sightings, and a Don Juan can
be viewed as collecting sexual conquests.

The surveys found that collecting is split evenly between men and women
and cuts across all socioeconomic classes. But it occurs only in developed
countries in North America, Europe and Asia. Ms. Pearce believes that
collecting gathered momentum after the Industrial Revolution in England
in the early 1800's spawned the modern consumer economy. Few collectors
ever make a profit from their collections.

"If 33 percent of people are doing it, you can't really call it peculiar,"
Ms. Pearce said in an interview. "These people have cars, children, homes.
They all live normal lives. It's not a symptom of weirdness or deviance."

She admitted that there were extreme examples of obsessive collectors but
then, she observed, extreme behavior can be found in any large community.

The studies found that people collect for a variety of reasons, like
creating a sense of self-worth, establishing an identity or striving
for a sense of immortality. "We are creating a small world where we
feel secure," Mr. Belk said. "We can succeed because we have defined
success narrowly enough."

He pointed out that collecting actually increased during the Great
Depression in the 1930's. Even jobless collectors could feel that
they were doing humanity a favor by preserving something.

Brenda Danet, a sociologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, conducted
a study of collecting among adults in Israel in the mid-1980's. She and
her colleague, Tamar Katriel of the University of Haifa, concluded that
people who collected were "striving for a sense of closure, completion
and perfection."

They identified five strategies used by their subjects: completing a
series, filling a space, creating a visually pleasing display, manipul-
ating the scale of objects, and aspiring to perfect objects, as in rest-
oring a vintage car to mint condition.

Werner Muensterberger, a New York psychoanalyst, claims that the root
of the collecting impulse comes from the collector's attempt to use
objects as a salve for emotional pain experienced in childhood. Just
as a child fixates on a toy or blanket as a source of comfort when
parents are missing, he explains in his book "Collecting: An Unruly
Passion" (Princeton University Press, 1994), so, too, the objects in
a collection become a substitute for that absent emotional support.

The poster boy for Mr. Muensterberger's theory (though he is not
mentioned in his book) is the fictional Charles Foster Kane in the
1941 movie classic "Citizen Kane." Heir to a mining fortune but ripped
away from his parents as a small boy, Kane becomes an obsessive collector
as an adult, stocking Xanadu, his palatial estate, with thousands of
objects. But he dies pining for his boyhood sled, the symbol of his
lost childhood.

"Repeated acquisitions serve as a vehicle to cope with inner uncertainty,"
Mr. Muensterberger writes, "a way of dealing with the dread of renewed
anxiety, with confusing problems of need and longing."

Ms. Pearce of the University of Leicester, however, called Mr. Muenster-
berger's book "awful." She faults it for reinforcing the stereotype of
collecting as a form of deviant behavior.

But Mr. Muensterberger, who is an expert on African art and has several
pieces on display in his New York apartment, said in an interview that
his theory did not mean that every collector was a neurotic, though he
believes the impulse for neurosis comes from the same place. "There is
an unneurotic side to collecting: the search for knowledge, the sense of
taste, the need for accomplishment," he said. "That can border on the
obsessional. It can become deviant."

Oddly, of the many historical examples cited in his book, Mr.
Muensterberger skips over one that would appear to be significant.
Sigmund Freud was an ardent collector of ancient Greek, Roman and
Egyptian antiquities, amassing a collection of more than 3,000 objects
before his death.

The collection was clearly important to Freud's work. He displayed the
items only in the two rooms where he saw patients and wrote, not in the
family quarters. When he was forced to flee Vienna after the Nazis annexed
Austria in 1938, Freud sold his library of books but made sure that his
antiquities collection went with him to England. The position of each piece
in Vienna was carefully noted, then recreated after the collection arrived
at the Freuds' new home in London.

John Forrester, who teaches the history and philosophy of science at
Cambridge University and has written several books on Freud, believes
that collecting was integral to the development of Freud's theories.
In an essay in "The Cultures of Collecting" (Harvard University Press,
1994), he noted that Freud began collecting in 1896, after the death
of his father, which Freud admitted was a traumatic time in his life.
Mr. Forrester then goes on to note that Freud also collected dreams,
case studies and Jewish anecdotes.

"The late 1890's was the most significant period in Freud's development
of psychoanalysis," Mr. Forrester wrote, ''which was founded upon the
idiosyncratic collections he established at that time."

Mr. Muensterberger said that he did not include Freud in his book because
he did not know enough. Freud very rarely wrote about his own collecting,
he added. "It must have had a very significant undisclosed meaning to him,
which we can only guess at," he said.

Or perhaps, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a collection is just a collection.