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What's a "Collection?" What's "Collecting?"

As a child I had all sorts of collections: stamps, keychains, milk caps ("pogs"), coins, and ice hockey pucks. As an adult I still have all sorts of collections: rocks and minerals, photographs, books, and museum maps. And sure enough, as I get older, I will likely amass new collections with as much enthusiasm and passion as in my youth. In many ways, these various collections represent fleeting interests or a fixation with some popular object of the time. Perhaps a few of my former collections were only marginally related to my interests -- I was awful at Yo-Yos and hated them, yet I owned no fewer than a dozen -- however, the fact that I maintained and stored them so intently signifies their powerful hold on me. The more I had of an object, the better the collection. It was as if I collected these "things" so that others could appreciate them for me. To all the collectors out there, I know you understand this feeling, too!

Specimens from my rock and mineral collection

(Photo: Nicholas Merkelson)

Assembling, preserving, and displaying objects -- the method of collecting, if you will -- is somewhat of a basic human activity. We collect multiple varied objects with the intention of forming "a collection," a specific series of items deemed important because of their assemblage in a group. It is their accumulation as a whole set rather than a single object's individualized use-value that makes a collection. In contrast to compulsive hoarding, collecting is a totally self-aware activity, a conscious performance of human-object relations played out by the collector and his/her collection.

Collections and the act of collecting is not homogenous, though; there are different motivations for gathering and arranging. No two collections are exactly the same either, as each one was put together with

unique perspectives and processes. For this reason, even where there are noticeable gaps and empty spaces, every collection should be seen as constituting its own meaningful whole. From the Library of Alexandria to the shoebox of trading cards under the bed, collections are created for any number of reasons. Here are just a few (please submit others!):

1) Collections are repositories of knowledge and ideas.

2) Collections celebrate the objects and evidence of their creation.

3) Collections allow us to make sense of our world.

4) Collections map our social world, e.g. we visit, we trade, we purchase.

5) Collections help identify ourselves and our worth in relation to others.

6) Collections represent the Public/nation-states.

7) Collections contextualize our place in time and space.

An article ("Down the Hatch and Straight Into Medical History," January 10) published in the New York Times Health section brilliantly captures the (sometimes) idiosyncratic nature of collecting. Dr. Chevalier Jackson, a laryngologist who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, specialized in removing objects that people had swallowed or inhaled.

Operating with little or no anesthesia, Jackson rescued from his patients' upper torsos nails and bolts, miniature binoculars, a toy goat, a beaded crucifix, and countless safety pins, among other unusual objects. Despite many surgery-related deaths in those days, it is believed that Jackson's patients had a 95% survival rate. Jackson might otherwise be lost to history if not for his curious collection of over 2,000 objects he removed from patients, and soon to be on exhibit (February 18) at the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Mary Cappello, co-curator of the exhibit, discusses Jackson's peculiar obsession in her book, Swallow. She says, "He was a fetishist, no question. If Jackson could tell us how he wished to be remembered, I'm certain he would do so by assemblage, or meaningful collage." The medical pioneer who once refused to return a quarter after removing it from a patient sought collecting as a means of displaying his clinical talents as well as teaching a lesson to people. "[Jackson] was an early and outspoken safety advocate, particularly when it came to children. As one of his assistant put it, his quest was to make the public and the medical profession 'foreign-body-conscious' about swallowing."

When Jackson's collection goes on display next month, be sure to remember the identifiable purpose for saving all of those inedible things, just as there is an epistemological purpose behind the culture of collecting in general.


Macdonald, S., 2006. Collecting practices. In: Sharon Macdonald (ed.), A Companion to Museum Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 81-97.

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