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A similarly broad conception of collecting informs one of the best short essays on the subject, John Elsner and Roger Cardinal's introduction to The Cultures of Collecting. Their purview encompasses not only private collectors but also the "appointed collectors" of the "social world," such as garbage collectors, ticket collectors, and tax collectors (p. 2). This kind of gathering must be included within the collecting universe I am discussing, and is not easily separable from the rest of it, for those who collect as public officials also inevitably have other private collections of their own, and the two realms can never be entirely distinct. Collecting undertaken as part of one's occupation (the collecting done by museum and library curators, for example, as well as by certain government employees) is ostensibly shaped by institutional policies; but however different a person's professional and personal collections are (often different as a matter of principle, to avoid a conflict of interest), there are bound to be similarities—in approach if not in type of object—because of the link to the same personality. And institutional policies themselves are the constantly evolving products of individuals, whose private attitudes and collecting practices affect their professional judgments.

Elsner and Cardinal's piece serves to remind us that a rationale of collecting should cover not only the functions of collecting for the individual but also its social uses. One could say, of course, that the private satisfactions are themselves the primary public benefit; for by accommodating a basic human need and making individuals feel more in tune with their environment, collecting contributes some degree of harmony and stability to society at large. Another way that collecting has a social function is its role in a market economy. Russell W. Belk, in a book devoted to this subject (Collecting in a Consumer Society, 1995), concludes that collecting (which he treats as a form of consumption) is "a relatively healthy activity that invigorates consumer life with passion and purpose" (p. 158). Although his view of collecting is overly narrow (focusing on "inessential luxury goods" [p. 157]) and his criticisms of museums (as elitist bastions of entrenched materialistic taste) are overstated, he does usefully recognize that individual collectors of independent mind, who are not swayed in their interests by market trends, can eventually influence institutional collecting and public exhibitions. And, one might


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add, this influence in turn affects market prices, which are a powerful force for preservation.

The role of private collecting in the evolution of museum displays points directly to a more fundamental contribution that collecting makes to public life: it affects the way everyone sees the world. One person's set of possessions, whether glimpsed by a few neighbors or more widely shared in a private or institutional setting, is part of the external chaos faced by other people and thus plays a role in their experience of life. However coherent or formless a group of possessions may appear, it inevitably offers juxtapositions that would not have existed without the collector's intervention in the fates of those objects. Since everyone is a collector, what we are really talking about is one of the ways humanity leaves its mark on the environment. The motivations of those whose marks—in the form of their possessions—are still evident may not be understood, and in any case we may not have the same responses as our predecessors to the groupings they formed; but those configurations are part of the given that we have inherited, influencing our own efforts to make sense of what we see and our own assemblages of objects. Whatever understanding we create for ourselves is different from what it would have been if the material world, including other people's accumulations, had been different. This situation is the basis for what we call the advancement of knowledge. What I see in a group of objects may turn out to be the same as what some earlier viewers (including perhaps the collector) saw there, and it is likely to be something I would not have perceived without that particular conjunction of objects. When people repeatedly find the same patterns, they form the consensus necessary to justify calling what they have found a fact (which of course can only be a provisional classification, subject to refutation). In this way collections advance knowledge.

Preservation is the underlying key to such advances, because without the survival of the items repeated viewings of them could not occur. Even though the meanings of objects derive from their contexts and associations, the objects themselves must exist before they can be studied in a context; and the role of collectors in salvaging things, at least for a while, from the destructive stream of time is the fundamental service they provide to the growth of learning. Objects surviving from the past (ancient or recent) sometimes seem suspended in a puzzling limbo without context, but they are nevertheless there, awaiting future observation. In the words of Eilean Hooper- Greenhill, "The radical potential of material culture, of concrete objects, of real things, of primary sources, is the endless possibility of rereading" (the conclusion of Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge, 1992). Their survival allows them to be our touchstones


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to the past, placing us in a line of succession that links all those who have touched the objects from the time of their creation to the present. As Elsner and Cardinal say, there is "a past that lies right here"; and collecting, which preserves that past, is important "because it shuns closure and the security of received evaluations" and focuses our attention on what surrounds us, "in all its unpredictability and contingent complexity" (pp. 5-6). In this spirit, they emphasize the usefulness of collecting "against the grain." This frame of mind is characterized by openness and independence, by a recognition that everything is worthy of being saved, not just those things that are regarded as "collectible" by the fashion of a given moment.[17] No collecting is trivial, on either a personal or a public level, because there is no limit to what may have significance for a given individual or within a given milieu.

In the now thriving field of museum studies (which has produced much of the recent writing about collecting)[18], there has been some debate over the relative value of objects versus the value of the knowledge derived from them. Put another way, the question is whether museums should emphasize the acquisition and display of objects or the creation of contextual educational exhibits in which original objects, if present at all, are subordinated to broader historical recreation and


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explication. This supposed issue is one of those false dilemmas where the two sides are so interrelated that they cannot be separated. Those who take the side of the objects are of course right in the sense that the objects must come first; but stating one's allegiance to objects in the framework of this debate implies that they can be seen independently of the subjective responses they arouse. One cannot complain about explicitly pedagogical displays on the grounds that they yoke objects to a particular present-day viewpoint, for any selection and arrangement of objects inevitably does the same thing; but one can legitimately disapprove of any extrapolation that implies its own infallibility or self-sufficiency. All collectors (individual or institutional) acquire and place objects in relation to some context, which emerges from a combination of temperament and learning; and their imaginative constructs cause observers (who can also be called the next round of collectors) to have insights, and to form collections, that might not have occurred otherwise. This ineluctable process leads us toward the only kind of truths we can have about the past— for while we can never wholly avoid reading the present into a past object, we can make a conscious effort not to, and unless we proceed in this fashion no knowledge is possible.

The way objects convey knowledge has been made clearer in the past few decades by the development of a field, or an approach, called "material culture study." Although it ought to be obvious that we learn about the past through its physical survival, this point in its broadest implications has been little enough regarded in the past that the recent writers on material culture have often been considered proselytizers for something new and have not infrequently met with resistance. By now there have been a number of useful statements on the subject (as well as studies exemplifying the approach), but even the best of them often exhibit a curious disparity in their treatment of objects that carry verbal texts (like books and manuscripts) and those that do not. For example, the art historian Jules David Prown, in his 1982 essay "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method" (Winterthur Portfolio, 17: 1-19), almost undercuts his perceptive discussion by asserting near the end that artifacts "tell us something, but facts are transmitted better by verbal documents." He is by no means alone in perpetuating the unexamined assumption, implicit here, that words speak to us more unambiguously and truthfully than visual images do, and thus that "documents" (artifacts transmitting verbal texts) are somehow different, in essence, from other objects. Another instance is Gaynor Kavanagh's statement that "to question whether for historians objects have value as evidence or not is perhaps as crass and vacuous as questioning


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whether documents have value as evidence." Not only does Kavanagh weaken his argument by distinguishing documents from objects, but he proceeds to give the wrong answer to his question: "The plain fact is," he says, "that some have and some have not."[19] But what material culture study must convey, if it is to elaborate its basic insight coherently, is both a recognition of the value of all physical objects, without exception, and an understanding of the ontological sameness of them all. Printed matter is still matter; and what its words seem to be saying (rarely a certainty in any case) must be interpreted in relation to what the whole object is saying.

For these reasons, book collecting is a particularly instructive example of how the assembly of objects contributes to the growth of knowledge. Many people assume that verbal texts can readily be transferred intact from one object to another; to them, the only reason to collect "books" (physical objects) instead of "works" (texts in any embodiment) is an interest in the crafts of bookmaking and in the printing and publishing industries. Indeed, "book collectors" are often thought of as falling into two categories, those who assemble texts (in any edition) to be read and those who bring together specific editions, not necessarily to be read but to be possessed as objects worthy of attention. The latter group is sometimes ridiculed as not seriously interested in the ideas conveyed by verbal works; but anyone who makes such a criticism can only be a person who has not yet learned that books, being physical objects, are most fruitfully read in the same way that all other objects are "read." The field of analytical bibliography, now about a century and a half old, exists to demonstrate that the physical evidence in books can disclose a great deal about how those books were produced, what effect the production process had on the texts, and how the texts were perceived by those who produced the books and those who read them. Scholars in this field, by studying books as physical objects, contribute to printing and publishing history, to scholarly editing, to the history of reading, to the whole process of placing texts in historical contexts.[20] That the makeup


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and wording of texts are affected by the processes of book- production means that the interpretation of texts can never be divorced from the examination of the objects conveying them. Our reading of verbal works and our knowledge of their origins would be impoverished if we had only current reproductions of texts and were deprived of the great store of books that are physical survivors from earlier times. Book collecting therefore advances knowledge in the same way that the saving of all other objects contributes to our understanding of the past. And this understanding, in turn, affects our life in the present—not only in the sense usually meant by this conventional sentiment but also because those objects are a part of the present.

Nabokov's well-known account of his "obsession" with butterflies and butterfly-collecting—originally published in The New Yorker (12 June 1948), it became the sixth chapter of Speak, Memory (1966)—provides an eloquent illustration of how the strands discussed here come together in individual lives. Butterflies did serve, for Nabokov, as tangible reminders of episodes in his own life, and even the smell of ether, used as the killing agent for one of his earliest childhood catches, "would always cause the porch of the past to light up" (p. 121). His further encounters with butterflies, his repeated acts of observation and pursuit, made him an expert lepidopterist—one who, indeed, contributed to the field through important published papers. His understanding that collecting and rigorous thinking go hand in hand was shown by his ridicule of those who advocated the relaxing of scientific standards for collectors: "Their solicitude for the 'average collector who should not be made to dissect' is comparable to the way nervous publishers of popular novels pamper the 'average reader'—who should not be made to think" (p. 124). Nabokov of course wrote novels as well as scientific articles, and he saw the connections: "I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art" (p. 125). He reserved his most moving words for a description of "the highest enjoyment of timelessness" that came to him when he stood outdoors among "rare butterflies":

This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. (p. 139)


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One can have such an epiphany in nature without being a collector of natural things, but whatever accumulations one does have put one in the frame of mind for creating this private sense of belonging. Nabokov's response to butterflies in the wild was undoubtedly reinforced by his experience of placing them in his collection, just as everyone's constructed settings provide patterns for seeing the world.

For some people, the pleasure of amassing objects is increased by knowing that the activity supports scholarship, science, and art; for others, the satisfactions are entirely personal, but the results are nevertheless of public benefit. Collecting is a prime example of behavior in which private desire and social gain are mutually supportive. This symbiosis is not surprising, since the drive that brings about private assemblages of objects is the same one that impels scientists, artists, and scholars to search for meaning on a level that others can assent to, producing in the process the consensus that is knowledge. The paradox that our search for organization and regularity is conducted with passion and primal energy was brilliantly captured by Wallace Stevens in the phrase "rage for order." The woman he describes (in "The Idea of Order at Key West"), striding along the beach singing, not only creates order for herself through her song but also affects the way her listeners subsequently view their surroundings, causing them to see patterns in the reflections of the fishing-boats' lights, which "Mastered the night and portioned out the sea."

This feeling of mastery, however temporary and provisional, is an emotional necessity, and we all are masters of the collections we surround ourselves with, all artists who create worlds with accumulated objects, whether or not we pursue our visions into the public sphere through display, research, or one of the forms we call "art." What Joseph Cornell did, in shaping his inspired boxes out of that vast assemblage of seemingly heterogeneous objects in his Utopia Parkway house, is symbolic of what many others, often in less direct ways, have made of their object-filled surroundings. For Stevens, the rage for order is a "Blessed rage for order" because this drive alone gives us a glimpse of what it means to be at home, to feel secure, in the universe. The collecting we all do, with its varying repercussions, private and public, is our way of venting that rage, of finding ourselves.