The History of Collecting
📸 A gallery at the Louvre Museum (Source: AFP)
Why do we collect things? What is it that compels us to seek out a rare baseball card, the final quarter for our coin collection, or beautiful stones and shells which catch our eye? The behavior can’t be dismissed as a simple quirk of humans; many other animals engage in it as well, like the bowerbird of Australia or the self-camouflaging decorator crabs. If other members of the natural kingdom are getting in on the craze, then the cause must be explained through some quirk of evolution, not just limited to a human desire to possess objects.
📸 A tablet from Ennigaldi-Nanna's Museum, one of the first museum labels. (Source: The British Museum)
There’s a number of evolutionary psychology theories to account for the collecting behavior, all of them centered around the idea that collecting is an evolutionary holdover from some older behavior. Perhaps collecting originated as a mating display to demonstrate worth to a potential mate, or it is a way our mind brings a utilitarian function to a recreational pursuit. Like so many human behaviors, collecting stems from some unknown survival instinct, but it’s changed considerably over time.
Whatever the reason, collecting appears throughout the historical record. Neolithic tools have been discovered in Europe that seem to have been constructed as decorative ornaments, not weapons of war. More than that, these collector weapons are constructed in the style of earlier periods, suggesting a nostalgia for the past. It would seem that even thousands of years ago, not only were people collecting, entire industries existed to create these objects.
Collecting is by its nature a leisurely pursuit and as such is most common among the affluent. This in turn dovetails with the history of museums. Museums themselves appear throughout human history; the first built was Ennigaldi-Nanna’s Museum in Ur, around 500 BCE and housed artifacts from earlier Mesoptamian cultures. Although this was a far cry from the museums of today, Ennigaldi-Nanna’s boasted some hallmarks of the modern form, like description labels written in multiple languages.
📸 An engraving depicting Ferrante Imperato's cabinet of curiosities.
Museums as we know them today evolved out of the “cabinet of curiosities” trend of Europe in the seventeenth century. In these miniature museums, aristocrats would amass small collections of artworks, historical artifacts, scientific specimens, and artistic pieces. These collections of oddities would be tended to by private individuals to be shown to guests or friends, but they served as the predecessors for public museums by setting standards for cataloging and displaying items.
Today collecting is seen as a less academic pursuit, more a casual hobby than a scientific endeavor. Stamp collecting remains the most popular form of collecting, boasting a history that stretches back to the eighteenth century, with the advent of the modern postal system. Of course, one can collect just about anything, but the most popular collections tend to be made up of items with a set base form. Baseball cards, for example, are fixed in physical dimension and design, but are open to near endless variation.
There’s a lot to be said about the psychology of collecting, how it owes itself to the hardwiring of our brains. But more than anything, collecting lets us amass a physical testament to our passions, it lets us experience the entirety of a phenomenon, or as near to entirety as we are able to get. A collector’s task is never finished (there’s always one more Beanie Baby to track down) but for many, the excitement is in adding one more item to a collection, not just completing the set.
Apostolou, Menelaos. “Why Men Collect Things? A Case Study of Fossilised Dinosaur Eggs.” Journal of Economic Psychology 32.3 (2011): 410–417. Web.
Burgess, W. G. “State of the Field: The History of Collecting.” History (London) 106.369 (2021): 108–119. Web.
Charatan, Fred B. “The Psychology of Collecting.” Antiques & Collecting Magazine 108.6 (2003): 28–. Print.
Dion, Mark, Colleen J. Sheehy, and Colleen J. (Colleen Josephine) Sheehy. Cabinet of Curiosities: Mark Dion and the University as Installation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.
Gelber SM. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. Columbia University Press; 1999.
Reif, Rita. “Were Ancient Europeans Collectors?” New York Times, 9 January 1994, p. 37