Considering Collections: Snippets from Collectors of All Kinds


Part of a collection of primate objects

By Georgina Kolber, Curator of Exhibits, Collections & Programs

Now half way through the crowd-pleasing Denver Collects series, I decided to dig a bit into why the topic of collecting appeals to so many people. I’ve read lots of compelling and amusing theories about how gathering “stuff” is biologically and psychologically based, the most poetic being that the objects we choose to keep around us are conduits to another world—a place or time we’ve experienced in the past, or one we’d like to experience in the future. In this scenario, the objects have shed their original function and become more like totems or amulets.

Also interesting to me is the suggestion that for some, the satisfaction of collecting comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of an otherwise huge and irrational world. In other words, the act of collecting something classifiable (stamps, contemporary painting, black & white photography, Japanese woodblock prints, etc.) provides a sense of comfort and order to those who acquire them.

To explore these and other collecting impulses in action, I conducted a series of interviews with people about their collecting habits.

The first scientifically significant (in my amateur opinion) finding was that of the twenty people I requested to interview, fifteen people answered within 24 hours, either with thoughtful answers to my questions, or with an apologetic note about why they wouldn’t be useful to my inquiry. At the end of a ten day period, I’d collected twelve delightful and personal sketches on the what, when, where and hows of collecting. To me, the significance is clear: the topic of collecting elicits excitement and compels people to share stories about themselves.

What’s not clear is why some people who purposefully acquire objects or artwork identify as collectors, and others, who gather the same types of objects, don’t.  Of the twelve people I interviewed, all of them stated that yes, they collect or acquire certain types of things. But only four of those twelve consider themselves collectors; the title seems to be fitting for some and not for others.

I heard over and over again that individuals feel they are not sophisticated enough to call themselves collectors. I think there’s a tendency for people to assume that, in order to be considered a real collector, one must have a lot of expendable income to put toward acquired objects. The reality is that many who do consider themselves collectors actually collect inexpensive things—sea shells, Pan Am Airlines memorabilia, hotel shampoo, postcards, matchboxes from dinners out…

Another answer I heard from those who don’t consider themselves collectors is, “I’m not serious enough to be a collector.” And maybe that’s just it—a collector is more purposeful in his/her search, while someone who acquires objects on a whim, or buys a Renaissance print when she happens to run into one at an antiques gallery, isn’t. It’s all jargon, really, but the important thing to note is that there’s a purpose in collecting- a purpose that collectors will say is rewarding and meaningful.

Many collectors spend hours observing and researching, and those who collect objects of some value know the market before they purchase anything. For example, someone who collects 19th century Japanese woodblock prints knows the changing value of different artists, and how much he/she should expect to spend on a 1952 Ando Hiroshige print in the year 2014. Even someone who hunts for vintage Danish Modern furniture knows the value of a wooden three legged ant chair before he/she arrives to a vintage furniture sale.

Let’s look at some of the things my interviewees shared about collecting.

“Books have always represented a part of my journey, so I cant part with them.  I cant remember my first book or when I began to purposefully collect…it has just happened. My most beloved object is A book owned by my late grandmother, who wrote notes in the margins including nonsensical things like birthdays to remember.  It must have been a special book for her, and I love tracing her handwriting and imagining her life.” – Christina, Denver, CO

“Mostly I acquire things I have a connection to.  For example, I used to teach basic pottery in a junior high.  We learned about and tried some southwest native pottery techniques so now I have an appreciation for not only southwest pottery but all pottery.” – Diane, Seattle, WA

“I have groups of small carvings and sculptures in two categories–owls and marine mammals. My most beloved object is an Eskimo stone carving of a seal that I bought for my mother when her golden retriever died. The dog was named Tulenska, which is Russian for “little seal” (at least that is what my mother told me). I acquired the little seal when my mother died.” –Christina, Old Lyme, CT

“I have been collecting since my childhood, my mom was a collector.  I started with records when I was in 2nd grade.  My sisters and I collected and traded 45s with other kids in the neighborhood (I had a lot of Elvis and I remember treasuring “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”).  I then had a collection of monkeys & primate stuff – over 500 things (t-shirts, puzzles, books, figurines, stuffed animals, etc).  My love of my primate things led to my study of animal behavior and anthropology.” –Amy, Denver, CO

“My partner and I recently decided to purchase pieces of art while on vacation to remember those trips. The first that we made was a trip to Seattle at gallery of local artist.  The subject of the piece was a coastal scene in Oregon that we really enjoyed during a trip the previous year.” – Christopher, Denver, CO

Our biology and psychology may predispose us for collecting behavior, and some of us run with it.  For the purposes of the Museum’s Denver Collects series, the point is not whether or not you fit the part of a collector, but whether or not you have unleashed your collecting impulse! The individuals we’ve gathered for the series share the joys and even the imperatives of collecting from different perspectives.

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