It is quite apt that an individual as obsessed with collecting as I should be enamoured of museums: they are grand collections of, erm... collections. Collect, preserve, document, exhibit, display. A myriad of alternative forms behind glass. Variations on a theme, neatly catalogued and archived and ordered in a pleasant, climate controlled environment as you could never find them outside on Darwin's humid and muddy tangled bank. Museums of all kinds beguile me with their charms, not just those institutions devoted to the natural world.
Museums dedicated to the arts have a special allure all their own. Where else could you stand face to face with works of such skill and invention than in a gallery? Each has been a sacred rendezvous in a vaulted space: a small charcoal drawing of a 180° face by Picasso, ablaze with topology in the Pretoria Art Museum; The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, more luminous in the National Gallery, London, than could ever be portrayed in a mere picture book; the Guggenheim spiralling up to Franz Marc's sanguine yellow cow prancing across a dazzling landscape of the imagination.
The traveller in an unfamiliar city would do well to seek out those small collections off the beaten path, often overshadowed by the famous collections of art, archaeological artifacts, historical objects or biological specimens of obvious value. These small collections often represent the legacies of those whose passions were so fervent that their collections outlive them. Such museums, displaying pieces amassed by one individual driven by their own particular strain of lust, are often the most interesting. These institutions provide an intimate peek into the psyche of a collector. How wonderfully intrusive: voyeurism disguised as erudition. What drives someone to collect cabinets and even rooms full of antique vibrators, Art Déco cocktail dresses, fruit labels, model buildings made of matchsticks, pinned butterflies, photographs of bridges, circus paraphernalia, stuffed and mounted pets, vintage office equipment, celebrity death masks or Charles and Diana royal wedding memorabilia?
These wonderful and informative collections and their curators share some striking similarities with those persons suffering from compulsive hoarding. Both sets of people acquire large numbers of possessions, seemingly of little value, without wanting to discard them. What differentiates the collector from the human squirrel, however, is that the hoarder's life is impaired, whereas the collector's life is enhanced by the habit. Hoarders never catalogue the junk they acquire. The collector invests time and effort in creating a cross-referenced archive for their precious possessions. "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." It is because of this underlying order that the collection accrues value. Without context, without a story, the museum is reduced to glass cases of worthless bottle caps.
Museums, galleries and exhibitions tend to have an air of stuffiness about them. Stale air, dead displays. A museum of natural history appears by its nature to be less alive than a zoo would be. The animals strike the same perennial pose at your next visit, their pelts fading to regulation office colours as time passes on. Insects pinned to tiny labels do not crawl away. Many specimens on display were originally collected by explorers long dead; nothing new to see here, move along. The fact is that most of the action in a museum happens in the basement... Unseen by casual visitors, behind doors marked NO ENTRY or STAFF ONLY, lies unspace inhabited by scores of curators, researchers, historians and scientists. Labs are squashed into the alcoves under staircases, microscopes are arrayed on low benches in rooms unadorned except for the exposed plumbing and air conditioning conduits that lead to the planetarium and the new IMAX theatre above. It is here where the people who love museums even more than the rest of us perform their magic. Collect, preserve, document, exhibit, display. It is here where the stories are teased out of the objects. It is here where that most human of attributes - value - is conferred to lifeless objects.
Images: left, contemporary jewellery from Lucca Preziosa, displayed in the Museu Tèxtil i d'Indumentària, Barcelona; and right, ancient Chinese perfume bottles displayed in the British Museum, London.