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16 January 2008

Object Lessons

They started switching off all the lights. Green EXIT signs glowed in the twilight and the acrylic eyes of birds in the dioramas followed us as we walked across the parquet floor, past a two-headed skink in formaldehyde and the articulated jaws of a coelacanth. Riding home in the backseat, my young cerebral cortex drowning in globular Zulu pottery and the delicate egg cases of paper nautilus, I realized that I love museums.

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.

21 comments:

Vesper said...

awesome photos!

Shimmerrings said...

What, indeed, is it that causes us to collect. I collect books, half of which I haven't read. I feel the need to build a small library, just in case. And... dishes, most of which I don't need. White ones, to be specific, very thick stoneware types... or nice earthy tones. Don't even get me started on coffee cups. Just how many "favorite" coffee cups does one need, anyways?... and, of course, those must be heavy thick ones, too, or else you miss half the pleasure in drinking hot drinks... like coffee and herbal teas... or rich, steaming cocoa. And I like vases... again, sturdy types with earthiness to them. I like "vessels" I suppose one might say... things that hold or transport stuff. Is a book considered a vessel? Maybe I appreciated strength, things ancient, that go on forever.

Claire said...

You have touched upon one of my favorite things too. Every summer I visit my mom in Wash.D.C. I spend plenty of time at the Smithsonian (all of them!). I love art museums as well. I spent a summer in high school touring art museums in Europe. Fantastic experience, but so long ago. After all the children are through college, I hope to go again.
One museum I don't like: modern art, because I think most of those collections are junk.

morbidneko said...

marry me? okay?

Inarticulate Fumblings said...

O.k... if I'm totally honest, I'm not a museum person. In fact, you can throw art galleries in there too. I cracked off the Louvre in 45 minutes. After all, we had a lunch reservation.

Angela said...

I love your analogy between "collectors" and "hoarders". What makes one person able to create something beautiful and lasting out of their passion and another person just get stuck with a bunch of junk? There's a great lesson in there. Now, if I can just figure out what it is. :) Fantastic.

Church Lady said...

Collectors vs hoarders--I agree with your distinction.
I was at a book club last year where the topic was the building of a Louvre in Abu Dhabi. The French Louvre had agreed to lend and sell some of its contents. From the basement!
I had no idea about museum basements unti that conversation.
Fascinating!

Lisa said...

Beautiful post and your photos are fantastic. I've often wondered about collectors and what makes them tick. Collections of unusual objects are particularly fascinating. I finally learned to visit museums alone. There's no way not to try a companion's patience otherwise.

SleekPelt said...

Hello, Teoh. I liked the "collectors and hoarders" thing too. I once collected something: baseball cards. Then I sold them to buy food when I was in college. It was worth it.

arcadia said...

aaarrrggghhhh...dit was 'n beautiful post, een van die mooiste wat jy nog geskryf het. was jy al by die polisiemusuem in pta? niks soos 'n grusame versameling misdaad paraphernalia om die makabere siel te voed nie -

singleton said...

"It is here where the stories are teased out of the objects"....

here's where the fairy tale becomes a love story"

sonkind said...

Jou eerste sin het my vir 'n oomblik laat dink jy is in Suid-Afrika, met ons Eskom kragkrisis, LOL!

Ek is self net so gek na museums, kan vir ure wegraak daarin. In kaapstad se museum verbeel ek my altyd ek het in daardie tyd gelewe.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Woah, so many comments when your back is turned!

vesper: thanks, I knew they'd be useful someday.

shimmerings: I'd love to collect cased glass, but I'd need a proper cabinet to display it in. I've actually writtend about collections before. It's one of my favourite obsessions.

claire: I'll be in Washington at the end of February! I'm quite excited about seeing the Smithsonian. One of the world's largest collections of, erm... collections.

morbidneko: No.

IF: This post is about the other kind of food. Guess I'll never be a tropical beach kind of tourist, always a dusty alley one.

angela: I think the one's fueled by sloth (or it could be greed, some kind of cardinal sin, anyway) and the other is fueled by passion (or it could be envy, some kind of cardinal sin, anyway). ;)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

:

church lady: The Louvre is selling some of its collection?! How's that even possible. Well, unless they're Middle Eastern artifacts, 'cause then it's only fair...

lisa: I like visiting art galleries alone. It's pretty cool to visit the British Museum with an archaeologist by your side!

sleekpelt: sounds like a fair trade. I could sell my orchid collections quite easily - you can nver amass all the orchids in the world anyway, and you can easily replace them with superior hybrids. My Depeche Mode records on the other hand... well, those you'd have to pry from my cold dead hands.

arcadia: ek wou daar gaan inloer net voor ek weg is, maar hulle was besig om dit te restoureer - glo vir jare al. Wanneer laas was jy daar?

singleton: True words indeed.

sonkind: My eerste sin is my herinneringe aan die Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg. Die SA Museum in Kaapstad is pragtig: sommige mense werk daar.

*dalyn said...

...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... this is SUCH a fine line. hubby & i teater-totter on it daily. vintage hangtags, postcards, staplers, clocks, discontinued sodas with floaty things in them... you name it we collect it or at least have plans to. a close friend of ours collects turn of the century hardware, bathroom plumbing, tubs, toilets and sinks. you can imagine what his 4000 sq foot building basement looks like. i pray we never get that bad... great post! *dalyn

Shimmerrings said...

Thanks, I hopped right over and read the bit. I couldn't agree more whole-heartedly, regarding the books that we collect. A very large portion of my paperbacks are collected from places like flea markets. I don't need expensive books, because I'm going to be reading them in the bath, getting the pages splashed with bathwater, while drinking coffee, lying out in the sun on the grass, and I'm often found marking significant and/or otherwise moving passages with pen or highlighter. My kids used to walk real fast when they saw a stack of books, hoping I wouldn't see them, because they knew mom would be held up there forever. It is like finding a diamond in the sand, when I see a bunch of old, long ago forgotten books... paperback, or hardback. And the junkier the store, the more precious the find, because they don't really know what they have and don't really care, so long as you give them their 25 cents, or a dollar. One of the loveliest books of poetry I have ever found, was in just such a place, and it was inscribed and signed, by the author, and what beautiful thoughts he did convey, just in that, alone. It's a real treasure, to me. I believe I may have paid $2.00 for it, surely not more than $4.00. I've been looking at purchasing more of his works from places online. He's very obscure, and yet precious. The copyrite is, I believe, 1925. I get ya on the thing you say, that a book collection is like a portrait (or something in that order) of the owner. I can't help but look all around, when I'm in someone else's home, and love nothing more than scanning the titles of their books. And this makes an interesting subject for a post: The Books On My Shelf... hmmmm... lol.

Inarticulate Fumblings said...

Quick question that has nothing to do with this post.

Dalyn got me a little phalaenopsis for my housewarming 2 years ago. It's doing really well but over the past year it started shooting out all of those ugly, gnarly roots everywhere.

Being the princess that I am, I want to cut them all off to make it look 'pretty.'

Will I kill it if I do that?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Ugly roots?! You cretin. ;) Why cut them off? They're a sure sign that the plant is healthy and doing well. I can't believe you want to cut them off. Professional growers hope and pray for masses of roots, as these allow for good flowering. Potted Phalaenopsis are actually grown in an unnatural position - the plants often grow 'upside-down' on trees, and use those beautiful silvery roots to adhere to the bark and extract moisture from the humid jungle air. They're a thing of beauty, and you should be proud of them.

But... if I can't convince you, just ensure that the plant still has sufficient green roots inside the pot to keep it going; however, removing some air roots might only induce the plant to send out more...

Inarticulate Fumblings said...

I should have known better than to ask you that... :)

Guy Flaneur said...

"Inarticulate fumblings" may have seen kikis on the phals and not roots.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Thanks for your input, guy. I seriously doubt that, though - keikis on Phals generally form on the spent inflorescences, and very infrequently directly from the stem. And they look like baby plantlets, not "those ugly, gnarly roots" as IF said. Also, keiki formation is often a sign of unsuitable growing conditions, and IF described his plant as "doing really well".