Why the world needs collectors

A collector’s acquisitive nature often drives them to accumulate objects and information, knowledge and notoriety – with some extraordinary consequences. Those who collect play an important role as facilitators of curiosity. 

By Anna Faherty

  • Essay

If I ask you to think of ‘a collector’, what sort of individual do you imagine? Perhaps you envisage the reality-TV hoarders whose homes are invaded by declutterers. You might imagine a foolish tinkerer like the virtuoso in Thomas Shadwell’s 17th-century satire of the same name; among his shells, insects and birds’ nests, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack was particularly proud of his collection of bottled air from different regions of England.

Then there’s the irritable bachelor of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Antiquary’, whose dusty, disordered and overcrowded collection is mocked as “miscellaneous trumpery”. More infamously, John Fowles’s 1963 debut novel ‘The Collector’ introduced the world to a reclusive, socially awkward butterfly collector who abducts the young woman he is obsessed with. Whether foolish or deadly, these curious characters all tend to be shown investing time in worthless pursuits.

Oil painting of a physician-virtuoso in his cabinet, examining a flask of urine

There’s no doubt that collectors – whether fictional or real – fascinate people. You only need to flash the image at the top of this article of Henry Wellcome’s collection of sculpture fragments at someone for a second and the questions will gush. Why did he buy all that? What did he expect to do with it? Did it make him happy? Did he have attachment issues? Where did it all come from? What did his wife think? And so on…

Lithograph of five men looking through magnifying glasses

Yet collectors aren’t just figures of curiosity, they’re facilitators of it. Or at least they are if their acquisitions are accessible to the public. These gatherings of objects allow us to encounter things we might never otherwise stumble across – whether that’s Gimcrack’s fresh “Bury air”, the inner structures of the human body, artefacts from the other side of the world or the sex habits of a nation.

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Thanks to the work of archivists, cataloguers and conservation staff, collections even allow us to travel back to the past. Because someone once collected an object, we can now look, touch and smell the items people found, made or used centuries and millennia ago. Henry Wellcome’s collecting habits may appear to be inexplicably diverse, but today that means we have the pleasure of knowing something about the lives of midwives in classical Rome, the sick in ancient Egypt, 16th-century surgeons, Victorian strongmen and many, many more peoples of past times.

We know that the cabinets of curiosities developed by Renaissance apothecaries like Ferrante Imperato sparked amazement and wonder. But collections also help us understand the world. The books, natural curiosities and man-made rarities gathered together in Renaissance cabinets were microcosms of the known universe, which might then be studied and investigated.

Imperato and others provided the raw ingredients for cooking up knowledge at a time when scientific reasoning was advancing apace. The collections of plant specimens built up and consulted by the 18th-century botanist Carl Linnaeus also provided the fodder for his system of scientific classification – a system still in use today.

When you consider collecting as a drive to understand the world, it helps explain why the prime life stages for collecting behaviours are said to be the pre-teens (when children first attempt to make sense of, and control, the world around them) and men in their forties (experiencing a similar need, otherwise known as a midlife crisis).

Of course, collecting isn’t just about acquiring physical things. You can collect information too. In the 17th century, London haberdasher John Graunt collected, analysed and interpreted information about causes of deaths in the city. His findings debunked medical beliefs of the time, showing that plague outbreaks didn’t occur at the start of a king’s reign and that more residents left the city during a plague year than succumbed to the disease. Graunt’s work laid the foundations for the discipline of demography and was a precursor to Florence Nightingale’s life-saving efforts to collect and analyse information about deaths during the Crimean War.

Sadly, the path to all this intellectual enrichment isn’t always smooth. Collections may be fragile or temporary and collectors themselves may control access to their holdings. The 16th-century French engineer and craftsman Bernard Palissy was so keen for visitors to his cabinet to be able to instruct themselves about natural philosophy that he placed informative signs beneath each object. However, he only wanted the “most learned and curious” visitors to look, read and benefit from his collection.

Henry Wellcome wasn’t too keen on the general public either, expressing concern that any “stragglers” visiting his Historical Medical Museum might steal valuable objects. But perhaps the most disturbing obstruction to learning from collections is when access is controlled by someone else, as happened with the public anatomy museums of the 19th century.

This issue of controlling access to collections (and, by default, to the knowledge they hold) is a key theme of ‘The Collectors‘ story. While I’m as fascinated by the psychology of collecting as the next person, I’m more interested in the impact collectors have on the world. So, while my own – ahem – collection of collectors includes some quirky characters (including John Graunt and Henry Wellcome), I’ve selected people who tell us something about the power of curiosity or the control of knowledge. Whatever their own motivation for acquiring things, the decisions collectors make about selecting, displaying and caring for objects or data have implications for us all.

For me, even collectors who behave like foolish, time-wasting recluses are building collections with the power to spark or satisfy someone else’s curiosity. And even the most miscellaneous trumpery may connect us to people, places and times that we have no other means of encountering.

About the author

Photograph of Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty is a writer and lecturer who collaborates with museums on an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She is the author of the ‘Reading Room Companion’ and the editor of ‘States of Mind’, both published by Wellcome Collection.