The Creative Power of Collections

4 November 2015

Following up her earlier post about collectors as “facilitators of curiosity”, author Anna Faherty explores the creative power of collections beyond the objects themselves.

I’ve written previously about the role of collections in creating wonder, knowledge and understanding. But collections – and the actions of gathering, organising and displaying them – also have the power to produce tangible things. From Renaissance apothecaries to contemporary artists and curators, collections may provide information, inspiration and the raw ingredients to create something new.

You don’t have to look far to find people citing their collections as sources of inspiration: American actor Tom Hanks is working on an anthology of short stories inspired by his collection of typewriters; fashion designer Ralph Lauren produced an eyewear range inspired by his collection of vintage cars; and supermodel Helena Christensen has developed a Kipling handbag line inspired by her collection of photographs.

At a more detailed level, potter Edmund de Waal’s bestselling book The Hare with Amber Eyes tells the story of a quest to investigate the history of a collection. When his uncle left him 264 pocket-sized wood and ivory carvings, De Waal was driven to explore the relationship between these Japanese netsuke and the places they had been.

 Could you be inspired by the history of this netsuke, a mischievous racoon dog who carries his own enlarged scrotum?
[object Object]

Could you be inspired by the history of this netsuke, a mischievous racoon dog who carries his own enlarged scrotum? Click on the image to find out more.

Like these modern-day collectors, at the turn of the twentieth century Henry Wellcome was using his own collection as a source of creative ideas. Frances Larson, writing in her book An Infinity of Things, shares tales of Wellcome sending his staff pencil tins, cigarette cases, biscuit boxes and rolls of chocolate foil, all accompanied by instructions about how these might be applied to designs for Burroughs Wellcome products. Wellcome based many of his brands on classical figures – from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome – and acquired books on penmanship and typography to inform the graphic layouts of his promotional material.

 Spot the difference 1: Seventeenth-century etching of Mercury and a section from an 1880s Burroughs Wellcome price list (from Wellcome Images).
[object Object]

Spot the difference 1: Seventeenth-century etching of Mercury and a section from an 1880s Burroughs Wellcome price list (from Wellcome Images).

 Spot the difference 2: Cast of a fourth-century marble and a 1920s Kepler Malt Extract blotter (from Wellcome Images).
[object Object]

Spot the difference 2: Cast of a fourth-century marble and a 1920s Kepler Malt Extract blotter (from Wellcome Images).

While we may not know how Wellcome’s designers and engineers worked with the trinkets and prints their boss delivered to them, we do know how one of Britain’s greatest artists took inspiration from a collection. Sculptor Henry Moore collected pebbles, bones, flint stones and other natural forms in a study near his Hertfordshire studio. Here he spent time rummaging and pondering, combining and imagining different shapes. Moore handled these artefacts and cast plaster copies of some of them – which he might then add to and change – as a way of turning out forms he said he “could never have thought of the day before”. Moore’s collection, therefore, provided both inspiration and a set of materials he could use to prototype new sculptures.

Textile designer and poet William Morris also used his collection as both inspiration and ingredient. Morris purchased medieval manuscripts, early printed books and apothecaries’ herbals (many of which were later acquired by Henry Wellcome) as source material for his work. But he also collected ancient manuals to help produce vegetable dyes for his beautiful wallpapers and, after setting up his own small press, published content taken from books and manuscripts held in his library, as well as his own writing.

 Example of a collection of fifteenth-century woodcuts from Ulm and Augsburg, selected by William Morris and later acquired by Henry Wellcome (Wellcome Library). Click on the image to see the whole volume.
[object Object]

Example of a collection of fifteenth-century woodcuts from Ulm and Augsburg, selected by William Morris and later acquired by Henry Wellcome (Wellcome Library). Click on the image to see the whole volume.

The concept of collections providing more than just passive inspiration goes back centuries. While many Renaissance apothecaries busied themselves building astonishing wonder rooms, they used their collections of plants and natural rarities as the raw ingredients to make remedies. By combining and observing their collections they moved from generating new knowledge to producing practical physical preparations for customers.

 Like the Renaissance apothecaries before them, these eighteenth-century pharmacists are employing their collection to manufacture a prescription.
[object Object]

Like the Renaissance apothecaries before them, these eighteenth-century pharmacists are employing their collection to manufacture a prescription.

Three hundred years later, American collage artist Joseph Cornell used his own collection to construct wooden boxes reminiscent of apothecaries’ cabinets. One series of these, entitled Pharmacy, comprised jars containing items like shells, seeds, marbles, swizzle sticks and fragments of maps and newspaper clippings. Cornell’s gathered engravings, ephemera and books might also be compiled into dossiers of fictional characters. Like Henry Wellcome, Cornell made little distinction between high and low art, or even between art and science, and it is his diverse collecting habits that give his pieces such a unique feel.

Looking at, organising, combining and displaying his collection sat at the heart of Cornell’s creative process. He was self-taught and the process of bringing items in his collection together acted as a metaphorical sketchbook, where, like Henry Moore in his studio, he tested out concepts and discovered new ideas. Cornell himself linked this “creative filing, creative arranging” to the concept of “joyous creation”.

 Joseph Cornell combined star charts like this with glasses, shells and balls in his shadow box 'Planet Set'.
[object Object]

Joseph Cornell combined star charts like this with glasses, shells and balls in his shadow box ‘Planet Set’.

The astute reader might link Cornell’s organising and displaying of collected items to the concept of curating. Personally, as someone who works in both the traditional home of curating (museums) and one of the creative industries desperate to appropriate and apply the term to its own practices (publishing), I’m always nervous when talking about “curation” as a creative activity. However, it’s fair to say that I subscribe to the French art critic Felix Feneon’s view of curators as “catalysts”, or invisible agents that facilitate the combination of things to make something new, just as Henry Moore’s rummaging and moulding or Cornell’s organising and assembling did.

Catalysts, of course, only make an impact when they are in the presence of something else. Curators need collections (as well as their own catalytic powers) to fuel their creative output and, while it’s impossible to test the hypothesis, I think it’s probably fair to say that we might never have heard of William Morris, Henry Moore or Joseph Cornell (recently the subject of a major Royal Academy exhibition) if they hadn’t shared an impulse to collect. What’s more, Henry Wellcome might never have succeeded as a businessman (and therefore built his ultimately massive collection) if he hadn’t used early acquired objects to drive his company’s product and marketing design. For all these individuals, and for many others, the value of collections isn’t simply about facilitating curiosity, it’s also about developing creative processes and fuelling creative production.

Launch our digital story,The Collectors.

Anna is an award-winning researcher, writer and teacher. She collaborates with global publishers and major museums on exhibition, digital and print projects and is the author of our Reading Room Companion.