Collecting vs. Hoarding: One Collection Manager’s Perspective

As a young child I was encouraged to collect. Both my mother and father had collected stamps as children and my mother wanted to pass on the legacy of treasured albums with dog eared pages and handwritten labels. But I was a child of the eighties. Stamps were boring. I preferred to collect erasers. I was passionate about collecting novelty, brightly coloured, scented, strictly unused, pencil erasers. I had a tall glass jar in which they were stored and I would regularly tip them all out and examine them one by one. I loved them. I showed them proudly to visitors.

This is not my personal collection; mine was lost somewhere between childhood and puberty. But this collection has many of thesame items.

This is not my personal collection; mine was lost somewhere between childhood and puberty. But this collection has many of thesame items.

One of the erasers in my collection was stolen from my friend Rebecca. It remains to this day the only thing I have ever stolen. I took it because from my perspective, she hadn’t valued it or appreciated how wonderful it was. The illicit rubber was an irresistible red cartoon heart,with an arrow through it, and with moving goggly eyes. The theft made me feel like a sinner for years but not enough to relinquish it back into Rebecca’s irresponsible care.

The rubbers were my loot, my personal wealth; the pride of my childhood. Unlike stamps of the world my erasers had little educational value, but they did achieve another of the virtues of collecting: They absorbed my attention. Kept me quiet. Gave me a sense of accomplishment.

As a young teenager my mother felt compelled to instill in me the value of hard work. She arranged for me to clean an old ladies house on the weekends. The old lady was a hoarder, so cleaning involved vacuuming a route that winded through mountains of stuff in the rooms. I recall removing a dead mouse from under her bed. Her house made an impression on me because of the intriguing hoard, the dusty/decomposing smell, the overwhelming piles, the narrow access and the hunched-over lady with a cane who lived amongst it. The impact of my cleaning was negligible. I realise (only in retrospect) that my job never was to clean, it was really only to ensure the old lady hadn’t fallen, or been crushed to death by a sliding pile of her possessions.

Now, as an adult, I work as a Collection Manager and nothing gives me the heebie-jeebies quite like a hoard. Collections delight me, hoards horrify me.

Many museums have a problematic cache of items within their collections. Museums which have been around for a long time almost certainly have experienced an irresistible opportunity for a curator to accept a donation, or acquire a private collection, at a time when there was simply not the staff available to process (accession) it. During these eras objects came into museums only to be piled in a store room, with the intention of being addressed at a later date. Should this pile be joined by additional lots, and should time pass, staff leave, stores move; something akin to a hoard would form. Museums call it: ‘Backlog’. Any Collection Manager worth their salt will relentlessly work away at backlog, because left unaddressed it is merely a heritage-hoard.

In 2013 Te Ara  reported ‘New Zealand has one of the highest numbers of museums per capita in the world’with approximately one museum for every 9,500 people.A similar phenomenon is afoot in America. In 2014 the Washington Post reported: “There are roughly 11,000 Starbucks locations in the United States, and about 14,000 McDonald's restaurants. But combined, the two chains don't come close to the number of museums in the U.S., which stands at a whopping 35,000”. These statistics astound me.

I applaud the drive of small towns, groups and organisations that proactively preserve their own unique history, as sometimes agile private collectors accomplish what slow moving museums bound in policy and process, cannot. In some cases, visionary collectors successfully save culturally significant objects from being completely lost or destroyed. But most small museums have next to no financial resources, and are dependent upon the good will of volunteers. Arid conditions to nurture visionaries.

As a professional Collection Manager I have a thorough comprehension of the cost associated with properly looking after a collection so that it is maintained and accessible for future generations. Small museums simply can’t afford to display and store their objects in a way that guarantees no further incremental damage; they do not have the resources to invest in automatic fire protection systems or natural disaster mitigation. Volunteer hours are often limited, meaning physical access, knowledge and information are restricted; documenting, describing, cataloguing may or may not be undertaken. Depending on the quality of the space the collection occupies, damp, mould, seasonal temperature change, UV light, acidic or inappropriate mounts,insects and rodents, may all slowly be diminishing the quality and value of the collection. Even with philanthropy, bequests, community benevolence, public funding programmes like Creative New Zealand, and wonderful educational organisations like National Services Te Paerangi, the sheer number of museums in New Zealand is unsustainable.

As a Collection Manager this really troubles me. Partly because I don’t want wonderful objects to be lost, partly because I don’t want so much good will and effort to be misdirected, and partly because I dread being called on as a collection professional when these museums buckle under the strain, close their doors, and need someone to come in and decide to accession or dispose of the objects they have. I feel a little like that young girl vacuuming the track between piles in the old ladies house, only the intrigue has gone. I now only feel the danger and the futility of the situation.

I do not have personal collections anymore. Working professionally with collections everyday completely sates my desire to handle and appreciate wonderful things. However,my understanding of the responsibilities and consequences associated with collections has curbed my enthusiasm. Collecting can be a dangerous hobby. Museums are serious business.

Like my mother before me, I want to channel my children into absorbing, quiet activities which give them a sense of accomplishment,but I will not be encouraging them to collect anything.

Not stamps.

Not even erasers.