Watching the collectors

Only Collect: ‘Benjamin’sUnpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting” may explain the architect’s obsessions with books, but in the post-print era, what do we hoard?’. Mimi Zeiger in Domus on the state of the contemporary collector and the outlet for their obsession. Collecting has evolved: ‘But given the spate of books, exhibitions, Tumblrs, and websites that document and compile material appearing within the discipline and beyond, I suggest that the archive itself has become not a mode of collection, but the thing in itself to be collected.’

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There’s an emerging consensus about what digital collections mean; i.e., it’s much more than simply assembling a set of objects. Increasingly, it appears to be about presentation, a form of composition. In many respects this presentation seems no different from the assemblages of objects that characterised the Victorian treasure houses and private museums, where typologies and materials trumped more complex data like location, function and date. It also feels related to Benjamin’s statement about possession of the thing: ‘For inside him there are spirits, or at least little genii, which have seen to it that for a collector – and I mean a real collector, a collector as he ought to be – ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects’.

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But could this possession be usurped simply by the mode of display? Rob Walker’s Fun Stuff, an article on ‘web sites that collect stuff so that you don’t have to’ pretty much sums up the evolving idea of digital hoarding, with particular reference to Things Organized Neatly and last year’s A Collection a Day. Walker writes, ‘It has become a cliché to talk of “curation” as the great skill of the info-saturated online world, but probably what matters here is the overt display of that skill — the de facto announcement that someone is in charge. After too many years when stuff seemed to rule many lives, these things have been culled, sorted and mastered.’ (see, for example, The Bloggy, Bloggy dew, with its subtitle that ‘it’s not hoarding, it’s curating!’), as well as our many previous posts on the subject).

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While such collection blogs also evoke the great Modernist love of order, an idea expanded by Alexandra Lange in her piece Neat Freaks on Design Observatory (‘Things Organized Neatly is images of just what it sounds like. But within that rubric, an amazing number of different things: desks, ingredients, bookshelves, etc. I realize I like it so much because it continues the essence of the modernist project, organizing people and their things into grids, but digitally.’), Walker ultimately concludes that sifting through these blogs, photostreams and tumblrs is a way of consuming without effort: ‘Best of all, we don’t even have to deal with these collections as physical things; we can simply enjoy them as digital presentations. It is everything we love about stuff — but without the stuff. In a reversal of the desire to have your cake and eat it too, we can consume these lovely objects and not-have them, too.’

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Perhaps the screen has finally come to replace the catalogue raisonné and the cabinet of curiosity. Perversely, though, the aggregation and combination work undertaken by TON and its ilk strips out precisely what makes the web such an interesting place for the digital collectomaniac; the links, references and connections that turn a collection into a pursuit, rather than a static set of clicks through a single resource.

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The passions of Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers weren’t confined to one boxfile or elaborate display case. Instead, they were scattered throughout homes and institutions, books and journals. Just one facet of his potentially 50,000 strong collection has resulted in a voluminous website – England: the other within – with countless things still languishing unscanned (and therefore unknowable) in the archives. We think of the other great tributaries of collection – the worlds of Henry Wellcome, or the Science Museum stores at Blythe House, and suddenly the fascination with the object becomes a return to a physical landscape of the unknown, the collector’s equivalent of ‘here be dragons’ rather than the neat fait accompli of neat arrangements of things.

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Perhaps we’re just jealous; after all, these are territories we claim to be mapping, albeit haphazardly, inaccurately and without any professional surveying instruments. The thrill of discovery is far better encapsulated in a typical TON post than in one of these rambling, slash-punctuated chunks of text. TON exists at the intersection between life, art and raw commerce (some of the best ever neatly organised things are, of course, hero shots for complex pieces of machinery). Things can never envisage the arrival of such casual sleekness. Instead, our objects will remain piled up in a place for rummaging, rather than neat arrays of obsessional full stops.

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Other things. Flippism is the key, a weblog / Thulium, a tumblr / Dimitris Polychroniadis Inspiration Blog / Smoking Cinammon Sticks, a tumblr / Mika Savela, a tumblr / genuinely odd; London Paddington Station Plan. Very old school (via b3ta) / The Most Beautiful Swiss Books of the year 2010.

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On the arrival of Port and the selling of magazines at SC and B. Is there a place for a proper, specialist magazine publisher? Or is online distribution the only way forward? Try Counter Print for the latter / related, Grafik magazine, what happened next / farewell to Bristol. We liked the Fighter.

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Image at top of page by Marianne Viero: ‘Out of Order #1, as presented in Gallery Fons Welters, Amsterdam, August 2005, installation view: 53 library books mounted on wall, with sun-bleached covers.’ (via, of course).

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5 Responses to Watching the collectors

  1. Pat says:

    Thank you for the plug!

  2. things magazine says:

    We should really have added something about the MoOM, which is pretty much the gold standard of online museology and curation.

  3. Thanks for the link to my blog, and thanks for the many, many links you post here!

  4. Pingback: Things /// Organized /// Neatly : design history // fall 2012

  5. Pingback: Things Organized Neatly : history // fall 2012 / blog

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