Updated: Nov 25, 2020
The love of collecting and what's under the blanket
Humans are as diverse as their experiences. Even though many seem to fall into categories socially constructed, still every person is special in their own way. However there are some behaviours that are not only universal, but have been part of humanity for a very long time. Collecting is definitely one of them.
Indications of a collecting habit date back to the ancient times and has always been one of the factors that drove economy. In more recent history for example, the need of the wealthy, during the colonial era, to collect exotic items and materials, played a significant part in the world trade of the time. Affecting this way, world politics and culture in ways that were most of the times good for the collectors but terrible for the indigenous peoples.
Collecting seems to be very common among people of high financial status. And how could it not be? One of the reasons for an item to be considered collectible is its rareness, which consequently raises its price. So for the wealthy and powerful, ownership of such items translates into prestige. Most of the wonderful artworks found in museums today were actually personal collections of very wealthy art enthusiasts.
David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690)
The Art Collection of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Brussels.
An expensive collectible whose value does not decrease, but rather increases over time, is more than just part of a collection, it is a financial asset. In this case, the relationship between collector and collectible can sometimes take a different approach. Some people do not collect for the sake of the subject of their collection, but with the intention of generating profit. Common in the art world, the professional collector, instead of buying for the love of art and only selling in rare occasions, makes calculated purchases that will ensure profit in a future sale.
Having pride in the ownership of items with high financial value or collecting for a living are just two of the many reasons we seem to be so keen about collecting. The main drive seems to be emotional and under that umbrella lie countless reasons that are all little windows into the human condition.
Rocks and minerals, items of the same colour, character merchandise, real cars, miniature cars, stickers, coins, artwork, old photos, vinyl records, dolls, stamps, game consoles and books are only a few of the most commonly collected items. Then there's things that don’t strike as the collectible type that we’ve come across reading online about, like backscratchers, water bottle labels and traffic cones.
Every collector has his own story and it’s in that very story that his or her collecting activity is manifested. The emotional bond between the person collecting and the items collected is almost always fused with emotions that use this bond as a way to stay alive. Our memory doesn't only store events but also the recollection of feelings. At the same time our feelings can affect how memory is stored and recalled.
Bringing back a memory that makes us feel content, happy or safe is a coping mechanism. That explains why many nostalgic collections are derived from the collectors past. The trigger here is the emotional impact the subject had on the collector when it was first introduced into his or her life.
Collection as in Communication
What’s more natural and soothing about emotional states than sharing them?! Trading, buying, showcasing and overall appreciation of both collectible and collectors can bring people together. From participating in small local gatherings, to international conventions, entering a fandom is like entering a realm of peers where people feel a sense of belonging and mutual understanding.
Getting to meet people with the same or similar interests is socially and emotionally fulfilling. Through that mutual interest, people make friends, pass their time by doing something that makes them happy and at the same time get the chance to further their collections. Whether it happens online or in conventions, when collectors get together, they can have access to more items they can buy or trade, satisfying this way both the social aspect of collecting and the physical, which is acquiring more collectibles.
There’s always a bad twist however, an unhealthy kind of collecting. Whether it’s because of an underlying mental health condition, emotional distress or anxiety, sometimes people accumulate a behaviour called compulsive hoarding.
There are very distinguishable differences between collectors and hoarders however, as the latter keep items that are useless, like old promotional mail, but also of little emotional importance. Things keep piling up, often making basic functions such as using the kitchen or the bathroom become difficult or even impossible. It’s not about the items as much as it is about the inability to let go.
But what makes a collection?
Certainly more than two items. And is it just about the number? Having several hairbrushes in your bathroom doesn’t mean you have a collection but owning four vintage cars is considered a collection. Therefore, what makes a collection, could be intention. Having way too many pairs of socks isn’t a collection, but having a fair amount of socks that you maybe don’t wear or wear with caution because of the theme printed on them, or because they are vintage, is a collection.
Items that only have decorative purposes are easy to identify as collectibles but a collection can also have utility. Jay Leno maintains his collection of cars and motorcycles in functioning condition. And a collector of gaming consoles does play with his collection. So we could suggest that, what makes a utility item collectible is when the importance of its mere existence exceeds the need of its utility purpose.
As for the amount of items in a collection, this too differs from collector to collector. Some collections are about the numbers, others about the rarity or condition. Some about the antiquity and others about completion of a series of items. It can be cheap, expensive or found items. There can be three or three thousand in a collection. The entire collection can fit in a pocket, a warehouse or even a hard drive.
The thrill of the hunt
No matter the size or the value, what everyone shares when collecting, is the thrill of searching for the next item. That alone makes it an activity that includes anticipation and excitement. Learning about the subject becomes a prerogative and depending on what it is, expertise on it could mean acquiring serious historical and scientific knowledge.
Applying learnt knowledge towards a hunt to acquisition of items that tap into emotional memory is a cycle that gives a sense of order in the collectors life. Being able to affect and build our reality in a way that helps our mental state is a major stress relief. In a world that constantly attacks us with anxiety and disorder, being in a position to create a sense of personal order by maintaining a stable source of good feelings, is a healthy way to cope.
But we are not the only living thing that collects. Remember the documentaries most of us grew up watching? Where little colourful male birds would collect dozens of same coloured objects around an intricately built nest, with the intention to impress the females. In this case the intention is impressing someone else aiming to reproduce and there’s no personal emotional connection with the collected objects. Rather their utility as “being impressive” is more important than their existence to the male bird. But the ability to have a specific mindset when searching for the objects like the colour blue for example, acquiring them and placing them in the nest in a decorative manner all show an inherent ability and need to seek with intention.
This inherent need to seek and collect with intention which we humans also share, has led to many theories about why we really do that. One of them being that, collecting dates back to the hunter-gatherer era of our species, where collecting roots, nuts, fruit and anything that could be stored and carried along was vital. That resembles a little the bird behaviour with the fancy nest. Even though both behaviours may seem to share characteristics with modern day collecting, the intention is strictly utilitarian. Therefore, the explanation covers only part of he reason, not the entirety.
More recent studies of the neurobiology of the brain aiming to explain ancient behavioural patterns have a much deeper explanation for collecting. We seemingly have the need to search our surroundings and we instinctively investigate our environment, trying to make sense of the world around us. Curiosity is a behaviour that was integral for the evolution of our species. The curiosity that drives us to understand the world pushes us forward into conquering new knowledge, gaining security and creating safety for ourselves and the people close to us.
In other words, we are wired to create a safe space of order and security by trying to understand the world, and we achieve that through investigation. A basic impulse of our primitive brain, which uses a behaviour like collecting as its manifestation. So collecting dolls in the 21st century may have some similarities with collecting seeds during the hunter-gatherer era of our species, but rather than the first being the evolution of the latter, both behaviours originate from the instinctive need to search and understand the world around us. And through that understanding we manage to shape it.
By studying relics we get a glimpse into the human condition of our ancestors. Due to technological advancement, our descendants, however, will have a much larger and more detailed account of our present. And since the things we cherish to collect, mirror our emotional memory, we are in our turn leaving a mark about what it is like to be us.
Thanks for reading and keep collecting
And if you've never done it before, give it a try!