Beetle & Byte


Keepers, Collectors, and Hoarders

Pen collection of Betty Schwartz and Alexander Wilensky. Photo by Alexander Wilensky.

From the New York Times archives, I stumbled upon an article celebrating and revealing the culture of collecting. The article was in response to an exhibit called The Keeper that was hosted at the New Museum in 2016. By some measure of good fortune, I was able to visit the exhibit at the time and I still think of it to this day.

There’s no mystery as to why the exhibit resonated so strongly with me. I’m a collector and I come from a lineage of collectors. I’ve had many collections throughout my life, starting in childhood with the toys you get in fast food kids meals, troll dolls, antique dolls from around the world, swanky swigs, and much more. My family gave gifts around our respective collections, which were often animal themed. For my grandmother it changed frequently and included chickens, railroad paraphernalia, anthropomorphized vegetables, and so many others I can’t recall. In addition to a collector she was also an antique dealer. This made it easy to accumulate and also to purge. She was always about the pursuit more than about the objects and so she could relinquish them more easily.

For my mother, I don’t think she was ever particularly sentimental around her collections. I suspect she collected because everyone else did and because it gave her daughter something easy to gift. That said, she easily amassed supplies related to whatever craft she was invested in at the time including yarns and beads.

At present moment, my largest collection is ornaments. I have at least 2,000 and within that I have subcollections of insects, animals, and pop culture. For all those ornaments, I probably have—at most—one Santa Claus and maybe one snowman. I have also amassed a lifetime of ephemera. Everything from notes passed in class during middle school to employee name tags to movie stubs and travel postcards. There are also the real photo postcards I collect of people and their pets throughout history. Of all the things I accumulate, my 200 or so plants are the ones that encroach on my living space the most, but then, that’s the point.

While everyone has different objects they collect as well as different reasons for collecting, for me they’ve both evolved over time. In the beginning, I was modeling my family’s behavior and it gave me a sense of belonging. At other times it was an extension of identity. At times, it was an outlet for stress, anxiety, or depression. These days, it’s mostly about appreciating craftsmanship, beauty, and what makes me happy. I don’t hold onto things as a completionist anymore. I hold onto them because I enjoy them and because I enjoy the pursuit of finding them.