In A Rationale for Collecting the author, G. Thomas Tanselle opens his argument with “..one’s sense of self-awareness is increased by being able to place one’s own endeavors in a framework that comprehends the full panoply of related pursuits.” Collecting, hoarding, and accumulating objects helps each individual better understand their relationship to other producers and makers of the past and present. Through objects we can understand proximity to others and history. And collecting, especially non-utilitarian items—objects, images, people, experiences—is a natural inclination. Tanselle argues that this habit “may be seen as required for establishing a sense of human identity and defining one’s place in the world.” A Rationale for Collecting describes the personal habits of collecting. As a curator, I’m curious about the core evolutionary and psychological desire in a museum’s collection. Cultural institutions thrived off their collections and collecting habits for generations. Now, museums like the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York feel antiquated utilizing their archives. At the core of Tanselle’s reasoning is the idea that collecting has an element of chance involved. Museum’s collections are the accumulation of cultural identity, so how can a guest unearth and discover, with an element of surprise, their own sense of self in a museum? The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian in New York City, is an example of how chance has been incorporated into an visitor’s experience.

Typically, you’ll find on the spectrum of possible collections hoarder at one end and connoisseur at the other. “It is, in fact, quite conventional to think of ‘collections’ as different from ‘accumulations’, but it is not very satisfactory, because it skirts the question of how, or by whom, the coherence of a ‘collection’ is to be determined.” These words—hoarding, collecting, accumulating—hint at several distinguishing factors in their definitions: 

  • who is acquiring the objects?
  • why are they being acquired?
  • how or who is determining their cultural or commercial value?

I enjoy Tanselle’s definition of collecting because it makes everyone a collector. I see antique hunting in a flea market akin to an archeologist digging through 2,000 years of accumulated dust to find a pottery shard. Artists, archivists, curators and archeologists are all searching for the value in objects, either through making the work, collecting it, or discovering it. Colin Renfrew is his book Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archeologists draws connections between artists and social scientists. These seemingly disparate disciplines are asking some of the same fundamental questions and utilizing similar research strategies. Renfrew concludes that contemporary artists “seek to understand the world by acting upon it”. I would argue that collectors, curators and archeologists share this research method, and a insatiable craving for chance. 

The desire to find out what will show up next impels the gambler to play one games after another untiringly and drives the collectors, with unceasing eagerness, to proceed from one antique shop, or other likely source, to another. Chance fascinates us not only because it produces endless variety but also because we feel that there must be a way to tame it, to pluck from it some reassurances of order. The television program Antiques Roadshow, in which people bring their possessions to experts for evaluation, illustrates the randomness in they distribution of objects—and the fact that such randomness is a significant part of the interest the show hold for its participants and its viewers. A large portion of those who brings items for inspection would not consider themselves “collectors”…

Tanselle’s reasoning behind the drive to collect is rooted in the fundamental need to create order, and then coupled with the gambler’s desire for chance, we’re looking at deep, almost primal impulses. Now compare that feeling to what curators and arts professional call “museum fatigue”. This is that type of exhaustion you get from walking place to place, pausing, thinking about what you’re seeing, and then moving on. Museum fatigue is real, even with life-long museum professionals. Libraries, museums, and archives can be exciting and enticing experiences, so how do we tap into our fundamental impulses for chance and order? By expanding the idea of who gets to collect from a museum’s collection. 

The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City, reopened in 2015 after a multi-million dollar historic preservation and renovation project. The most intuitive and innovative update for the museum is their newly designed visitor engagement program called “the pen.” This stylus becomes a visitor’s constant companion and personal docent throughout your entire museum experience. The pen is now your museum diary and digital collector—visitor’s become producers and collectors themselves. 

Explore the digitized collection on large touchscreen tables; draw your own wallpaper designs in the Immersion Room; solve real-world design problems in the Process Lab; discover how the Carnegie Mansion worked as house; and understand how donors have influenced the museum’s collection over the last 100 years…The Collection Browser is available on seven tables installed throughout all floors of the museum, giving you access to thousands of objects in the museum’s collection, including those currently on view in the galleries…

This new form of visitor engagement doesn’t stop once you’ve left the museum, and this is where there future of museum’s and their ancient collections are going. As a visitor returns the pen to the kiosk and is heading out the door, they are given a website address. This dedicated URL has capture your unique experience at the museum that day. The pen through QR codes, touchscreens, and interactive media tables, allowed you to “save” and “collect” any experience or object on view or in the Cooper Hewitt’s archive. Visitors can return again and again, to keep adding to their personal collection. 

At the core of the pen were 7 design principles: (1) not a barrier to entry, (2)extension of the content, (3) belongs in the museum, (4) encourages discovery, (5) part of an ecosystem, (6) context of use, and (7) direct manipulation. Institutions trying to breathe life into their collections and reinvigorate visitor engagement need to keep these core factors mind.

The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum found a way to reincorporate their historic archive of design objects with a public’s want for intimacy in large institutions. And the museum did it with what is typically the stuffiest aspect of any large institution: their collection.  Visitors at the museum, with help from the pen, have been able to as Tanselle suggested, “place one’s own endeavors in a framework that comprehends the full panoply of related pursuits.”

Tanselle, G. Thomas. "A Rational for Collecting." Studies in Bibliography Vol. 51 (1998): JSTOR. Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40372043>.

Renfrew, Colin. Figuring It Out: What Are We? Where Do We Come From? The Parallel Vision of Artists and Archaeologists. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

"The New Cooper Hewitt Experience”. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, 13 June 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://www.cooperhewitt.org/new-experience/>.

"The Pen Process." Design Journal, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Vol. 1 (2014)