Why Do People Collect Things?

My mother-in-law Anne, who passed away last week collected Royal Doulton china figurines. She loved beautiful things and she had a curio cabinet in her livingroom where she kept her Royal Doultons.  Each woman in our family received one after her funeral. In this picture Mom is holding a figurine called Fair Lady which she received as a Christmas gift.  It was the one I inherited as a keepsake. 

Many people collect things. On a trip to Mexico we visited a woman who collected seashells and items connected with seashells. One room in her house was designated exclusively for her seashell collection.There were seashells from all over the world everywhere. The room was furnished with couches and chairs with a seashell pattern on the upholstery.There were lamps with shades covered with shells. Sculptures made of shells and books about seashells sat on the tables. Family photos in seashell- encrusted frames lined the shelves. Even the business card the woman gave me was decorated with a photo of a large shell.

People have a natural tendency to collect things. Seashells may not be their passion but whether its coins, stamps, postcards, spoons, or more bizarre things like teabags, chocolate bar wrappers or traffic signs we human beings seem inclined to be collectors. Dr. Steve Anderson, a neurologist at the University of Iowa says our need to collect may harken back to an earlier point in our evolution, since many animals hoard things, especially food.

According to Susan Pearce, author of the book Interpreting Objects and Collections one in three North Americans collects something. There are many different kinds of collections and collectors.

Some collections are souvenirs or mementos of a place. I collected earrings from almost all of the forty countries Dave and I visited in our six years of traveling. My sister and her husband have a collection of traditional painted masks from many of the countries where they have traveled. 

Some collections are gifts. For years my brother gave my mother a china plate every Mother’s Day with a message or saying about mothers on it. He hunted through antique stores and curio shops, often for weeks, until he found a plate and a design that he hadn’t already purchased. I’m sure my mother has more than twenty of these plates in her collection.  

Some collections are of practical use. A couple we taught with in Hong Kong who are world travelers, collect Starbucks coffee mugs from every place they visit. There are Starbucks franchises in fifty-five countries. Our friends don’t have fifty-five different mugs but certainly enough for a fairly large group of coffee drinking guests.

The desire to learn new things can also be the impetus behind a collection. Dave and I have a friend who collects military artifacts from the World Wars. He has uniforms, machinery, vehicles, sheet music, maps, books, flags and photographs. His collection has helped him learn a great deal about military history. He came to see us in Hong Kong and visited military museums and graveyards there. 

Some people collect things because of their monetary value. I used to work with a woman who collected Barbie Dolls. She assured me someday she would sell her collection and make a mint of money.

Susan Pearce says there are some collections which she terms ‘magic’. There is no rhyme or reason for collecting them but they have a certain appeal or attraction for the collector. I imagine this might apply to my brother’s collection of snow globes or a friend’s large collection of Superman memorabilia

Collections can remind us of positive experiences and important people in our lives. They can help us learn new things. They can be practical or magical. Collections can enrich our lives.

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