I’ve been reading Lord Eccles’s On Collecting (1968, Longman’s, London). As a museum director (the Ownbey Herbarium at Washington State University) who works to build a collection, the implications of collecting as well as the motivations of collectors interest me. Eccles’s notions of collecting are filled with the pomp and circumstance of a grander time—you can hear Elgar playing in the background as he talks about his library (actually, I can hear Elgar—I just slipped the “Enigma” Variations into the CD player). For Eccles, building collections teaches us to cherish genius and “unifies mankind.” Building a collection places the collector in a community—the collection providing, Eccles suggests, a “tenant’s share in a larger existence.” Neither the substance of that community nor issues of access are explored by Eccles, although he does bemoan tying-up all the good stuff in museums and preventing personal acquisition. Eccles does not deny the self-indulgence of collecting: he suggests for collectors, new purchases make “us feel better, more secure, and in some way it enlarges our personality.” And he sweetly turns the self-indulgence of collecting into a virtue: collecting can “act as a barrier to more reprehensible expressions of greed and for this reason deserves to be encouraged.” [Is the analogy here that we should ignore the financial improprieties of congressmen because such activities prevent them from doing worse things?]
Eccles titles his first chapter “The Acquisitive Urge.” He lays the urge in human instinct. Are we collectors simply hunter/gatherers writ large? Are we born to collect beyond the basic need for food and shelter?