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Collecting

A series of reflections

Collecting is an exciting practice that will require a series of texts written at different times. Here is the first of them, a sort of introduction.

Stamp collection

My Chilean grandfather, Fernando Verbal Hewstone, collected stamps, and I inherited them when he passed away on May 6th, 2019 in Santiago. He had them stored in six envelopes along with some Russian and Chilean banknotes, some Christmas and Easter illustrations, the baptism card of one of his nieces, the whole kept in a plastic bag in which he wrote ‘stamps’. As a family archive, that collection of my grandfather has 594 stamps, some repeated and many attached to a piece of paper, to the envelope that was sent to him. Hence, the sentimental value given to the collection knowing that some stamps were from envelopes sent by my parents in the 1990s, when they met in Birmingham before I was born, and later from France and Spain from the 1990s onwards. According to my grandmother, my grandfather had a much larger collection whose story she told me recently by email, on August 8, 2021, after I asked her about the stamps:

The fondness for philately comes from Fernando's maternal grandfather, Don Humberto Hewstone, when he died it seems that the heir to this hobby was your grandfather, who was his favourite grandson, since they shared the bedroom when Don Humberto stayed with them for long periods of time after he was widowed. After we got married, that album came with his things, his grandfather had died for about 6 years ago more or less. Fernando took care of his album and every so often he checked the stamps. Then it happened that in a financial trouble your grandfather sold with great sorrow some very valuable that were from a century ago. He  then bought a new album and entertained himself in reviewing it. […] In some of his trips, Fernando brought stamps, some very beautiful and they went to the usual place, to the album.

Many years later, when my grandparents divorced, my grandfather left his album in my grandmother’s apartment. For her, the monthly expenses increased and she had to lead a rather austere life. One day she had to sell her mother's jewellery and my grandfather's stamps since she had no interest in the latter. My grandmother says that it is likely that she was misled with the price of the album since they told her that there were no valuable stamps, although there were ‘some very old ones’. When my grandfather passed away, he took the truths of his collection away with him. I can speak of him as a grandfather, but not as a collector and I cannot speak of the way he collected either. Now, with this part of his collection, the personal stories that the stamps hide will also remain silent, although some may be guessed, but guessing is ever being held in an imaginary that will never be confirmed in reality.

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After introducing the theme of the collection with a personal story, I would like to place it in a wider social context. If, for example, one reads the sentence: ‘The collector collects for his collection’, it would allow us to study the subject from different points of view. The subject is the collector, the verb is to collect, and the noun is the collection. Collections are fascinating because of their visual, material, sentimental and historical impact, because of the uniqueness of the object and its relationship with the others. On the other hand, there exist different types of collectors who are worth observing and interviewing for the motives that lead them to collect, for the methods used and the expertise acquired, as well as for the stories they have to tell. Collecting, in turn, is a complex social behaviour that is defined in a sequence of verbs such as searching, gathering information, finding, acquiring, restoring, classifying, ordering, displaying, maintaining, until the cycle repeats itself in an apparent chronological progression (McIntosh and Schmeichel, 2004: 86). It is a work process that has its rituals, which one establishes with practice and which is adjusted to the needs of the collection. Collecting is a passion in the quest, but also in contemplating and taking care of the collection with a sense of sacredness (ibid: 92) as when turning the page of a stamp album or staring at a series of aligned objects on a shelf. Collecting is introspective, meditative, ‘an attempt to fulfil self-needs’ (ibid: 95) that can also involve others, being participants of the practice or as simple observers who may appreciate it and discuss it in group.

In The system of objects (1996), Baudrillard explains that ‘collecting is thus qualitative in its essence and quantitative in its practice’ (1996: 94) given that an object is collected for its absolute singularity and then put in relation with the other items of the collection, pushing the collector to pursue his search for a series, such as, for instance, a series of Chilean stamps, stamps from letters sent by my parents, stamps from the year 1986. On the other hand, in the collection-collector relationship, Baudrillard explains that the collected object works like a mirror that sends back an image of desire and not one self’s real image, since my grandfather's stamps show his desire for them and he will have received from them a different image of him than a person could have sent him. Further, a collector does not collect items because they are useful but because they fit into the collection as aesthetic objects to be contemplated. According to Diken and Laustsen, their value is no longer ‘use value’ but ‘collection value’ (2020: 4). They also suppose that collecting could be about filling a gap, not a lack of things but a fundamental lack in the being (ibid: 6) as if collecting, in extreme scenarios, was a consequence of the lack of meaning of our existence.

The collection lives through a person and when that person dies the objects remain in the physical world, unless they are thrown away or separated, and the collection will survive if someone has the will to carry on with it. The collection is a material solution to our search for transcendence. My grandfather lives through his collection since they were his stamps and a part of him resides in them. He surely thought the same of his grandfather’s collection and it may have been a reason to continue seeing it as a material heritage that was also immaterial. In the current context in which we live, emails and mobile messages have replaced handwritten letters, thus sustaining his stamp collection would become too challenging, better being to leave it as it is now as a heritage with its sentimental value. For Woodham et. al (2019: 11) ‘objects are highly significant in personal history and play a special role in creating and transmitting family identity’ connecting the grandchildren to the family genealogy and allowing them to develop their individual identity (ibid: 5). Then, there are collections that do not have that family affection and become detached from their collectors since the value of the objects themselves exceeds any individual, such as collections of artworks, scientific collections, or those that have a value of cultural interest as war relics, actor belongings, among others. Rather, I would like to focus my interest in collections of individuals and of everyday objects, seeking to collect stories that illustrate the collectors, their collections and their working methods, revaluing the need for a deeply rooted material world whose value resides in the identity and experience of objects.

Untidy Child. Each Stone he finds, each flower he picks, and each butterfly he catches is already the start of a collection, and every single thing he owns makes up one great collection.

Walter Benjamin (One-way Street, Edition 2016)

Posted: October 6th, 2021

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