Virtually all of us have a collection of some sort.  It may be a collection in the sense of a serialized assemblage of objects from a single material universe--perhaps you have systematically assembled all the vintage Star Wars toys, or you have slowly gathered together a whole cabinet full of little umbrellas from mixed drinks--but it could also be an assemblage of similar things that somehow ended up as a collective--like all the stuff stuck to your refrigerator.  For some of us a collection has been cobbled together after endless hours frequenting flea markets and sniping Ebay auctions, and for others the collection slowly accumulated without much clear planning.  Much of this happens without very systematic self-reflection about the social purposes collecting serves, even among serious collectors. We want to push beyond simply having an assemblage of curiosities  and ask what concrete social and political purposes are served by collections and how systematic archaeological analysis can help us understand such assemblages.

Collecting is a form of power that allows us to imagine the social world in new forms, and while we may not all feel especially revolutionized by a full set of Elvis plates collecting offers empowerment in various forms.  In this assignment you will analyze a collection and examine how a collector constructs a collection and the social goals s/he has for their collection.   Exactly what are the social purposes for any given collection?  How can we systematically assess the range of objects within a collection and the professed social interests of a collector to interpret the specific social purposes of a collection of things?  What an individual collector says about their things is certainly meaningful, but many collectors have relatively ambiguous senses of how and why their house has come to be filled with NASCAR souvenirs or Chinese porcelain:  Some people just collect baseball cards because they have some inchoate warm feelings about their Little League history, a vague memory of trading cards amongst their friends decades ago, or the misplaced ambition that this year's rookie cards are a hedge against stock market fluctuations.  Those conscious sentiments are meaningful, but we can still conclude that a collection serves other purposes in a broader social context that a collector might not articulate themselves.  Many collectors will not have an especially clear articulation of how their things position them within the world, and others may have a very keen sense of exactly why they are assembling a particular group of objects.   Consequently, this paper involves both assessing the collection and discussing it with the collector to analyze the social roles of a given collection.

How to do the assignment

You can choose pretty much any assemblage of goods that can fit my rather expansive sense of what constitutes a collection.  This could include your neighbor with a vast assemblage of Lord of the Rings knick knacks; it could be an art museum show; or it might be the haul of notes, pictures, and out-of-date Arby's coupons that are magneted all over a friend's refrigerator door. 

First identify a suitable collection that includes some objects you can look at (better yet a display area for the things), a collector who will talk about their things, and some objects that actually are interesting to you:  If you have absolutely no interest in robots, then you'll find analyzing them is a little dull.  You will find that somebody who collects a serialized group of objects--Planet of the Apes toys, matchbooks, airplane barf bags--will offer a somewhat more straightforward case study than a more idiosyncratic collection, like all the stuff pinned on a neighbor's bulletin board.  However, either would work fine, but do not analyze a collection of your own.  This is because, first, it is hard to really be self-critical of your own materiality and, second, the assignment is intended to have a bit of an ethnographic component in the discussion of the collection with a collector.  Family members' collections are okay, but be reflective--no matter how grand your grandmother may truly be, you may have trouble being critical of her massive collection of banana magnets.  You can analyze the collection of somebody you know or at least can visit, but a creative and thorough online analysis could be done of a collection that you have never even visited; ideally, they would discuss the collection with you electronically. You also can use a museum collection, like a discrete touring exhibition or relatively modest-sized display.  In that case, see if you can find a curator who can discuss the collection with you a little so you can at least get a sense of the museum's acquisition and exhibition interests.  

Here are some things to consider and include in your final paper:

Some collections will make a stronger case for some of these dimensions of collecting than others, so do not feel compelled to address every one of these things in detail or limit yourself to this basic outline.  Keep in mind that we ultimately want to use a systematic description of a collection to interpret how the collection and the act of collecting positions the collector socially and tells us something about the broader social world.  You can analyze pretty much any assemblage you like, but remember that you cannot analyze your own assemblage of things. 

Do not identify the collector in your paper beyond a basic demographic description.  You should let the collector know they will be anonymous in the analysis and that the analysis will not appear in any public space.  Your final product should be a double-spaced typed paper, and please submit a version electronically.  You may include graphics if they add to your analysis.  Most papers will be minimally 10 pages in length, but they can be as long as you feel is appropriate.  Graduate students' papers must be at least 20 pages in length. 

You must provide a brief proposal by FEBRUARY 20 that indicates the subject of your analysis.  A single paragraph sent via email is sufficient, but you can instead turn in a hard copy in class if you prefer.

The paper is due APRIL 16Email me if there are any questions.

 Last updated October 22, 2011