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 various collections.

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 exercise you will analyze a collection and examine how it conforms to our course definition of the factors that define a "good" collection.  Of course, it is a loaded question whether any given assemblage of snowglobes or Lord of the Rings knick knacks is "good," but what we are most interested in is 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 still meaningful, but we can still conclude that a collection serves other purposes in 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 exercise involves both assessing the collection and discussing it with the collector to analyze the social roles of a given collection.

You can choose pretty much any assemblage of goods that can fit our rather expansive sense of what constitutes a collection.  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.  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.  I suggest the former, because you'll have the chance to actually see the collectibles and discuss them with the collector, which will provide a lot of material.  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.  

When you have identified a collection, make a relatively systematic description of the types of objects the collection includes (e.g., Mod-era Barbies) and at least an outline of the objects included in the collection (e.g., circa 45 dolls from the Barbie universe and a quantity and some examples of the clothing and accessories the collector includes in their assemblage).  So if you examine an aquarium furniture collection, provide a relatively clear description of exactly what is included in the collection.  You may find somebody who has a catalog of every piece of aquarium furniture they own, but many collectors will have no idea what they actually own.  How did the collector decide to bound their collection in this particular way, or do they have an especially clear definition of what is in their potential universe of things?  Examine the physical way in which the material is actually displayed.  Most collectors will have some discrete space for their collectibles, and they'll often construct special spaces for their best things.  Exactly how are these things shared with other people?  For instance, who actually sees the things, and how does the collector share those things with us?  What does this collection teach us about the social world, or how does it potentially reconfigure social reality?  The collector almost certainly has some "thrill of the hunt" stories--the precious thing they wanted for years and finally found in an obscure flea market in Wyoming.  There is a common caricature of collectors as anti-social types locked in their basement sorting their things into boxes, but collecting is normally very social in the way the search for things, display and sharing of the objects, and the sharing of knowledge with other collectors establishes relationships among people.  How does this particular collection link the collector to the broader social world?

Some collections will make a stronger case for some of these dimensions of collecting, so do not feel compelled to address everyone of these things in detail or limit your self to this basic outline.  Keep in mind that we ultimately want to know how the collection and the act of collecting positions the collector socially and what that assemblage can tell us about the broader social world.  You can analyze pretty much any assemblage you like, but please do not analyze your own assemblage of things.  Please do not identify the collector in your paper.  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 (submissions electronically in Word RTF format are fine).  You may include graphics if they add to your analysis.  Most papers will be at least eight pages in length, and they can be as long as you feel is appropriate.  The paper is due MARCH 3Email me if there are any questions.

 Last updated December 16, 2013