Museums and Collecting


Recently we’ve been taking a closer look at why we go to museums – do we visit them solely to absorb the sense of grandeur, nationalism and conquest they proffer? Or is it because they genuinely give us the opportunity to learn more about a time gone by, a different kind of people, and a way of life? Or further still, from living in London, are some of the museums preferred for an aesthetically appealing foyer, or the delicate chandeliered lights and buttered scones in their cafes, or even the massive gift shop that stocks interesting books we’d like to own?

Either which way we can’t help but agree with the author Orhan Pahmuk, who firmly believes that museums are more effective when they are decluttered, focused, and telling the stories of individuals rather than of nations.

Pamuk roots like he did in this article, for museums made out of the homes and studio’s of creative people, that towards the final years of their lives have been opened up to the public.
He hails the hidden away spaces that are dedicated to personal stories and the passage of time, as conveyed through objects.

We’ve talked about Pamuk’s Manifesto for Museums in the past, and now as we turn the last pages of his Museum of Innocence and the accompanying Innocence of Objects, we delve into his hypothesis on collectors and collections that he arrived at after visits to countless museums, both the glorified and the forgotten.

From Museum of Innocence, Chapter 82, Collectors (as narrated by the protagonist Kemal)

‘This is what I observed while travelling the world, and wandering through Istanbul. There are two types of collectors:

  1. The Proud Ones, those pleased to show their collections to the world (they predominate in the West).
  2. The Bashful Ones, who hide away all they have accumulated (an unmodern disposition).

The Proud regard a museum as a natural ultimate destination for their collections. They maintain that whatever a collection’s original purpose, it is, in the end, an enterprise intended for proud display in a museum. This view was common in the official histories of small, private American museums: For example, the brochure for the Museum of Beverage Containers and Advertising describes how the collector Tom picked up his first soda can on the way home from school. Then he picked up another, and a third, keeping what he found until after a time his ambition was to “collect them all” and exhibit them in a museum.

But the Bashful collect purely for the sake of collection. Like the Proud, they begin in pursuit of an answer, a consolation, even a palliative for a pain, a resolution of difficulty, or simply out of a dark compulsion. But living in societies where collecting is not a reputable act that contributes to learning or knowledge, the Bashful regard their compulsion as an embarrassment that must be hidden. Because in the lands of the Bashful, collections point not to a bit of useful information but rather to a wound the bashful collector bears.’

Maybe we could learn a lot more about humanity from the collections of the Bashful than those of the Proud. But does that then depend on who tells the story better? Or who has greater resources and more visibility?

As we read through Museum of Innocence, we were also struck by how Pamuk’s protagonist Kemal goes on to describe how it was the museum guards who taught him about the central place of pride in a museum. Kemal elaborates saying, “the guards’ job is not, as is commonly thought, to hush noisy visitors, protect the objects on display, and issue warnings to kissing couples and people chewing gum; their job is to make visitors feel that they are in a place of worship that, like a mosque, should awaken in them feelings of humility, respect and reverence.”

And we cannot agree more with this. In all our years of going to museums and galleries both popular and obscure, for all the guards and gallery assistants who have made our visits more interesting with anecdotes far beyond any guide book or Wikipedia entry, to even those who have brusquely stopped us from taking photographs or getting too close to a painting, it is true that our experience of great works of art is made all the more intense and memorable under their watchful eyes.

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