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Why Do People Collect?

People from almost every culture love collecting things. They might collect stamps, books, cards, priceless paintings, or worthless ticket stubs to old sports games. Their collection might hang on the walls of a mansion or be stored in a box under the bed. So what is it that drives people to collect? Psychologist Dr. Maria Richter argues that the urge to order is a fundamental human characteristic. According to her, in the very first years of life, we form emotional connections with lifeless objects such as soft toys. And these positive relationships are the starting point for our fascination with collecting things. The desire to collect may go back further still. Scientists believe that collecting had a vital role for particular ancient humans hundreds of thousands of years ago. Only by stockpiling enough food to last through frigid winters or dry summers did our forefathers survive until the weather changed.

It turns out that even collecting for the sake of collecting has a lengthy history. Leonard Woolley, an archaeologist, was excavating at a site in the old Babylonian city of Ur in 1925. Woolley had come to the region to excavate the site of a palace. Instead, he discovered artifacts that looked to be from a 2,500-year-old museum, much to his surprise. Among the items were a statue fragment and a portion of a local structure. Some of the artifacts were accompanied by descriptions that resembled modern-day labeling. These writings were etched into clay and were available in three languages. This early private collection of artifacts appears to have been assembled by Princess Ennigaldi, the daughter of King Nabonidus. However, almost little is known about Princess Ennigaldi or her intentions for establishing her collection. This was one of the earliest extensive private collections, but it was not the last. Indeed, the fad for amassing groups began roughly 2,000 years later in Europe with the so-called "Cabinets of Curiosities." These were mainly affluent families' collections displayed in cabinets or tiny rooms. Cabinets of Curiosities traditionally held beautiful paintings and sketches, but natural world displays like animal specimens, shells, and plants were also valued.

Some important private collections of this type date back to the fourteenth century. The Medici family owned one of the earliest. The Medicis rose to become a great political family in Italy and, subsequently, a royal dynasty, yet banking was their primary source of riches. The family began by collecting coins and rare stones, then moved on to artwork and antiques from all across Europe. To store their burgeoning collection, the Medici created a secret studio inside the Palazzo Medici in 1570. To protect the vital group, this exhibition room featured thick walls with no windows. Another fantastic collection was produced in the seventeenth century by a Danish physician named Ole Worm. His collection area had many bones and specimens, as well as antique literature and a laboratory. One of Ole Worm's goals was to point out mistakes made by other scholars, such as the incorrect notion that birds of paradise had no feet. He also possessed a great auk, a now-extinct bird species, and the image he created of it was valuable to subsequent biologists.


In the nineteenth century, the desire to accumulate was just as intense. Lady Charlotte Guest was a multilingual woman who became well-known for translating English novels into Welsh. She also traveled extensively over Europe, obtaining antique and unusual pottery to add to her collection in southern England. When Lady Charlotte died in 1895, she bequeathed her collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Around the same period, in the north of England, a wealthy goldsmith called Joseph Mayer was amassing a massive collection of artifacts, notably those discovered near his home. In line with his desires, his legacy, the Mayer Trust, continues to finance public talks.


Beatrix Potter had a remarkable collection of books, insects, plants, and other botanical specimens in the twentieth century. Most of these were donated to London's Natural History Museum, but Beatrix kept her fossil cabinets, which she was particularly proud of. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began collecting stamps as a boy and continued to add to them throughout his life. Roosevelt said that focusing on his collection helped him cope with the stress of being president. This had grown to include model ships, coins, and artworks towards the end of his life. Most of us will never hold such significant or valuable collections. However, the examples shown here indicate that collecting is a hobby many people share throughout generations.


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