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  Bill Brown

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The collecting mania


The Collecting Mania
A Nation of things

The collection started as the National Cabinet of Curiosities, only to be renamed the U.S. National Museum in 1876. In 1957 that museum was split into two parts: the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. In 1980 the latter received a new name: the National Museum of American History. And it's still sometimes known as the nation's attic, a nickname that suggests the hodge-podge of things collected therein.

This September marked the publication of a fresh look at the nation's attic: Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian. Published by the Smithsonian Institution Press and written by Steven Lubar, AM'77, PhD'83, and Kathleen M. Kendrick, the book is based on research that Lubar and Kendrick have done in the course of preparing for a forthcoming exhibition at the National Museum of American History, where Lubar is curator of the history of technology division.

Both exhibition and book revolve around a central point: "History has a history. People's understanding of the past-and the stories and objects they value from it-are influenced by the needs, values, and interests of the present and therefore change over time." Focusing on approximately 250 of the 3.2 million artifacts contained in the Smithsonian at the start of the millennium, Lubar and Kendrick hope to determine both "when they were collected and why"-including why specific things are collected at specific times.

A history museum, the authors suggest, can be imagined variously "as a treasure house, a shrine to the famous, a palace of progress, and a mirror of America." They start with the treasure-house concept and the questions raised by such a construct-including some that quickly lead to the individual collector: "Value is, after all, in the eye of the beholder, and the treasures we Americans have placed in the National Museum reveal a great deal about who we are, as individuals and a nation."

Lubar and Kendrick subdivide the concept of treasure into two categories: relics (things that are saved because of the stories they tell, whether of individual or national importance) and personal treasures (mementos, souvenirs, heirlooms, and collections). Collections differ from the other forms of personal treasure by virtue of being "not necessarily a reminder of an individual or family past but a form of self-expression." The explanation for an individual's collecting impulse may be psychoanalytic, capitalistic, aesthetic, historical, or simply the love of the hunt-all reasons that are good enough.

Good enough for an individual, that is, but not necessarily for a museum. While a young girl's button collection (circa 1935) and an automobile enthusiast's collection of radiator emblems (1910-1940) were both donated to-and accepted by-the Smithsonian, not every personal collection can make the cut. "Although curators are often delighted to acquire private collections," the authors write, "museums and individual collectors collect for very different reasons. History museums collect to preserve, understand, and interpret the past."

Added to a national collection, buttons become more than buttons, radiator emblems more than radiator emblems, an object more than an object. Taken together the objects in a history museum tell stories that are more than the things themselves, argue Lubar and Kendrick. "The objects people give to the museum become part of a bigger story, the nation's story." - M.R.Y.

  OCTOBER 2001

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