I meet Tom R. in front of the Faux Museum, in Portland’s Old Town. He offers me tomatoes from his garden as he’s unlocking the front door. Slogans in the windows: “Home of the Woolly Ant,” and “Oldest Museum in the World!” “Sometimes I can hear people standing outside and reading the signs aloud and laughing,” says Tom. “Oddly enough, those people never come in.”
Tom is charmed by my tape recorder, which features a real live cassette tape. Sadly, once inside the museum the tape recorder stops working for no reason either of us can discern. At this point, we are sitting on children’s desk chairs in the middle of the current exhibit: Thinking outside the Chip: Alternatives to the Gravity of our Electronics. To our left is a dim room hung with bamboo that emits humming of various pitches at mysterious intervals. To our right, a keyboard whose keys play only screams, next to a model of a bower-bird nest. Directly in front of me, a representation of the moon landing. Tom is telling me an outrageous anecdote about how he and his friends mistook the Song of Solomon for the purple, overwrought prose of a teenage girl. I tell Tom I’ll do my best to quote him accurately, despite the failed tape recorder. Later, he emails me: “Don’t worry if the quotes are perfect. Get the intent and spirit and all will be fine.”
This is a story about the intent and spirit of collectors. It would be easy to think of the spirit as being meticulous and obsessive, and to dismiss the intent as merely that of acquisition. What I found instead, upon speaking to my small collection of collectors, was that the groups of objects can themselves carry an intent and a spirit, bestowed upon them by their collector, and this is what I must be most careful not to misrepresent.
Like beauty, collections are in the eye of the beholder. Imagine that a person has gone on vacation and forgotten to cancel their newspaper subscription. When they return, a pile of twenty-five newspapers in varying states of decay greets them on the stoop. Is this a collection? To Tom, it could be, but only if you give some meaning to it.
As a curator, he breathes meaning into the meaningless. “You like the way the newspapers are decomposing, or a mouse made a hole in it, or you go into the forest, and someone’s piled up some stones, and it makes you think, you know: that’s cool, or…what a dweeb.”
In his role as museum curator, Tom has a forum for allowing others to see the same meaning he sees in his curated objects. This impulse isn’t rare: even outside museums, there is a performative, social aspect of collecting. We devote much effort to the display of our objects in lighted cases and on prominent shelves. We take a friend over and explain each object’s beauty and significance. When the friend understands, we feel as though we’ve managed to communicate more than our perspective on this one object; the object acts as a way to share our broader perspective on the world.
To be given a collection, then, is more than a material gift. Adam R., who played Captain James T. Kirk in his wildly popular “Trek in the Park” outdoor theater productions, received a breath-taking collection of vintage Star Trek memorabilia from a stranger who recognized him from the stage. The stranger, an older woman, worried that her son would not be a careful steward of her collection in the event of her death. Seeing the care Adam took with his interpretation of Kirk, she chose him instead. Her stipulation: Adam was never to sell any part of the collection, though he was permitted to give items away to those who would love them.
Love might be the wrong word; understand might be closer to the truth. I asked Michael M., who owns a vintage curiosities shop, whether superb items can be “wasted” on their owners. Sometimes, he says, he feels an item isn’t truly going home when the buyer doesn’t understand and respect the history of what they’re holding: “What I do is history class, it’s artifacts, it’s archeology.”
In his own home, Michael takes down an embellished jean jacket that’s been hanging on his wall. He says, “Historically, men have bonded with their jackets. It becomes their résumé. It defines them.” He shows me the features of the jacket, noting that the stars’ alignment on a flag fragment sewn at the shoulders indicates the flag’s age: pre-1959. He points at the medals sewn to the pocket flaps, speculating how the previous owner might have won them, what he might have wanted to communicate by displaying them there. The jacket has bridged the gap in space and time separating Michael from the jacket’s original owner; the jacket carries its owner’s intent and spirit, readily accessible to the right viewer.
The idea of the right viewer, or the right way to look at collections, came up again and again as I spoke to collectors. Close on the tails of this theme was a widespread general disdain for modernity and the internet. Vince K., a vintage toy collector, credited Pokémon cards with the death of imagination, while Michael credited technology with the slow demise of conversation and human connection.
There’s a tension between physical collections and the infinite replicability of the digital. Some have dealt with this tension by taking the physical into the digital; Vince’s action figures have a significant online presence, and Ian M., an artist and collector of comic art, channeled his vast collection of digital art into a popular tumblr blog. Others, like Ian’s wife Laura S., bring the digital into the physical: of her vintage Elton John memorabilia collection, she says: “it’s like my Pinterest.”
Some have more hope than others for their side in this tug-o’-war between analog and digital value: Michael told me that no one is ever truly a lost cause when it comes to gaining a respect and appreciation for history. Tom had a starker view: “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” My conversations with collectors turned swiftly and often to matters of dissatisfaction with modernity, and it changed the way I conceptualized their collections. I saw not whimsical collections of objects, but a way to afford the past new life and sanctuary.
One can, of course, only have a collection made up of objects from the past, as future items are as yet unknown and unobtainable. But what of collections with no defined “complete set,” where the total list of items in the collection is necessarily and always unknown?
In an odd coincidence, the previous exhibit at the Faux museum had been on “Collections and Anomalies.” I liked the juxtaposition of those ideas. I think it’s possible to collect anomalies. Saul F., an entomologist, explained that most of his personally-collected arthropod specimens end up in the Entomology Research Museum at the University of California Riverside. The museum, he says, is always eager to add representatives of taxa they know are not in their collection. Even more enticing, however, would be to add representatives of new taxa they don’t even know they are missing; in this way, insect collectors collect for anomalies, for the missing piece that is constantly redefined and never possessed.
Speaking of insects: perhaps this whole time you’ve been hung up on that Woolly Ant from the first paragraph. You’re wondering if the explanation of the Woolly Ant is the maddening missing piece in this collection of words.
In the Faux Museum, the Woolly Ant looks down over the room with the melodic bamboo. The Woolly Ant lives in a papier maché cave and moves so slowly that I didn’t see it move at all. In the words of Tom the Curator: “I don’t like it. I wanted it to look like a real ant. But I kind of do like it. It’s okay that it doesn’t look like a real ant.”