Object Veneration, Public History

Holding on to the past: Hoarders and Collectors?

(This is originaly from my old blog, Fall 2012)

The alternative title is “Why I Watch Hoarders

Last week my boyfriend came home to me lying on the couch watching Hoarder: Buried Alive.  He despises all reality T.V. and for the most part I agree with him, but Hoarders I watch for scholarly reasons! On Hoarders a psychologist confronts a hoarder (someone who does not throw stuff out, and often lives in filth dangerously surrounded by their possessions and rotten food ect ect) The show follows the psychologist and the hoarder’s family attempting to clean the hoard up, thus allowing some designated outcome. Every episode the hoarder goes through their things explaining their value. The psychologist and family members usually spend the majority of the show baffled by the hoarder’s wide allotment of significance.  Today’s post is about significance!

Museums began displaying objects in thematic collections under glass. Early curators hoped the items would encourage critical thinking. Guests were encouraged to draw their own conclusions from the thematic organization thus imbedding the objects with their own significance. This experience not only exposed guests to different prehistorical tools, Egyptian jewelry, ect but taught guests that items held certain significant meanings. Meanings, significant enough to save and display.

I first began thinking about this on the ride back to Tampa from a military turn history museum with my professor and a fellow Pub. Hist student. The place went was result of a private collector’s dedication to military material history. (I’ll talk more about this museum in another post.) This man’s collection turned museum got me thinking, out loud, about the differences between hoarders, collectors, and museums.

Unlike the collection/ visitor relationship I discussed in my Smithsonian post, the relationship between private collectors or hoarders (two different-yet related groups) and their objects appears more personal. (One could argue the personal connection comes from their ability to touch the objects) Collectors own items significant to their culture, and hoarders collect items significant to themselves. A hoarder might keep their favorite outfit despite its tattered unwearable shape. A collector might own a Civil War soldier’s torn up coat. Both articles are torn up outfits, but one has the advantage of being associated with a historic event, the other represents what the show Hoarders and its psychologists would define as an inability to “let go” or a fear of losing a memory or oneself. Arguing whose significance is better is not really worth doing.

Also, hoarders usually don’t have a recognized organization system, the space nor glass cases to display their items. Ultimately the level of professionalization and organization separates the hoarder form the private collector from the museum. As stated earlier the first museums used organization and categorization to display their items to the public. In order to achieve accepted organization through categorizations a collection needs an expert (I use this loosely) to interpret the objects into their proper places. The difference between hoarders, collectors and museums are the viewers’ perception of professionalization in organized display.

(It should be noted that all my information on hoarders comes from the show, take or leave it.)

We live in an interesting time we have shows about hoarding, and shows about picking through people’s hoards in hopes of finding valuable items for resale. On one hand these shows lament the collecting and the loss of control over consumption and on the other hand we watch ‘experts’ explore the depths of their rag tag collections for re-consumption, thus giving extreme consumption approval.

I justify watching Hoarders because 1.) the show makes me want to clean my house, and 2.) it exposes a unique side of consumer and material culture in the United States, which correspond to the museum world, and public history- The connection people feel they have with their history and their personal responsibility to preservation the past.

If you want to look more into the relationship between collectors and professionals Take a look at Benjamin Filene’s 2012 NCPH article Passionate Histories: “Outsider” History-Makers and What They Teach Us. Filene discusses the relationship between professionalized museum workers and history fans, he argues in favor of museums finding inspiration in history fans, attempting to foster a more personal, less academic relationship between visitors and museum, thus creating a relationship like those felt by history fans.

Car Hoarder?


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