collecting things

To collect is to commit to setting down roots.

On a rubbed red tray that sits atop the bureau in my mother’s bedroom there is a collection of things. At a cursory glance, these items seem arbitrary. A silver Russian purse that opens like a leather accordion. A gilded wooden hand, the size of a small plum. A miniature cardboard suitcase with a letter written in script inside: oh the places you will go.  There is no theme threading them together. They sit in conversation with one another, speaking out from different stretches of time and space.

But behind these seemingly misplaced objects, there are stories—narratives that lend meaning to their being there. The purse comes from the Russian Empire, traditionally given to young girls on their eighteenth birthdays to carry to their inaugural ball. The gilded hand comes from Aleppo, purchased at one of the oldest bazaars in the world.  When I ask my mother why she held onto it, she tells me her trip to Syria was one of her favorite journeys. The suitcase is from what seems like another lifetime ago. A gift given to her by a friend after she’d finished her memoir. It’s the size of her palm, and stuck to the curling papered outside are stickers from foreign countries.

Lately, it seems like everyday objects have become part of a larger cultural dialogue: Mmuseumm, a micro natural history museum housed in a New York freight elevator, is devoted to exhibiting – and in some sense elevating – commonplace items, from a series of newsstand paper weights to toothpaste tubes from around the world. Illustrator and author Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, a love story told in the form of an auction catalogue, reveals the weight of meaning we put into our shared belongings. The Radiolab podcast “Things!” tells narratives from the perspective of the objects themselves.

On the one hand, the desire to collect is an innately human one (with the exception perhaps of squirrels, mother birds and a few other resourceful creatures). Collecting can provide a certain sense of hierarchy. Grouping objects together is a measure of order in the art of display. Whether a collection of pocketknives, leather diaries or pressed flowers, there is something contemplative in the assembly of one’s things. But this devotion to objects is not exclusive to one specific idea—it can be sensory or textural, connected to the memory of a person or place. A wonderful aspect of collection is that it is completely subjective to the collector.

Most of the physical things we collect cannot be carried with us. Instead, we use our things to nest, to settle, to carve out a place for ourselves no matter where we choose to call home. When we begin to collect, we make a commitment; we take a step toward establishing our roots. It’s a gesture that defines the nature of home—and within that gesture we find a refuge, a sanctuary, a familiar space.

Sleek minimalism, then, has given way to a fondness for considered curation. (How else to make a space your own?) Whether framed, stacked neatly or scattered around a home, the arrangement of our objects becomes a direct extension of our unique histories—a tether from our former to our present selves. The books on our shelves, the box of photographs, the knick-knacks assembled artfully on a side table—these things are far from “stuff.” Rather, the well-curated home acts as a canvas—a space in which we can cluster moments together to create and build our own little worlds.

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