Saturday, February 7, 2009
Why Do We Collect?
Soviet Realist paintings? Rushnyky? Old postcards? Medals? Small china figurines? This weekend I went with a group of Fulbrighters to an indoor antique/flea market across the river here in Kyiv. In a way, it was just like any similar place in the United States--long rows of tables, bored looking dealers, and piles of merchandise.
But the merchandise was both the same and different--old photos, china figurines, yes; but other items shared hints of a more complex history--one familiar to Ukrainians and not to me. One painting showed a school girl reciting her lessons underneath the watchful eye of a bust of Stalin; another showed members of a communal farm listening to one of their members make a speech; an album of photos showed real photo postcard images of Russian soldiers in the trenches and field hospitals of World War II; many, many medals for sale. It seemed to me that there were far fewer items from the 1950s-1970s, items almost always now found in American antique markets and I suspect it may be because many Ukrainians are still using those items. Or maybe another reason I'm not imagining.
Why do people collect? I've worked on a couple projects where we talked with kids about collecting. Many kids in the US collect something: rocks, bird feathers, little toy trucks, bottle caps. They begin collecting as young as 6 or 7 and the elements of collecting include a display of sorts and an organization of the collection in some way--and of course, the urge to acquire more--more of the same thing, more slightly different things, bigger things, smaller things. Are kids here the same? I haven't discovered that one way or another, but suspect that my students can enlighten me.
That same collecting impulse seems to work for adults as well. I'm guessing that most of the people there today were looking for something specific: a particular medal from the Great Patriotic War (World War II to Americans) or a postcard of a particular place. But my museum career has lessened my urge to be a real collector, to organize, to know in complete detail, to be surrounded by multiples of the same thing--and of course finances rarely allow owning the very best of anything.
I find the collecting impulse on display in museums here. Objects and art are often presented without the context that allows us to fully understand their importance, but arrayed in ways that embrace the collecting mindset. It sometimes seems enough just that the museum possesses the item; displays it in a row with other similar items, and expects that we will be able to understand the meaning of those items. Of course, many Ukrainians do, but as fewer and fewer Ukrainians live in villages and hold a connection to traditional life, that knowledge will disappear as well and museums will be the places to find those connections and meaning.
So what did I buy? Two rushnyky (an all purpose word meaning towel, but now often with ritual importance)--one, an old one with a great red design and several mends, making it affordable; and two wood block prints from the 1970s. All because I liked and enjoyed them, the best reason to collect.
Above: my new rushnycky