It all may have started with a few shells collected on a beach, or with smooth, particular pebbles, or with pieces of wood carefully selected. It took place by a river, or in a forest…
The Art of Collecting is Universal
One thing, however, is certain: the act of collecting is universal and ancestral, probably as old as the appearance of man on Earth. But this gesture, whose first traces are documented in the Prehistoric period already, was it a conscious act?
Although the series of objects found in the rock art sites have likely been collected and assembled due to their unique look, one may wonder if our ancestors were truly aware of the effect of their action, and if they were collecting these items for themselves or for an audience.
These questions have of course no simple and comprehensive answer, in that they lead us to question and define the actual essence of the act of collecting.
Sumptuous Artworks as a Status Symbol
We know from the written sources that, in ancient times, wealthy people liked to decorate their interiors and gardens with sumptuous artworks they commissioned directly from the artists; these first private collections were essentially intended to show their social status and to establish their power, but there is no denying the fact that they were also “given to be seen”, as a display of their taste, their aspirations, a find to be proud of. These premises, as well as the enlightened opinion of many patrons throughout the history of art led to the creation of the museum institutions, as we know them today.
The Louvre, to name but one, has a long history of artistic and historic conservation. First the home of Louis XIV, the palace started serving as a repository for the royal collections of paintings and ancient sculptures – while hosting academies and artists -, after the King chose Versailles as his residence. It was not until a century later, at the time of the Revolution, that it was really converted; the “Central Museum of the Arts of the Republic” opened in 1793, with more than 600 works coming from the royal collection, or confiscated to noble people and members of the clergy. Thereafter, spoils of war, acquisitions, bequests, donations and archaeological missions have enriched these collections. Although, in this case, the public collection was constituted by the nationalization of private property, the shift from private to public collection took place around the same time in other European countries. One would be tempted to conclude that the idea of the public utility of art and knowledge, which became the mission of the museum since then, emerged simultaneously in the collective unconscious, but it would be simplistic to only take into account the social and cultural dimensions of the history of museums, without including the political dimension.
Louvre, the most visited museum
Today, the Louvre is the world’s most visited universal museum and features historical treasures from the Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman ancient world. Along with such institutions, many people purchase antiques and build outstanding collections. No longer the exclusive preserve of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, this practice tends to democratize.
As a museum curator or a private collector, does a contemporary art aficionado collect in the same way as once did the Roman Emperors or the Kings of France? What is a collection? Where does it start and where does it end?
And once again, this basic question: why do we collect? Probably because collecting enables us to perpetuate History, to tell it and to situate ourselves in it. In the reflection of this passion, past and present come together to create a whole new story: our story.