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the psychology of collecting

Recent theory suggests that private collecting is a psychologically complex issue. What do the private collections of exilic communities in the diaspora reveal about the collectors' ways of seeing their world? A theoretical study of the exile's collecting impulse.

Tower of Faces US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Refugees across the diaspora have been fleeing their homes in great numbers taking with them the trauma of loss and the elusive quest for belonging. Risking their lives, they swarm across continents by land and sea towards a future of forgetting, their possessions abandoned. Migrant displacement has underpinned the shaky foundations of western culture for centuries, and currently, thanks in part to the reach of social media, painfully evident for the world to see. The trauma of exile has become a global phenomenon of monumental crisis highlighting the millions of people dislocated from their homelands and living in exile where they carry the burden of their lost past. It is through this lens that I will address the psychology of private collections as a reimagined life.Edward Said wrote,

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: it’s essential sadness can never be surmounted. ...The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind.” (2000:173)

The etymology of the word ‘exile’ is defined as being “expelled from ones’ native land with authoritative decree; an enforced or regretted absence (or separation) from one’s country or home; a banishment, according to dictionary.com. The root saliere, which connotes springing into a new life, suggests the possibilities of leaping into space. But “in Old French, exilier or essilier meant “to ravage”, “to devastate”, a shift in meaning still traceable, in exterminate, literally “to drive beyond boundaries” (Brooke-Rose1996: 9). The poet banished from his country often exemplified the western romantic tradition of the exile and even though we may witness the end point of the exiles narrative, we cannot imagine the elusive home left behind. Similarly, we cannot imagine the perilous journey refugees experienced and sacrificed in order to make new lives in an alien dystopian modern world.

The concept of exile according to Thomas Pavel is a “subspecies of the more general notion of human mobility across geographic and political space” (1996:26). The implication is that exile from forced displacement occurs primarily as a result of political and religious persecution rather than for economic motives. Immigrants find a new home whereas “exiles never break the psychological link with their point of origin” (1996: 26). Said asserts that exiles depart to the place from which there can be no return while acknowledging the conditions of estrangement whereas the status of ‘refugee’ suggests swathes of people in need of assistance. Asylum seekers, like refugees, relinquish their national identities to escape conflict and war towards an uncertain future and destiny. Hannah Arendt’s[1] critique of the human rights of refugees influenced by her own experience of fleeing Nazi Germany, argued that naturalization and assimilation were problematized since the identities of the citizens and governments in Europe during the first half of the 20th century were threatened. Governments today are still not willing to take responsibility for the influx of migrants, contributing to the desperation exilic communities experience in attempting to recreate a home for themselves and their families. Exiles are often regarded as the undocumented people where the “great frontier between “us” and the “outsiders” is the perilous territory of not-belonging” (Said 2000:177).

My own subject position as a South African Jewish woman with roots in Eastern Europe resonates with this notion of not- belonging. The focus in this essay is primarily concerned with the collections of émigré communities who fled from pogroms and migrated to western countries. For many migrants to lose a home is to lose part of themselves and their identities within their families and communities. The point of entry in this essay then is whether a material object (and by extension, a collection) could help heal the exile by helping them come to terms with loss and as a tool for self-actualization. Further, cultivating possessions no matter how arbitrary they might be could create a point of reference for our psyches in a material world. Our impulses are defined by our conscious and unconscious worlds. Freud for example understood that collections were priceless bits of fragments that could match our own fragmented interior lives.

Walter Benjamin wrote, “Collecting is a form of psychotherapy, a healing anamnesis, a means of re-membering his fragmented past, of re-collecting a lost maternal presence, the plenitude of childhood-his mothers, his own.” Benjamin further iterated “every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collectors’ passion borders on the chaos of memories” (Schor 1994: 252). The acquisition of objects exists for private collectors as “a dynamic point of interplay between the animate and the inanimate worlds, inviting us to look beyond the physical world and consider the hybrid (and constantly negotiated) relationship between objects and people.” (Attfield 2000:1 citing in Saunders 2002:176) Objects allow one to attach meaning to them, which is not to be confused with the importance of matter over spirit, but rather as signifiers for memory and memorialization. For Benjamin the Proustian remembering evokes childhood recollections. For Freud collecting is the “abandoned object-cathexes”[2], where the buried traces of memories and desires linger in our psychic lives. Freud’s collection of cluttered antiquities inhabits a material space, mirroring a chaotic interior world that he saw as a mine to be excavated and explored.

Baudrillard wrote in The System of Collecting on having a pet that the “object is that which allows itself to be simultaneously ‘personalized’ and catalogued…. emerges as the ideal mirror…reflecting not of what is real, but only of what is desirable.” He says further “all kinds of neuroses are neutralized, tensions and feelings become grounded and calmed.” (94:11) Objects are able to absorb cultural anxiety but are expressed in the consumption of material acquisition. The object becomes the conduit for what is lacking, imbuing it with a value only appropriate for what emotional investment has been made. In other words, the value of the object is in direct proportion to the dematerialized memory. Whatever system of values is attached to the impetus for collecting, I believe it is bound up with structure of the home in which the objects are contained.

For the survivors of Nazi Germany or the Russian émigrés fleeing pogroms or Syrians fleeing their war torn homes, heading for the route to the west, the benchmarks for engaging in domestic practices were re-visioned. American culture places an emphasis on its disposable prowess. The culture of the disposable object is unfamiliar with exilic communities but as I address further, it has become a relevant lifestyle appropriation for some communities in the United States. Through the valorisation of impermanence, the home becomes the canvas for new memory to be remodelled from a fractured past as a respite from the trauma of the previous life. Traces of the old lives of exiles are relegated to the place of their abandoned mother countries forming new narratives for their collections. Now they become able to invent a memory as a panacea against homesickness. The narrative of the nostalgic exile replaces the lost possessions to be reimagined into the material debris of the present.

The inability to return home constitutes for some the new kind of imaginings. The trauma of what was left behind converts the intangible absence of longing into what Svetlana Boym calls a “diasporic intimacy” (2001:252). It is the foreign language of dystopia; a place where memories of home overwhelm the present, where the promise of exile is a preferable kind of alienation. Home, that place of belonging, transforms itself into a place of nostalgia and loss. According to Boym ‘home’ is a state of mind. It is a place where the exile can find solace in the solitary reflections of nostalgia whilst simultaneously experiencing the effects of anonymity in a new foreign place. Boym calls it ‘cultural intimacy’, the ability to reconstitute a new kind of intimacy built on the ephemeral relationships of other exiles. Benjamin’s metaphor of the exile struggling with the foreignness of a new language and having to navigate that duality is echoed by Linda Nochlin in Art and the Conditions of Exile: men women, emigration/expatriation where she asserts that “For the writer, exile and loss of native language must be devastating, depriving the subject of access to the living world” (1996:37). She quotes Eva Hoffman (1989:107) who writes with passion in Lost in Translation

“This radical disjoining between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.” (1996:37)

Although there is a “melancholy tension” in exile, as Susan Rubin Suleiman puts it, displacement can be productive. The prospect of personal transformation can introduce other potentialities for change, despite the alienation and foreignness that a new place might bring. The prospect of reinventing oneself takes on a romantic mantle, particularly when dreaming of utopia and a risk free life. The signifiers of memory become enablers allowing the exile to reconstruct their lives. Nochlin quotes Wolff (1995:7) who writes that “migration can generate new perceptions of place and, in some cases, of the relationship between places” (1996: 38) as well as being able to help discover new forms of expression. In other words, there are two sides to exile. As Said further attests, in Suleiman, “Exile has its pleasures, not the least of which is the “ particular sense of achievement” one derives from “ acting as if one were at home wherever one happens to be” (1996:2).

I suggest a distinction between types of exilic collectors and their objects. The one type feels the need to “reconstitute their broken lives” (Said 2000:177) by compensating for a disorientating loss. The stories their object collections reveal speak of the world of fiction within a world of souvenir collections. I have identified some of the collections as kitsch. I argue that Susan Stewarts’ distinction between souvenirs and art collections defined in reference to Benjamin’s book collection is not merely as she says, “souvenirs are not a collection” (1984). Schor quotes Stewart who says that souvenirs “speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing, for it is not an object arising out of need or use value; it is an object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia” (1994: 255). Kitsch imitates the effects of art. In the words of Adorno, “it is a parody of catharsis”, a “second hand epiphany[3]”. It is often associated with a nostalgic vision of the middle class home, seen as domesticating alienation and as Boyn affirms,” satiates the insatiable thirst with artificially sweetened drinks that quench the very need for longing” (2001:279). Boym cites Milan Kundera who said “Kitsch is an antidote to death” (2001:277) where collections and other effluvia help the exile to dislocate and estrange the topography of his past life. Lyotard [4] suggests the “domestication without domus” which can be understood as ways of inhabiting ones displaced habitats and avoiding the extremes of both the domus of traditional family values and the megapolis of cyberspace” (2001:325). These souvenirs represent a transient exilic intimacy created to cushion the emptiness of a life left behind. Exiles construct a new world from the plastic of impermanence. Everything is provisional, like the homes and possessions they have left behind. Diasporic souvenirs in this context, do not reconstruct the story of ones’ roots, but of exile. They are not symbols but they are transitional objects reflecting multiple belongings, as material objects. These cacophonous, colourful collections represent an absence, an uprooting. They recreate the cozy, overcrowded interior with new authoring, telling an alternative narrative of adventures. The packed spaces of the interiors of ex-Soviet émigrés cover up a kind of exilic pain even though many exiles who collect these souvenirs have been living in the United States of America for at least 10 years. Collections of outdated calendars, old clocks, and rubbish rescued from a trash heap or a yard sale become the substitute for cozy and secure. These overcrowded and cluttered apartments are inhabited by (mostly) Jewish refugees who had left the Soviet Union in the 1970s in search of better opportunities in the west. Somehow the concreteness of these disposable objects creates certain stability for them. In the same way they shift their frameworks to tell new stories. The object collections become ciphers for a newfound freedom and domesticity. What seems to be a banal collection of objects to the outsider represents the cozy domesticity of an interior safety and security. The objects might be irrelevant souvenirs that have been newly collected, but they leave little emotional trace. The intimacies of the collections fill the place of absence, the place that becomes a new museum of mass production.

In the words of Adorno, “it is a parody of catharsis, a secondhand epiphany.”
Kitsch imitates the effects of art

Material culture has often been referred to as the mirror to which one can hold up to oneself. This view has been seen as “constitutive and interpellative” (Buchli 2002:9) but the study of objects points to its relevance. In the case of this essay the concern is not within the framework of social purpose but with regards to a personal preoccupation as a means of coping with change. According to Buchli, “The nineteenth century idea that culture change could be evinced from our relationship to objects and thereby coped with more effectively has not really shifted much.” (2002:13) These Victorian ideals of collecting play out in the case study cited by Marcoux (1996:73) who writes of a woman named Sandra whose cabinet of curios/curiosities of unicorns becomes her only tangible asset. Sandra is described as having moved more than forty times in forty years, the only constant being her drive to collect unicorns. In her need to create a stable environment in which to channel her pathological impulse to constantly move, she endeavors to transform her fetishization into an effective transitional object. Winicott described this as the object standing in for the breast, or the object of the first relationship. It is seen as the first ‘not-me’ possession. Winnicott’s emphasis is not on the object per se but on the use of the object as being a link to external experiences. In his theory it represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother as something outside and separate. In the case of Sandra’s collection, the unicorn collection stands for the ‘good enough mother’ that was lacking in her early childhood development. Separation deeply affects children but if adults develop strong attachments to certain objects it may indicate underlying personality disorders. Baudrillard links this notion with the “inert objects” which Shor writes of, where the collector who is “unable to deal with the irreversibility of time and the death it inevitably entails…. is viewed as a sort of poor, or rather rich, man’s fetishism- invests part objects with a largely sexual desire” (1994: 256).

The second type of collector recreates an analogous version of a way of life and the cultural realities they had previously known. They do not replace their memories with the arbitrariness of souvenirs but collect objects to function as a way of evoking the past. Freud’s states of being drew on the analogy between the longing for home and the lost home reflected in his room of antiques and texts serving “both the functions of evoking the past, or entering into the nostalgic dimension of the souvenir, and of effacing the past, of building a new timeless world of the collection.” (Forrester 1994:244)

Many survivors of the Holocaust fit into this category where the timeless quality of trauma necessitates the need to talk and dialogue their experiences of the war. The diasporic intimacy I mentioned before evolves into a cultural intimacy. It is identified with the group such as the Austrian group in Bolivia where survivors have created a homogenous group to connect in refugeehood so to speak. For them, the catharsis of having fragments of the past gives a sense of memorialization and some recognition. To show their collections of saved items restores the dignity of those who were repressed. The Imperial War Museum in London is just one collection of the material culture of persecution where the displays of objects have profound and meaningful resonance. Shoes worn by an Auschwitz survivor Gisele Friedman during a death march in 1945 are poignant reminders of the trauma she must have experienced. These collections speak of the unbearable pain and loss in the same way that displays of the few possessions that Syrian refugees have for me.

The Tower of Life in the United States is a private collection from Yaffa Eliach who was born in Eishyshok, a small shtetl in Lithuania. Eliach speaks of her generation as being the last link to the Holocaust and considers it her responsibility to document the tragedy in terms of life not death. In memory of the town she grew up in she created the Tower of Life as permanent documentation using 1,500 photographs of the lives of the Jews who were killed. When the Nazis occupied the town in 1941 she went into hiding where most of the population including her family were murdered. She collected over 6,00 photographs of the residents of Eishyshok taken between 1890 and 194 curated and hung in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993. Grace Champlain Astrove [5] writes: “ The museum uses the collection as a synecdoche”…where they “connect personal memory to the history of the shtetl.”

When she returned to Eishyshok as an adult she discovered that all trace of Jewish life had been erased. By collecting and collating photographs of every Jew who had lived and died there during the 20th century she created a memorial as memory for others and as catharsis for herself. The Eliach Shtetl Collection is comprised of artifacts and photographs. The Eishyshokians were able to conceal the photographs in order to save them. Eliach recalled,

“Though I was only a little girl, I knew enough to treasure my few remaining family photos and to hide them in my shoes in order to conceal my true identity. I kept them during all the months of our travels…it was only after we arrived in Palestine in 1946, did I remove them. The limited amount of material that survived makes the objects that are displayed, all the more poignant and remarkable.” (2013:13)

Bauddrilard’s assertion that collections are serial accumulations is appropriate in this instance, but his view of collecting as a mirror of the ego, is arguable. Eliach’s Tower of Life reflects back to her the hope of life rather than death. Another collection, which has a poignant reminder of loss, is that of the netsuke collection written about so poetically by Edmund De Waal in his book The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2001). He inherits the netsuke collection and uncovers the remarkable story of its acquisition. His family, the Ephrussi, were once a wealthy European banking dynasty who lost everything when the Nazis seized all their property but the 264 netsuke Japanese miniature sculptures were miraculously found inside a mattress saved by their maid Anna in Vienna.He writes:

But what concerned me was how to navigate my way through this parade of sepia memories, the gilt and marble blur of lost houses, estates, a golden-dinner service, balls and racehorses, flunkeys. These objects seemed too specific to be co-opted into a narrative of loss, annoyingly melancholic. I have a strong aversion to nostalgia for a past that isn't yours. And the thought of yet another posh Mitteleuropa memoir set to Strauss, cross-generational misery-lit, made me slightly sick. I was anxious because what I'd been given with these netsuke was far, far more interesting than a generic set of anecdotes. I'd been given objects with memories. I'd been given part of a story, a few echoes, a sense of untold narratives. And this challenge: anecdotalise this odd collection for the rest of your life. (2010)

The collection passed down through the generations act as a connective thread, validating the history of a family and its fortunes. What remains in the act of holding the netsuke in De Waal’s hands is the intangible power of what was left behind. The idea of the abandoned homeland speaks in those tiny sculptures.

Collecting objects is about empowerment; it is about rebuilding and reconnecting with the self. Losing a home, a country and having everything taken away is deeply traumatic. Seeing a collection emerge as ones position of authorship is reinstated must help fill the void of absence. As cultural norms are being revisioned and borders between countries are becoming more fluid, migrations and war continue to contribute to unsettling displacements. For many exiles, despite having assimilated into their new countries, the diasporic souvenirs in their collective memory will hopefully help them find a way to belong in this fragmented world. In conclusion I would like to share a quote from the preface of De Waal’s Hare with Amber Eyes.

Even when one is no longer attached to things, its still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn’t grasp…Well now that I’m a little too weary to live with other people, these old feelings, so personal and individual, that I had in the past, seem to me- it’s the mania of all collectors- very precious. I open my heart to myself like a sort of vitrine, and examine one by one all those love affairs of which the world can know nothing. And of this collection to which I’m now more attached than to my others, I say to myself, rather than Mazarin said of his books, but in fact without the least distress, that it will be tiresome to have to leave it all.”

Charles Swann

Marcel Proust, Cities of the Plain.


Baudrillard, J. The System of Collecting, in Elser,J and Cardinal,R ( eds) The Cultures of Collecting

Boym,S. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books France

Boym,S. Estrangement as a Lifestyle:Shklovsky and Brodsky in Ruben Sulemein,S.(ed) 1996. Exile and Creativity Signposts, Travelers,Outsiders,Backward Glances. Duke University Press Durham and London 1998

Brooke-Rose,C. Exsul in Ruben Sulemein,S.(ed) 1996. Exile and Creativity Signposts, Travelers,Outsiders,Backward Glances. Duke University Press Durham and London 1998

Buchli,V.(ed) 2002. The Material Culture Reader Berg Oxford New York

De Waal, E. 2011. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A hidden inheritance Vintage Books London

Forrester,J. “Mille e tre’: Freud and Collecting, in Elser, J. and Cardinal,R.( eds) The Cultures of Collecting

Marcoux,J-S, The Refurbishment of Memory in Miller,M(ed) Home Possessions Berg Oxford New York

Miller,D(ed) 2001.Home Possessions: material culture behind closed doors Berg Oxford New York

Nochlin,L. Art and the Conditions of Exile:Men/Women, Emigration/Expatriation,in Miller,D (ed) Home Possessions: material culture behind closed doors Berg Oxford New York

Pavel,T. Exile as Romance and as Tragedy in Miller,M(ed) Home Possessions Berg Oxford New York

Said,E. 2000. Reflections on exile and other essays Harvard University Press Cambridge, Massachusetts

Schor,N. Collecting Paris in Elser,J and Cardinal,R ( eds) The Cultures of Collecting

Ruben Sulemein,S.(ed) 1996. Exile and Creativity Signposts, Travelers,Outsiders,Backward Glances. Duke University Press Durham and London 1998

Saunders,N.J.in Buchli,V.(ed) 2002. The Material Culture Reader Berg Oxford New York

Winnicott,D.W.1953 Collected Papers: Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis(1958a) Published in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis.Vol.34, Part 2.London: Tavistock Publications


[1] German Jewish political theorist (1906-1975) who wrote numerous texts: The first major book was Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) tracing the rise of anti-Semitism and racism in Europe.

[2] See Freud: objects that have been imbued with sexual charge

[3] Boym speaks of a second hand epiphany.

[4] See Lyotard : he speaks of the negative side of dwelling as ‘domus’ in Domus and the Megalopolis.

[5] This is a Master of Arts dissertation.. http://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4295&context=etd web search 24/10/2016


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