Are We Hard Wired To Collect?

Deer, Parrot, Chief, and Owl <em>katsinam</em> in the Wolf collection.

Deer, Parrot, Chief, and Owl katsinam in the Wolf collection.

When talking to school kids visiting the Museum, I love to ask them if they collect anything?  Their hands fly up in the air and they eagerly describe their personal treasures of rocks, key chains, Pokemon or baseball cards, bottle caps, and state quarters.

When I was a kid I collected stuffed octopi.  Seriously – I couldn’t have made that up.  Each June my great aunt Louisa gave me one for my birthday.  I had seven of them and in the morning before school I arranged them carefully – one by one on by bed, so their legs weren’t touching.  Years later my son Bengt’s first stick collection lived in the back of my Saab.  Believe me, I had no hand in it!  His collection grew and grew, and each stick held a story.  I was happy when he made the move to Zuni fetish carvings, and I definitely supported his interests.

As  Curator and Keeper of one of the world’s most impressive collections of American Indian material culture, I think about collecting a lot.   Penn Museum’s American Section houses 300,000 things of everyday life made by the Indigenous peoples of North, Central, and South America.  I like to compare it to a library – each thing has a number, a detailed catalog description, and best of all a detailed story.  Find its number and shelf location, and you’re in business.

Visitors often ask “where did you get all this stuff?”  Of  course, collecting is a big part of the answer and at the heart of the idea of museums more broadly. We’re definitely hard wired to collect.  People like to gather things together.  Things tell our stories and hold our dreams as individuals, and as nations in the form of museums.   Collecting, as we museum people know it, began as a scientific endeavor as a way to catalog and understand our world.  Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Alfred Barnes, Frederica de Laguana, and George Heye, just to name a few, wanted to expand their knowledge.  They also wanted to preserve.  And it’s still going on today.  The Penn Museum systematically gathers collections and information with deliberate goals of recording, understanding, comparing, and preserving the peoples, histories, and complexities of our world.

In addition to building our collections and knowledge through anthropological research and excavation, we rely on the generosity of individuals to expand our holdings.   With the recent opening of our Native American Voices exhibition, one of our newest collections that is getting a lot of play behind the scenes exemplifies the important role of individual donors in the growth of our Museum.

A few years ago, we received a call from Richard Wolf, a talented gentleman who makes his living composing music.  Moving to a new home, he asked if the Museum might like his contemporary Hopi kachina (or as the Hopi say, Katsinam) collection, and invited us to come and take a look.  Given the paucity of modern examples in our collection, we eagerly crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge and knocked on his door.

For many summers Richard and his wife Pat traveled to the Southwest to vacation and visit friends and colleagues in Arizona and New Mexico.  Combining their knowledge, keen interest, and terrific eye, they added a new katsina carving to their personal collection each year.  In time, they assembled a stunning pantheon of contemporary carvings by named artists.

Katsinam are Hopi spirit beings.  They represent supernatural entities like animals, stars, and clouds, for example, that bring blessings to our world.  Hopi men create wooden carvings in the likeness of the spirit beings, and on important occasions give them to their young children as gifts.  Hung in their homes, katsina carvings teach children about relationships and their responsibilities in the world around them.  Some Hopi artists also make katsinam for sale.   Thanks to Richard’s thoughtful generosity, his collection is now preserved in the Penn Museum where it is being used to teach our Philadelphia audiences about Native American and Hopi communities today.

Many collections are offered to the Museum each year.   Curators and Keepers review donation proposals carefully, and the Museum selectively accepts items of the highest quality that augment our collections and support our institutional goals in meaningful ways.

If you have a passion for an aspect of material culture, learn more about the people who made or continue to make it today and consider building and documenting a collection of your own.  And by all means, continue to encourage your kids on their paths of collecting – who knows, those quirky early interests might some day surprise you and play a role for future generations.

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