I have a cabinet containing most of my natural history collection in the corner of my flat. It’s usually barely part of my conscious experience of my living space, but a thorough reworking recently proved to be a process of personal archaeology.
There can be a fine line between being a hoarder and being a collector. They seem to have very different aims: to accumulate provisions against unseen future need, mitigate loss and waste on the one hand, or to gather tokens of our experiences and world, perhaps as a tool for organisation, on the other. But they might come from the same place, the very human instinct to gain control of our environment. The difference is all in the execution, though. The end result can very easily end up being the same: a hell of a lot of stuff.
I’ve always been both, squirreling away wrapping paper, ribbons, empty boxes and all manner of expendable paraphernalia for re-use, craft projects or just aesthetic value. These have served me well, always offering up raw materials whenever I wanted to make something, but have also cluttered up my life. When I moved away from home, I filled a new flat without really emptying my old room at all. I simply acquired more stuff.
I have collections of more kinds than I like to think: stamps (yeah, I was a cool kid), cards of sentimental value, beautiful papers, beads, jewellery (not necessarily to wear, usually animals), birds’ nests, prints, eggshells, skulls, insects, pelts, feathers, botanical specimens, figurines, shells. I even realised I had made a seedpod collection by mistake (no regrets).
These things are not to use. The items in them are not expendable. My natural history collection is where the difference between a hoarder and collector comes in. Hoarders fear to lose, saving things ‘just in case’; collectors curate, objects have to be worthy to make the cut.
When I moved in with my partner 5 years ago, with great perspicacity he bought me a beautiful cabinet. He thought that this would contain the impending tidal progression of inconvenient naturalia. He presumably didn’t fancy birds’ nests mouldering unhappily in corners or skulls grinning at him smugly from under the furniture. Their presence was inevitable, just like the seed and shells I had always sequestered away in his pockets when we went on walks, or my joking (not joking) requests to “STOP THE CAR” to pick up fresh-looking roadkill to skin (“No, Natalie. No.”). But it might, possibly, be give them some kind of limit so that we could at least pretend I was not entirely feral.
There are pelts covering almost every surface of the flat, shells and antlers on walls and bookshelves, bunches of feathers sprouting gayly from pots, framed insects lining the hallway. The realisation of a kernel of a new grouping invites further additions. It is all the ‘cabinet’, whether physically in the cabinet proper or not, connected functionally like an extended phenotype, like a bird’s nest or hermit crab’s shell.
What this piece of furniture did do, however, was to give me, for the first time, a chance to really curate. A place to be highly selective and create relationships between the things in the collection that were more than just taxonomic and functional. I could create my own cabinet of curiosity, like those of the sixteenth and seventeenth century collectors I have studied for years.
The thing with natural history collecting is that the process is often messy (flesh, sinew, breaks, smells, major methodical fuckups. In your living room, hotel room, bathroom). The curation is also messy (think crates of treasured organic matter devastated to dust by museum beetles, leaving only the twig-like inedible remnants behind). Sometimes this can be the stuff of nightmares (incompletely dispatched insects, pinned and arrayed on the setting board, waking up and requiring a second death, their imagined indignant screams haunting you for evermore).
And, you inevitably develop an unhealthy penchent for napthalene fumes (It’s white powder, and therefore must, according to prevailing wisdom = cocaine. Don’t do it kids, you’ll never kick the habit).
You have to deal with loss, and sometimes horror. So the balance between care and detachment is important, and you have to accept a degree of transience. Unless you collect purely bones and shells, or have museum-grade equipment, things are probably not going to last forever. The collection itself is an organic thing.
My PhD on early modern natural history gave me the tools to look at my own collecting practices. and a recent space to give the cabinet a much-needed re-working caused me to reflect. I started as a latency tweenager emulating Victorian collector’s and using Gerald Durrell’s The Amateur Naturalist as my bible, accumulating my own insect and plant specimens in an earnest, and rather pointless, attempt to create a British reference collection.
I have discovered my collecting aesthetic leans rather more towards that of the early modern Wunderkammer, a microcosmic array of natural things displayed in a network of meaningful relationships to one another, to maximise their appeal and effect. Curiosity collectors centuries often made extensive catalogues of their collections, displaying their erudite knowledge about their objects, and the implicit organising principles behind the collection, presented in an idealised form, which could often be, in physcial reality, a right mess.
My collection ranges from the objects that I have produced myself- insects I have set or skins (often from roadkill) I have cured with my father; to items purchased or found on exotic holidays, from whence most of my pelts come; and, as my personal purchasing power has increased, items simply bought, off Ebay (dangerous for the bank balance…) or at fairs, because they seemed to fill some empty place in the microcosm.
The selection is more than aesthetic, but also not scientific, nor is it exclusively about the natural. There are a few items combining the natural and artisanal, just as you would find in an early modern collection: many of the most prized objects were a combination of the natural and artificial, the work of God and the work of human ingenuity, such as gilded Seychelle’s coconuts or carved nautilus shells.
I use these object in my biology teaching sometimes, such as demonstrating adaptations with a variety of skulls, but more often I use them to think with. The aim is less for throughness and completeness, but more for wholeness. The collection is a tokenistic representation of both my experiences, my relationships, and my perceptions of the natural world. It has an influx and efflux, as objects degrade, are superceded, or take on different meanings.