The Impulse to Collect
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
While I’ve been working at the Jane Gates Heritage House in Cumberland, Maryland, the Allegany County Historical Society has graciously let me spend time in the F. Brooke Whiting house (http://thewhitinghouse.org) The house is an architect-designed 1911 cottage built in the Arts & Crafts style. It’s quaint and charming. But its great value lies not in the building but in its contents: an impressive collection of 18th-19th century European and American furnishings, rare books, and art, along with an equally impressive collection of Asian art and porcelains ranging in age from 200 BC to the 19th century. There are objects in every corner, paintings covering every wall. There are curio cabinets stuffed with portrait miniatures, tables covered with Qing Dynasty export ceramics. There are Murano glass chandeliers, Lalique vases, Japanese Edo prints, carved ivory figurines, Persian rugs, lacquered cabinets and painted Chinoiserie desks. There is an 18th century family bible on the dining room table with birth and death dates inscribed within, a Han Dynasty glass spoon, and original 18th century contracts framed on the wall. These are all things that F. Brooke Whiting Jr. and his sister Anne Frances Whiting collected through their lives, and which were all donated, along with the house and an endowment, to the Allegany County Historical Society upon Brooke Whiting’s death in 1998.
F. Brooke Whiting Jr. was born in Cumberland, Maryland in 1918 to F. Brooke Whiting Sr. and Ruth White Whiting. His sister Frances was born in 1913. Neither ever married. Whiting Jr. worked as the rare book curator at UCLA for over 30 yeas, while his sister Frances served in the Navy during WWII and afterward worked at the CIA. The Whiting siblings often travelled to Europe and Asia collecting art, furnishings and curios. The Whiting House is a testament to their passion for collecting rare books, furnishings and works of art from around the world.
Spending time here has got me thinking about collections and collectors in general. Where does the impulse to collect originate and what do collections say about their owners? I was recently in New York City visiting another impressive collection-- that of wealthy, gilded-age industrialist, Henry Clay Frick. Around the same time that the Whiting House was constructed, Frick built a palatial residence covering an entire city block on 5th Avenue across from Central Park. He stuffed it full of massive carved antiques and famous works of European art. His zeal for collecting the great masters, such as Rembrandt, Constable, Goya, Vermeer, and Boucher bordered on maniacal. He famously paid 1.25 million dollars for the 18th century Fragonard series, Progress of Love, that had been in J.P. Morgan’s collection until his death in 1915. Frick then redesigned an entire room to house them. Frick’s 5th Avenue residence was completed in 1915 and he lived there for just five years before he died. His will specified that the home and all its great works of art be left intact, and established as a museum.
An interesting side note about Frick is that he grew up in West Overton, Pennsylvania, only 50 miles northwest of Cumberland. At the time of his death he was one of the wealthiest men in America. A self-made man, he got his start in the Allegheny region of the Appalachian Mountains, turning coal into coke in a beehive oven.
Although not nearly as wealthy as Henry Clay Frick and almost two generations younger, the Whiting siblings clearly shared the same obsession with collecting great art and antiques. And like Frick, Whiting Jr. too wanted the collection to be visited and seen by others for generations to come. So what is it about collecting that people like Frick and Whiting Jr. find so compelling? Why the legacy of great art? Do collections stem from a selfish impulse for self-aggrandizement or are they more like loving children that live on after one dies?
The cultural anthropologist Susan Stewart studied the impulse to collect. Collectors are hoarders, she wrote. The collection, Stewart pessimistically observed, is a form of object fetishism, which paradoxically relies on a sense of authenticity, while simultaneously separating objects from their social context to subsume them to the personal narratives of the collector.
Frick’s and the Whitings’ collections were undoubtedly aesthetic, but they also stemmed from a deep sense of personal aspiration, or what Stewart calls longing. Whether that sense of longing was for beauty, authenticity, or knowledge, the value they conferred on their collections derived their significance from the underlying culture of capital in which Frick and Whiting Jr. were themselves weighed and measured. Frick’s ostentatious collection announced to the world that he was not just a man of great wealth, but also refinement and taste. For Whiting Jr., his sober, scholarly collection represents his and his family’s own dedication to the idea of history and global fluency. More importantly, it communicates these ideas within the context of what had become, at Whiting Jr.’s death in 1998, small-town Appalachia.
Collections don’t have to be grand to be communicative though. They can be as simple as a jar of pennies, or an array of seashells on a mantle piece. I can’t help thinking that archaeologists are collectors of a sort too. I am here by day scratching in the ground behind the Jane Gates Heritage House, looking for shards of glass, pieces of pottery and old bottles, hoping that the amassed collection can create a new story about the past. The artifacts we find will be meticulously washed, cataloged, and then either displayed or put away in a drawer somewhere for posterity. Our collections are intellectual, in pursuit of knowledge, but they are, as Stewart would cynically argue, fetishized objects nonetheless.
Still, I love wondering around places like the Frick and the Whiting house. I love looking at all the stuff and imagining their life histories, even as collected objects. Call me a fetishist, but I believe that there is nothing wrong with the act of collecting. It gives us pleasure, it lets us share stories with others across time and space, and most importantly it makes us human.