Peter van Mensch
Towards a methodology of museology
(PhD thesis, University of Zagreb 1992)


Collecting is a special form of preservation. What has been said about criteria what to preserve in the preceding chapter applies for collecting as well. Collecting, however, implies more than mere preservation. The value an object acquired by the process of selection is given an extra dimension by combining the object with other objects. As Stránský states: "The museum object makes sense only within the framework of a collection" (Stránský 1984 - unpublished comment). This extra dimension is expressed by the term in fondo. The collection which results from the collecting process can as such be considered an artefact in itself with a significance which transcends the individual value of the components. As such Stránský connects the concept of collecting with the concept of documentation (Stránský 1974).

Only a few museologists have paid attention to the psychology of collecting. When they do, they usually consider the tendency to collecting as an instinct, which we share with many different animal species (Benoist 1960, Schubertova 1979, Weschenfelder & Zacharias 1981). Following a Freudian approach, Bernard Deloche describes in detail the psychopathology of collecting in general and museum work in particular. The neurosis of the collector (anal fixation) turns to anal sadism by the curator (Deloche 1985).

Intention and criteria

Whether instinct or neurosis, the drive to collect manifests itself in many different ways. Collecting requires intention, and distinction can be made according to the underlying rationalisation. Collecting may be based on subjective, personal criteria or may be based on objective, rational, and scientific criteria. The difference between a private collector and a museum has often been described as the former approach versus the latter, but this is a rather academic distinction (Dunger 1984: 3; Klausewitz 1978; Wamsteker-Meijer 1980). In art museums, for instance, institutional collecting is strongly biased by subjective, personal criteria of the curator or director concerned, while in the field of natural history private collections are usually based on strictly scientific principles.

In museological literature there is a general tendency to emphasise the importance of rational, scientific criteria. 'Matching artefacts with our historical agenda is the main goal of the collections analysis process. Historical value is our primary collecting criterion' (Hamp & Ettema 1989: 42). This statement of two US museologists echoes Stránský's concept of museality. Museality involves a rational assessment of the documentary value of objects: 'The society of today, forming itself on a new scientific-technical basis, requires the museums to be directed at the present times and to become an active selector of representatives of their values. Traditional museum collecting cannot meet these demands, neither from the viewpoint of tendency nor methodological standard which expressively lags behind the general development of science' (Stránský 1984: 7) [note 1]. Similar remarks have been made by Neustupny, who holds the view that collecting 'must serve first of all the present and future interests of research' (Neustupny 1968: 49). A similar view is expressed by Jahn (Jahn 1979), but the difference between Jahn and Stránský is that while Jahn suggests to use classification systems as developed by the subject-matter disciplines as a 'natural' structure for realising collecting policy, Stránský aims at another orientation, according to which a collection should reflect the society in an integrated and interdisciplinary way. This agrees with the perspective of 'new museology'. Whereas a traditional museum of science and technology will normally present chronological series of artefacts, an ecomuseum in an industrial environment will (re)place artefacts into their social, historical and economic context in order to evoke labour conditions, social strives or economic progress (Bellaigue 1984: 77).

Methods of collecting

To distinguish between any form of natural accumulation on the one hand, and collecting as special form of artificial accumulation on the other, Stránský introduced the concepts of active and passive collecting (Stránský 1966 and 1974) [note 2]. This distinction runs parallel to the distinction between pull- and push-factors (Chapter 15). Active collecting implies a programme. It takes place in the context of the currently prevailing world view, as mirrored by those employed to discharge this responsibility. Purchase, fieldwork, loans, exchange and manufacture by order are the usual techniques of active collecting. Gifts and bequests are usually forms of passive collecting. Active collecting in a full sense can only exist in case of contemporary collecting, not in case of retrospective collecting.

Passive collecting can be considered as form of self documentation (Stránský 1974). It reflects the self-image of a person of a community. Whereas active collecting is based on a decision what to preserve, passive collecting is more the result of a decision what to throw away.

When a museum acquires objects directly from the primary or archaeological context this may be called external collecting (or also called direct collecting). When a museum acquires objects from dealers and/or private collectors this may be called internal collecting (or indirect collecting). The same distinction is made by Barblan who speaks of direct and indirect preservation (Barblan 1987: 37). The concept of external collecting can be related to Ford's concept of primary collections (Ford 1984). Ford distinguishes between two types of artificial collections, which he calls primary and secondary collections. Primary collections are derived from direct field observation and scientific collection activities. Secondary collections are collections that are 'edited' according to certain themes.

Throughout history internal collecting has played an important role in the shaping of museum collections. In the field of ethnology museums curators were not used to do field work. Like in natural history museums they stayed in their museums and depended upon travellers and professional collectors. More recently ethnology museums again became dependent on others. 'The disappearance of "traditional" cultural environments and the recent introduction of national legislations protecting heritage have compelled museums to concentrate their trade with entrepreneurs and collectors for the last available remnants of indigenous life' (Maranda 1984).

Tournament of values

Museums have become competitors among themselves. Internal collecting thus forms part of an increasingly monetised commodity sphere of singularised objects. The criteria for singularisation are defined by networks of people that have commercial interests. Maranda points out the different perspective of the different parties concerned: "Dealers have a different financial situation than most museums and are motivated to acquire goods to realise a profit over the short term. Collectors choose objects to satisfy such desires as personal enjoyment or long term investment". She continues to establish that 'the museums may be large or small players in this market, but by the very nature of what they represent, they set standards of collectability both of an aesthetic and monetary nature. Through their actions, museums are promoting and legimatising values'.

Especially in contemporary art internal collecting plays an important role although direct contact between museum curator and artist (external collecting) is indeed possible. There is a network of relationships and a entanglement of interests between museum curators, dealers, private collectors and art critics, sometimes called the art Mafia. "Big dealers will have their tame resident critics, as princes their poet-masters. There will no longer be much distinction between collectors and dealers, and the collector-as-amateur will be extinct. On many museum boards, a new breed of broker, the collector-dealer-trustee, will hold sway. (..) Welcome to the future: a full- management art industry. Most of it is here already" (Hughes 1989: 42). As to Old Masters, auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's seem to have taken over the role played by art dealers. Their successful attempts to control the market prices of art and antiques is much criticised.

Private collectors play an important role in the sphere of transition between primary and museological context. For many categories of objects private collectors serve as the first stage of value assessment, in particular for those objects that are not yet recognised as 'serious' museum items. The relationship between private collectors and museums can however be problematic. Private collectors may not apply the same high moral standards as to collecting, and they might treat the objects in a different way.

Apart from private collectors and museums there are also other collecting agencies, like university or research institutions. A new phenomenon in the field is institutional investment. Part of the price inflation of art is said to be caused by Japanese investors. What the Japanese are doing has little relation to collecting as it was once understood. They are investment-buying on a huge scale, with limitless quantities of cheap credit.

Museums are outclassed by the big-money competition. Every game has winners and losers. The winners of this one are some collectors, some dealers and, in particular, the major auctioneers (Hughes 1989: 38). The losers are museums and, through museums, the public. "We are coming face to face with the reality that we are no longer major players in the art market", said Allan Shestack, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (quoted in Rosenbaum 1984: 144).

Supply and demand

In each context transform there is some museological law of supply and demand. In case of collecting as special P-M transform there is usually a dominant pull-factor working, i.e. there is a strong wish from 'museological specialists' (collectors, museums) to acquire and to accumulate objects. Sometimes the suction force from their side is so strong that it acts destabilising on the primary context. However, the initiative for musealisation can also be taken by the makers and first users within the primary context. Already in the course of the exploitation-cycle forms of pre- or proto-musealisation may be found. This is meant by Waldisa Russio writing: "il ne me semble pas raisonable questionner les criterès de collecte du passé mais voir revoir les objets collectionés (collectés) dans un nouveau prisme, en les recyclant (actualisant) et en les attacheant de valeur" (Russio 1984: 53). This 'push factor' is institutionalised in ecomuseums. "No systematical collecting, but rather in-between the museum-staff and the population, a movement to and fro, and interpersonal relations: in that way, gifts, loans, deposits appear as sediments laid by living, by remembering, by sensibility in the most natural way" (Bellaigue 1984: 76).

Too strong pull-factors act destabilising in the original context. One consequence of P-M transform is a empty niche. This empty niche can be filled in two ways: (1) in a strong cultural system: by the same category of objects, made according to the same traditions; and (2) otherwise, by objects that are borrowed from other (usually dominant) cultural systems, i.e. the cultural system of the collector. The second way provides a ethical dilemma of the collector, more so since collecting is no guarantee for survival (Nooter 1975). Sometimes collecting objects increases the risk of loss by natural and man-made disasters (Washburn 1984).

Apart from the influx of outside borrowed objects, strong demand creates also the supply of fake objects, either falsifications or objects that are especially made for collectors (and adapted to their taste). 'Each society, each generation, fakes the thing it covets most' (Jones in Jones ed. 1990: 13). The present day 'commodification of culture, the global tendency to treat art and antiquity as market commodities, augments the value of originals, thereby encouraging their faking (..). Because master pieces are a non-renewable resource, the expanding market is overflown with copies and fakes' (Lowenthal in Jones ed. 1990: 19). In the field of ethnography museums and other collectors have, inadvertently, initiated the production of artefacts of questionable nature. Although they are genuine 'originals' if we consider the makers, they are soul-less replicas as to their intention. After the re-discovery of 'primitive art' many collectors and art dealers travelled to 'primitive cultures' to collect examples of their material culture, especially religious objects. Since quite often such objects were destroyed after having been used, copies were made especially to be traded. The quality of this objects gradually was reduced to their visual appearance, often adapted to the taste of the western collectors (Kaplan 1985: 127; Konare 1985; Maranda 1984: 97 and 1985). These objects usually are referred to as airport art. Such objects may, however, have scientific value as they document cultural change.

Strong demand provokes illegal supply, through theft, clandestine excavations, etc. In the field of natural history too greedy collecting may do irreparable harm to nature. Many examples can be given of populations of animal species that became vulnerable through environmental problems, but received the final blow as a consequence of collecting by museums, zoos and private collectors.

Finally, since much of the demanded material is scarce, the growing demand has caused dramatic increases in prices. As a result museums are not able to carry out their basic tasks. The available budgets are insufficient to acquire works of art and exhibitions can not longer be organised because of rocketing insurance premiums. Private owners or their heirs are selling works of art rather than donating them to museums, while at the same time criminals discover that robbing a museum is becoming more profitable than robbing a bank. To conclude, there is a pressure from within (board of trustees) or outside (politicians) to sell part of the museum holdings.

Collection development

Collecting is creating a collection. A collection is more than just a certain number of objects. In this regard Stránský uses the term thesaurus (Stránský 1972). This term refers to the thesauri of the temples of the Greek and Hellenistic period with an eye on the use of the same term in information/documentation sciences. Recent publications in the field of collections management tend to speak of collection development instead of Stránský's thesaurisation. Notwithstanding the different philosophical background, both terms represent a similar approach towards the documentary value of the collection as a whole. Collection development has been defined as 'the building of a coherent an reliable collection over a number of years' (Arts & Architecture Thesaurus). As such a collection can never be static. It must be improved continually in quality and representation to reflect the aims and policy of the institute. The improvement process includes growth through new acquisitions; it also includes exchange and judicious removal of materials. This last instrument of collection improvement is called de-accessioning, weeding or negative collecting (see Chapter 18).


Barblan, M. (1987) 'L'industria messa a nudo', IBC Informazioni 3 (1): 33-48.

Bellaigue, M. (1984) 'Trifling and essential: the ethnographical artefacts', in: V.Sofka ed., Collecting today for tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm) 75-78.

Benoist, L. (1960) Musées et muséologie. Que sais-je? 904 (2nd ed.; Paris).

Burcaw, G.E. (1975) Introduction to museum work (Nashville).

Deloche, B. (1985) Museologica. Contradictions et logique du musée (Lyon).

Dunger, W. (1984) 'Sammlungstätigkeit als wissenschaftliche Aufgabe', Abhandlungen und Berichte des Naturkundemuseums Gorlitz 58 (2): 3-12.

Ford, R.I. (1984) 'Ethics and the museum archaeologist', in: E.L.Green ed., Ethics and values in archaeology (New York/London) 133-142.

Hamp, S.K. & M.J.Ettema (1989) 'To collect or to educate?', Museum News 68 (5): 41-44.

Hughes, R. (1989) 'Sold!', Time 27.11.1989.

Jahn, I. (1979) 'Die Museologie als Lehr- und Forschungsdisziplin mit spezieller Berücksichtigung ihrer Funktion in naturhistorischen Museen. Geschichte, gegenwärtiger Stand und theoretische Grundlagen', Neue Museumskunde 22 (3): 152-169.

Jones, M. ed. (1990) Fake? The art of deception (London).

Kaplan, F. (1985) 'Typology of substitutes: system-descriptions-fields of use', in: V.Sofka ed., Originals and substitutes in museums. ICOFOM Study Series 9 (Stockholm) 121-129.

Klausewitz, W. (1978) 'The possibilities and limits of scientific work and research in museums', in: J.Jelinek ed., Possibilities and limits in scientific research typical for the museums (Brno) 4-19.

Konare, A.O. (1985) 'Substituts de masques et statuettes au Mali', in: V.Sofka ed., Originals and substitutes in museums. ICOFOM Study Series 8 (Stockholm) 57-60.

Maranda, L. (1984) 'Marketplace ethnology', in: V.Sofka ed., Collecting today for tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm) 94-100.

Maranda, L. (1985) 'Substitutes in collections and for communication', in: V.Sofka ed., originals and substitutes in museums. ICOFOM Study Series 8 (Stockholm) 185-189.

Neustupny, J. (1968) Museums and research (Prague).

Nooter, G. (1975) 'Ethics and acquisition policy of anthropological museums in The Netherlands', in: P.Kloos & H.J.M.Claessens eds., Current anthropology in The Netherlands (Rotterdam) 156-164.

Rosenbaum, L. (1984) 'The anxious acquisitors', Artnews 88 (3): 144-151.

Russio, W. (1984) 'Basic paper', in: V.Sofka ed., Collecting today for tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm) 51-59.

Schubertova, V. (1979) 'K aktualnim otazkam teorie muzejni selekce', Muzeologicke sesity (7): 30-45.

Stransky, Z.Z. (1966) Zur Auffassung der Museologie. Diskussionsmaterial (Brno).

Stransky, Z.Z. (1972) 'Aktivni muzejni dokumentace', Muzeologicke sesity (4): 3-19.

Stransky, Z.Z. (1974) 'Metologicke otazky dokumentace soucasnosti', Muzeologicke sesity (5): 13-43.

Stransky, Z.Z. (1984a) 'A provocative checklist', in: V.Sofka ed., Collecting today for tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm) 7-11.

Stransky, Z.Z. (1984b) 'Basic paper', in: V.Sofka ed., Collecting today for tomorrow. ICOFOM Study Series 6 (Stockholm) 145-151.

Wamsteker-Meijer, A. (1980) 'Bibliotheektheoretische aanzetten: de grammatica van de bibliotheek', Open 12 (9): 405-419.

Washburn, W.E. (1984) 'Collecting information, not objects', Museum News 62 (3): 5-15.

Weschenfelder, K. & W.Zacharias (1981) Handbuch Museumspädagogik (Düsseldorf).


1 In this text Stránský repeats an earlier detailed discussion of the problem of collecting where he connects the necessity to 'realize a qualitative change in the methodological base of museum collecting' with 'the conditions of the developing socialist society' (Stránský 1974). >back<

2 Both terms are also used by Burcaw but in a different meaning (Burcaw 1975). >back<