Why do we collect things?

The thing about Porl is that he is more than just a daft idea. Yes, by all means, on his own he is simply a creature with a horse’s body and a lizard’s head. And for over a year we were quite content to leave him be and snigger about him every now and then. But then something took hold of us that transformed Porl from some kind of bizarre imaginary friend into more of a focused fixation.

The change was this: we began to collect Porls.

It began with a nonchalant drawing from Suzie. And then a handful of other vaguely interested people offered up their own interpretation. Before the end of the day we had a small collection. And once you start collecting something, well it is very hard to stop. Just ask this guy:

What is it, I wonder, that inspires one to start a collection? Did the guy above have one birthday when everyone bought him a water gun and they all had a good laugh but for some reason people kept buying them for him until he succumbed to the joke and took the collection on himself? Like people who have cat obsessions thrust upon them because everyone sees a cat and says, “Oh, Gemma likes cats.” Or did he squirt someone in the eye good and proper one time and start hoarding water guns as trophies; like some kind of reverse phobia?

I read of a lady who has over 9000 unique banana stickers. Apparently there are conventions and all sorts for the swapping of banana labels. I scoffed when I heard about it but then the next time I ate a banana I marvelled at the sticker and simply could not bring myself to throw it away. The next time I saw a banana, I knew full well that adding a second sticker to my first was like toying with the edge of a slippery slope. That was a few months ago and I now have 36 distinct stickers, and, although I would hardly call myself a serious banana sticker collector, I do keep my eyes peeled (haha) for new ones.

As a child I collected many things and for the most part I would say this brought some sense of belonging. Aged about ten, a friend and I launched an Animal Lovers Club. This sparked a brief frenzy of collecting every single animal picture we could lay our hands on so we could paste them into our club scrapbook. And I don’t mean just the cute animals. We had pictures of dead birds, starved puppies and all forms of torturous animal cruelty; if it was a picture of an animal we collected it. Around that time, some school friends collected Neighbours stickers and I began to join in. I didn’t even watch the show but within a few weeks I had more stickers than anyone else and lay awake distressing over how I could get even more. What began as a simple desire for belonging grew into an almost full blown obsession over stickers for a show I did not even watch. My Pog collection began in much the same way. If you’ve never seen a Pog, here is one:

If you think it looks like a round piece of cardboard with a freaky creature on it, you’d be right. And yet anyone who was anyone in a 90s primary school playground will remember the mass hysteria caused by them. I even saw one boy in tears because he had left one such prized Pog on the playground bench and someone had taken it. If you’re reading this James Sutton, it was me and I am truly sorry. I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

On the whole I would say that our collecting of Porls has been pretty tame. There was a day when we planned to go to the airport and harass exhausted and helpless foreign tourists in a bid to complete more countries on our coveted Map of Porl. Thankfully we never went; more out of lazy organisation than respect for visitors to our country. Nonetheless, our collection has been somewhat slow and steady. It is also a unique one. At least, we hope it is. We truly hope there is not another group of people avidly collecting drawings of a creature with a horse’s body and a lizard’s head…

But back to the point, why do people collect things? In a book entitled Collections of Nothing, William Davies King defines the collecting impulse as, “owning something in quantity for reasons beyond pure need.” He goes on to theorise that collecting is a cry for help, an impulse stemming from social wounds and our need to relate one object to another object. Deep stuff. If this were some kind of academic article I might read his book and quote him further. But as it is, I have read only a preview so cannot vouch for the rest of the book or of any conclusions he may draw. However, as I near the end of this post, what strikes me is that most collections are of things of very little actual worth or value. Whilst surfing the net, I have stumbled upon collections of burnt food, unused sick bags, unscratched scratch cards, and other people’s dreams. There is even a guy called Graham Barker who has been collecting bellybutton fluff since 1984.

Barker is quoted to have said: “It was on the 17th of January 1984 that I found myself under-occupied in a youth hostel in Brisbane. The night was steamy and stormy – too wet outside and too hot inside to do very much, and my attention drifted to my belly button. There it was … fluff! I must have seen it before that night, but this occasion was the first time I ever picked it out and wondered about it. I became curious about how much navel fluff one person could generate (enough to stuff a cushion, maybe?), and the only way to find for sure was to collect it and see. My first piece of navel fluff was stored in an empty film canister, and the collection had begun.”

People collect the most mundane things and turn them into treasures. And we in turn regard such collectors with both incredulity and awe: yes, they are freaks, but oh, please can we look? I mean, who wouldn’t pay good money to see a room full of bellybutton fluff? And why does the idea of such a collection fascinate us? I mean, I personally wouldn’t collect my own belly button fluff but I’m kind of glad someone has.

Perhaps it is some vain attempt to fight against the inevitability of our own demise, a chasing after the wind as the writer of Ecclesiastes writes, aware that we will one day die. Perhaps it is our way of saying, “I was here. I existed. And here’s my collection to prove it.” Not that I intended to end this post on such a morbid note— I for one believe eternity in Heaven will be indescribably better than this mortal life. But in the meantime, what will happen in years to come, I wonder, when bemused descendants stumble upon 9000 banana stickers, several boxes of neon water guns, enough bellybutton fluff to stuff not just a cushion but a number of small teddies, or over a thousand hand drawn pictures of a creature with a horse’s body and a lizard’s head? What will become of our prized collection then?


About Karen Rosario Ingerslev
I am my beloved's and he is mine

One Response to Why do we collect things?

  1. Rachel says:

    Ahh! I’m impressed not only by the research (even if it came from the Amazon book description ;)), but also the coverage of navel fluff – that takes a strong nerve.

    If people find the Porls in the future I hope they think it’s people’s recorded sightings of some unidentified creature, like Nessy, and that he really existed according to legend at the time. But surely heaven is a Robert Pattinson Manllow? Unless you’re Gemma in which case it’s cats, lots and lots of cats, no matter what she tells you.

    The waterguns picture looks like a stock take at the Brunswick Road Post Office.

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