Guilty feelings, collected thoughts

ON COLLECTING: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition by Susan Pearce, Routledge pounds 40
EUROPEANS say it with things, announces Susan Pearce, professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, without a hint of disapproval. Phew! Does that mean we can stop feeling guilty about our possessions?

On Collecting is an unattractive but uncompromising title. It is, as it happens, precisely what the book is about. It is also playfully ironic, a provocation to the majority of us whose understanding of materialism has been moulded by psychologists, economists and politicians - Freud and Marx to the fore. Could such a book find a home, one wonders, other than under the shabby raincoats of anal-retentive collectors of stamps, butterflies and fossils?

Professor Pearce comes to grips with Freudian anality as early as page seven. Following a review of post-Freudian texts that helped to put collecting in bad odour (eg "All collectors are anal-erotics, Jones 1950"), she concludes that "anal retention is best taken with a dose of salts."

Then - and here is solace for collectors, whether of classic Porsches or vintage jeans - she questions "why in intellectual inquiry material culture was not deemed worthy of investigation in its own right until recent decades". Classic economists, she points out, have rationalised acquisition but ignored the processes of consumption and possession, "which helps to account for the feelings of guilt and unhappiness which material goods often arouse in us".

The key word is "culture". In the wake of Marx and Freud, the Eighties have seen psychological and economic theories of materialism superseded by a fresh appreciation of the richness of material culture put forward by such newcomers as the French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard.

His brand of new materialist would find little of cultural significance in the unthinking accumulation of toothpaste and shampoo in the private sanctum of your bathroom (though economists and consumer psychologists might be enthralled by it). By contrast, the china bowls, candlesticks and clock that you choose to display on your mantelpiece would be latched upon as a cultural statement, part of the language we use to construct a social identity for ourselves.

This "huge investment of social capital", says Professor Pearce, is quintessentially European. Her social history of collecting starts with the treasure hoards of medieval kings. Their sumptuous gifts to followers and between rival kings were a sacramental ritual. And the bequest of hoards to first-born alone was a major determinant of the European pattern of kinship.

Capitalism created "a social world of goods" in which even Romanticism took material form, in the "cabinets of curiosities" of the rich. They contained anything from dinosaur eggs to saints' relics. Collections such as the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford and the Great Exhibition of 1851 were also deliberate constructs - culture palaces of Victorian values.

Times change. Today, both public and private collections can be subversive. There are public collections devoted to labour history and ethnic minorities. In the United States there are 50,000 private collectors of Nazi memorabilia.

Such is the politics of collecting. Even collectors of printed lavatory paper, according to Professor Pearce, are making "important assertions about the 'ordinary' material world and our relationship to it". She quotes a rather sneaky American study in 1961 which put 22 "anally-connotive" words matched with a similar list of "neutral" words to 15 stamp collectors and 15 controls. The results purported to support the "anal character concept" of collectors.

Her own research at Leicester University has come up with a more remarkable conclusion: collectors are normal.