I collect stuff, therefore I can think

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L ast week was the fifth national Museums Week - an annual promotional gala designed to remind the public that our museums, inspired by various lottery-inspired grants and private initiatives, are enjoying something of a boom. Under the low-profile chairmanship of Loyd Grossman ("Now whoooo might live in a place like this?"), the Campaign for Museums - backed by the Department of Culture - orchestrated a nationwide set of events in more than 800 institutions, many inspired by the official 1999 themes: food, travel and treasures.

There were tastings of 1940s cuisine in the Cotswolds, in case anyone was nostalgic for the pre-banana, powdered egg wartime diet. At the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield there was a theatrical interpretation of domestic life in a miner's house. In Southport you could inspect the art of the table - paintings of grapes and guinea fowl; visitors to Bath could explore the Native American diet; and at the Fishbourne Roman Palace you could - and can today - eat like a caesar at their "Table of Rome" celebration.

It all sounds like clean enough fun, and is certainly a far cry from the sometimes staid image which still clings to museums. Despite a post- war spree which has seen the creation of hundreds of new museums (three quarters of the ones now open were founded after 1970) most people still think of them as earnest, antique and somewhat monumental: they have the whiff of the embalmer, the smell of school trips. If a bit of modern technology and the busy introduction of some hi-tech effects can shift this stereotype, then good luck to the curators.

Nor is the urge to collect things just another stealthy Victorian vice. Our great national museums do still have the tang of colonial adventure, of remote booty shipped home from newly conquered lands in the sun. But the impulse that drove travellers to bring home Birds of Paradise is only a developed version of the schoolkid's urge to collect stamps or football stickers. Stephen Jay Gould once named a book about 18th-century collectors Finders, Keepers - an allusion to the boyish zeal involved in such pursuits. And he was dealing with seriously eccentric keepers such as Peter the Great, whose collection included a two-headed sheep, a box full of teeth he had pulled himself, and a pickled arm holding an eye socket.

We all collect something, even if it is only bad habits. Some are ambitious, aspiring to million-pound masterpieces, elk antlers or tigers' heads; others nurse more humdrum enthusiasms for coins, plants, coronation mugs, books, celebrity memorabilia, toys, railway tickets - almost any bric-a-brac will do. Collectors are all too easily satirisable as nerds, as trainspotters or anoraks. But in all these cases, grand or modest, the urge to collect seems expressive of a deep-seated thirst not just to acquire but to make sense of things, to bring the huge universe of objects to heel somehow, binding it with the glue of an individual taste.

There is certainly an honourable didactic element to all this - "I want people to look and learn," Peter the Great himself declared. But collectors are primitive in another way - they are hunters. They track down missing links, be they fossils or thimbles, like predators on the lookout for quarry. The antiquities in the British Museum - ancient stone tablets from Assyria and Babylon, or incomprehensible hieroglyphs from the Nile - were trawled home by people inspired by the thrill of the chase.

As a result, the best museums carry a strong emotional charge. People talk about "live theatre", and museums are dead theatre, packed with the eloquence of objects in repose. Whether they will retain their touching sense of things carefully or even obsessively assembled is another matter. Last week the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, launched an ambitious new venture: the 24-hour museum. It's a website featuring the contents of 2,000 museums and galleries, with search engines and browsers. Eventually it will become a full catalogue of Britain's treasure trove.

This is good news for researchers and historians. Time bandits can look at weird old chronometers in Knightsbridge and Sheffield; navigators can look at sextants in Bristol and Felixstowe. But it also disperses in a few strokes the eccentric root of the most charming collections, the sense of a presiding spirit at work. The prize exhibit at the National Toy and Model Museum in Bayswater, London, which closed down a couple of months ago, was an amazing room-sized model of a Welsh coal mine. It had been the lifelong hobby of an ex-miner - he must have been down the shed all hours, tinkering away. There was precision in its immaculate network of pulleys, lights and rails, and real feeling in the hunched figures crammed in those narrow seams. It sat on its own in a darkened room, the very definition of a labour of love.

The 24 Hour Museum: www.24hourmuseum.org.uk.