Friday 5th June the Centre for Studies in Literature at University of Portsmouth put on a conference called ‘Collectors and Collecting from the Early Modern Period to the Present’, which was organised by myself and my colleague Lucy. (In hindsight – we should have used a shorter title. Try tweeting that with extra information in only 140 characters!)

Every year CSL put on a postgraduate conference, organised by the current 2nd year PhD students in order to allow postgraduates to mingle, practice giving papers in an academic environment, and of course, to give us key experience for entering the world of work. (Yes, I am aware that I will eventually have to get a real job at some point *sigh*) It’s really great to be given an opportunity to design your own conference, because often you want to learn about a particular subject and know who else is studying in your field, but other conferences end up being only 20% related to your work. This we were able to design to our own specifications, to include what we wanted to know. Fortunately, although Lucy and I are working on very different topics, the theme of collecting was something we are both working on and are interested in.

With the theme and title set, we had to go about actually organising the conference. Tasks ranged from sending and reading emails (about 10 million of them), to reading lots of great abstracts and having to decide who to choose to speak, to plugging the crap out of the conference to everyone and anyone who will listen. Practical decisions had to be made (who speaks when, who has dietary requirements, all that stuff), as well as fielding problems that arose; two of our speakers dropped out the night before the conference for example – nightmare! But unavoidable.

After six months of organising and lots of late nights worrying, the day finally arrived! People arrived early (EARLY!) and the day kicked off with our keynote speaker, Professor Susan Pearce from the University of Leicester. She spoke on objects in literature and my favourite fact of the day was, according to some research done, collecting in today’s society transcends class – men and women collect equally, and within a certain type of collection, say model cars, people from all backgrounds collect them and no matter the education or wealth of the collector. Collecting acts a leveler. This was not always the case, before the Victorian era collecting was a rich person’s luxury, so it’s fascinating to see how attitudes and behaviours have changed over the years.

We had 4 panels throughout the day:

Panel 1 ‘The Working Museum’ saw three papers given on current museums (although one was on the old version of a current museum) and it was fascinating how even though each museum dealt with very different themes, all had the same problem of space – where do you put things? How do you choose between objects when you cannot display them all? The objects themselves can be shrouded in mystery and ignored until research reveals their incredible history. It was also interesting to gain an insight into the collector/museum dynamic – museums don’t want everything someone can offer them, but they also sometimes want things that people want to hold on to. Collectors, too, can impose unrealistic expectations for how their collection is to be displayed, which can cause issues (especially when it comes to space and practicalities).

Panel 2 ‘Nineteenth Century Collectors’ saw three papers dealing with specific and high-profile collectors from 1800-1900. Again, the type of collection was vast ranging from British art to what some people would call ‘everyday tat’, but the collectors shared qualities: they were specific in their aims of collecting, be that to represent everyday people, or to appreciate Spanish history in France. The collections reveal something of the person who collected them, and Mary Hope Greg, for example, had a fantastic relationship with the museum she gave her collection to. This reminded me of how Richard Lancelyn Green (the collector behind the collection I work with now) gave his collection to Portsmouth Library because of the wonderful relationship they built up.

Panel 3 ‘The Ideas of Collecting’ featured a lively set of three papers about the motivations and qualities of collectors. It was pointed out that often the reason we think particular objects are valuable is because someone has decided it – objects do not have value intrinsically. This was emphasised later with the idea that an object’s meaning can change over time, which in turn changes our attitude towards to object and its origins (an idea that I am working on currently). There was a debate at the end about whether the motivations for collecting could be divided into two cateogories: for social status or for the love of objects, and whether these were mutually exclusive, or whether collectors have mixed motivations. Not a debate that could be concluded in ten minutes, but it sparked some interesting ideas and considerations for future research.

Panel 4 ‘Early Networks of Collecting’ rounded off the day with four papers: three dealing with collecting between 1500-1800 and the last brought us all the way home to the modern collecting of conceptual art, beginning in the 1960s. The contrast between the first three and the last struck home how collecting has changed. From cabinets of curiosities (where people put literally anything and everything into display cabinets, divided thematically) to men like John Bagford who worked his way up the social ladder through dealing in collectibles for the rich and famous, through to artists in the 1960s who claimed ‘there are no collectors, there is nothing to collect’ and yet still managed to give a collection of art to a museum for display. A wonderful travel through time.

Of course, the day was not all academia and learning – there was plenty of time for socialising and mingling too. I met some wonderful like-minded people, who are all studying in different fields or topics to me, but whose lives and work are fascinating. The after-conference dinner was a great opportunity for me and Lucy to relax after a job well-done and to appreciate the great conversations going on. Also, I can highly recommend Carluccio’s in Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth if you have a gluten free diet – their menu is amazing! And the service is great, too.

Here are a few pictures from the later part of the day (unfortunately I was so swept away by the day that I forgot about photos for the first part – but better late than never!)

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