Through objects we understand proximity to others and history. G. Thomas Tanselle opens A Rationale for Collecting with “’s sense of self-awareness is increased by being able to place one’s own endeavors in a framework that comprehends the full panoply of related pursuits.” Collecting, hoarding and accumulating helps each everyone better understand their relationship to other producers and makers of the past and present. And collecting, especially non-utilitarian items — objects, images, people, experiences — is a natural inclination. Tanselle argues that this habit “may be seen as required for establishing a sense of human identity and defining one’s place in the world.”

A Rationale for Collecting characterizes the personal habits involved in the rational, and sometimes irrational, act of collecting. As a curator I’m curious about the core evolutionary and psychological desire in a museum’s collection. Cultural institutions thrived off their collections and collecting habits for generations. Now museums, like the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, feel antiquated showcasing their archives. At the core of Tanselle’s reasoning is the idea that collecting has an element of chance involved. Museum’s collections are the accumulation of cultural identity, so how can a guest unearth and discover, with an element of surprise, their own sense of self in a museum? The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian, is an stunning and forward-thinking example of how chance has been incorporated into a visitor’s experience.

On the spectrum of possible collectors, you’ll typically find hoarder at one end and connoisseur at the other. “It is, in fact, quite conventional to think of ‘collections’ as different from ‘accumulations’, but it is not very satisfactory, because it skirts the question of how, or by whom, the coherence of a ‘collection’ is to be determined.” These words — hoarding, collecting, accumulating — hint at several distinguishing factors in their definitions:

  • who is acquiring the objects?

  • why are they being acquired?

  • how is their cultural or commercial value determined?

I enjoy Tanselle’s definition of collecting because it makes everyone a collector — despite their reasons. I see Sunday morning flea market thrifting as akin to an archaeologist digging through 2,000 years of accumulated dust. Artists, archivists, curators and archaeologists are all searching for the value in objects. Colin Renfrew is his book Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists draws connections between artists and social scientists. These disparate disciplines are asking the same fundamental questions and utilizing similar investigative strategies. Renfrew concludes that contemporary artists “seek to understand the world by acting upon it”. I would argue that creatives and scientists alike share this research method, as well as an insatiable craving for chance.

The desire to find out what will show up next impels the gambler to play one game after another untiringly and drives the collectors, with unceasing eagerness, to proceed from one antique shop, or other likely source, to another. Chance fascinates us not only because it produces endless variety but also because we feel that there must be a way to tame it, to pluck from it some reassurances of order. The television program Antiques Roadshow, in which people bring their possessions to experts for evaluation, illustrates the randomness in the distribution of objects — and the fact that such randomness is a significant part of the interest the show holds for its participants and its viewers. A large portion of those who brings items for inspection would not consider themselves “collectors”…

Tanselle’s reasoning behind the drive to collect is rooted in the fundamental need to create order — and coupled with the gambler’s desire for chance — this is a deep, almost primal impulse. Now compare that feeling to what curators and arts professional call “museum fatigue”: that dreaded and familiar exhaustion brought on by hard concrete floors, endless squinting, and very few spaces to recharge. The fatigue is real, even for museum professionals (myself included). What’s the remedy for this terrible disease? Chance. Museums should be exciting and enticing experiences; so how do we tap into our fundamental impulses? By expanding the idea of how, and most importantly who claims authorship on a permanent collection.

New York City’s Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum reopened in 2015 after a multi-million-dollar historic preservation and renovation project. The most intuitive and innovative update for the museum isn’t in an exhibition but in their newly designed visitor engagement program called “The Pen.” This stylus becomes a guest’s constant companion and personal docent. The Pen is now your museum diary and digital collector — each visitor becomes a producer and collector.

Explore the digitized collection on large touchscreen tables; draw your own wallpaper designs in the Immersion Room; solve real-world design problems in the Process Lab; discover how the Carnegie Mansion worked as house; and understand how donors have influenced the museum’s collection over the last 100 years… The Collection Browser is available on seven tables installed throughout all floors of the museum, giving you access to thousands of objects in the museum’s collection, including those currently on view in the galleries… (Cooper Hewitt Design Museum)

At the core of The Pen were 7 design principles: (1) not a barrier to entry, (2) extension of the content, (3) belongs in the museum, (4) encourages discovery, (5) part of an ecosystem, (6) context of use, and (7) direct manipulation. Institutions trying to breathe life into their collections and reinvigorate visitor engagement need to keep these core factors mind. (The Pen Process)

This new form of visitor engagement doesn’t stop once you’ve left the museum. The Pen through QR codes, touchscreens, and interactive media tables allows an individual to acquire and save any object on-display or in the Cooper Hewitt’s off-site archives. When a visitor heads for the

exit sign staff offer each person a unique website address. This dedicated URL has captured that guest’s exclusive museum experience. Adding to the longevity and sustainability of the program, visitors can return again and again, and continue hoarding more objects for their personal (digital) collection. This is where the future and longevity of museum’s and their (dusty) collections are going.

The Cooper Hewitt has found a way to reincorporate their historic archive of design objects in with a public’s want for both playfulness and intimacy. And the museum did it with what is typically the stuffiest aspect of any large institution: their permanent collection. With help from The Pen museum-goers have been able to, as Tanselle suggested, “place one’s own endeavors in a framework that comprehends the full panoply of related pursuits.”


Tanselle, G. Thomas. "A Rational for Collecting." Studies in Bibliography Vol. 51 (1998): JSTOR. Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <>.

Renfrew, Colin. Figuring It Out: What Are We? Where Do We Come From? The Parallel Vision of Artists and Archaeologists. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

"The New Cooper Hewitt Experience”. Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, 13 June 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <>.

"The Pen Process." Design Journal, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Vol. 1 (2014)