(Im)memorabilia: Ephemerality, Resonance and the Collector’s Item

Private Collections, Public Display

Do we collect things simply to indulge our passion for them? If so, why make a display of that passion? Showcasing seems calculated to raise certain objects to the status of ‘collectibles’ so as to advance the collector as connoisseur.  And yet, might not the urge to exhibit our personal belongings be rather more elemental?

These questions came to mind when I researched the vast and apparently random collection of stuff that the queer Welsh dilettante George Powell (1842–82) bequeathed to Aberystwyth University.  Powell’s curios ranged from a pair of Canadian snowshoes to a fragment of composer Robert Schumann’s coffin.  They seemed to map out a journey, and his gesture of sharing struck me as an invitation to go in search of him.

Private collections may communicate intimate truths or express longings that cannot be articulated otherwise.  An autobiographical act, their public display in – or bequest to – an institution of culture and learning betokens a desire to reach out, to come clean, to matter and belong.

(Artefacts from the Powell bequest were on display at the School of Art from 18 May to 11 September 2015.)

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