American Collectors and Collections

This seminar explores the history, theory, and practice of collecting in the United States from the turn of the nineteenth century to the present. Both individual and institutional collections are discussed, with special emphasis on theoretical and methodological approaches to studying private collections. Close attention is paid to how collectors select, arrange, and sequence objects, as well as the meanings they invest in them and how, in turn, they articulate those meanings to a variety of audiences. The course takes the formation of U.S. collections of American and European fine and decorative arts, likewise historical artifacts, as its starting point. Topics and student projects may encompass a wide range of object ‘types’, such as but not limited to books and manuscripts, costume, memorabilia, ephemera, and natural history specimens. Subjects addressed include hierarchies of value, systems of knowledge, classification, history and memory, identity formation, consumerism, nationalism and internationalism, ethics, and controversial collecting. Also considered are the roles that collectors and dealers play in creating markets and driving scholarship. In addition to collections themselves, sources examined may include past and present cultural commentary on collecting in prescriptive literature, novels, film, and biographical and autobiographical writings. Students will undertake close analyses of primary sources and conduct interviews with collectors. Visits to museum collections may be required. 3 credits.