The mystery of collection

"Memory...is the diary that we all carry about with us." Oscar Wilde

There is something primordial and instinctive about collecting. The urge to gather seems to emerge from the depths of our lizard brains, pushing our compulsions in a way we don't actively understand. Collecting offers different things to different people, but is it possible that, at its core, collection taps into the same need for each and every one of us?


  Photography by @looseleaf

Photography by @looseleaf


Here at être Louise collects travel guides. They are tangible symbols of intangible memory, representing freedom and manifesting an important aspect of her sense of self—her identity as a traveller. As a link to the most authentic version of who she is, Louise sees these guides as embodiments of adventure and exploration. Her collection is a connection to specific times and places; moments she wishes to keep vividly in mind.

A couple of years ago I traipsed around France and Scotland, collecting stones in the places I loved the most. When I arrived home I gave those stones as a gift to my father. He loves stones, and has his own collection of found natural objects. This is where the kernel of the idea began, but these stones were more about sharing with him a part of my adventure. He has always fed my fascination with the world and encouraged my curiosity with his own travel stories, so naturally I felt compelled to share these beautiful moments with him. It was about offering him a tangible link to a place I had connected with on an emotional level. In this way, they are not so very different from Louise's collection of travel guides. 

Could collecting, then, boil down to preserving a connection to time and place? Is that the driving force behind our compulsion to gather objects? Why, deep down, do we collect?

Collections are obsessions made manifest. They feed existing obsession and, in turn, create a stronger inclination to focus our time, capital and effort upon. Obsession is addiction in its simplest form. It fills up the empty places we have and gives a sense of comfort or purpose. 

This instinct is older than we may think. In fact, it stems from the most basic instinct we have as a species—survival. The accumulation of scarce objects in early human history meant greater wealth, and therefore, greater security. So collections, in fact, ensured survival. This central concept has not changed in all our history of development, it has simply changed form. Now, in a time where physical survival is far easier to achieve, it is perhaps our spiritual survival collection satisfies?

In the 19th century, after the opening of Japan to the West in 1854, there was a wave of interest in Japanese art and traditional forms of craftsmanship in the wealthy circles of Western European society. Objects known as Netsuke became part of this craze for the mysterious east. 

Originally part of traditional ensembles from the 17th century onwards, Netsuke were invented as a practical solution to the problem of fastening men's kimonos. As an extremely specified form they only had a few formal requirements, so artists had almost unlimited creative freedom.

There's evidence to suggest Netsuke have always been a collectors item. Wealthy Japanese men amassed them to create more diversity in their wardrobe, but even after traditional dress fell out of favour in Japan, they were highly valued as art pieces and hoarded by European admirers. To this day, there are many across the world who value them as collection pieces.

What is most fascinating about these functional miniatures though, is that they mirror broader trends in Japanese art, so chart the course of history in the country since the 17th century. They are objects that distill a specific time and place in their form, and are a window into moments of the distant, and not so distant, past. They are perfect pieces of hewn beauty, and infinitely collectible.

So in the end, is it a spiritual compulsion that drives us to collect? In a world both more comfortable and fraught, are we feeding our souls and filling up the empty parts of ourselves with obsession?

At être we initially spoke about our guides as time capsules of a sort; documenting the trends we are slave and subject to. They, like Netsuke, offer a window into a specific time and place. Beyond offering practical advice and sending people on their own journey, our initial motivation was one of capturing this world we live in as authentically as possible, and collecting the moment the world now finds itself in, in all its vivid beauty. Ultimately, our goal is to collect moments, and what motivates us now is adding to these. I'm sure this will be our driving force well into the future, as we explore more corners of the world in the years to come, collecting as we go.