"The Phenomenon of Collecting: from Protomuseum to New Media": main highlights

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The main bullet points of the presentation by the historian of art, fashion and design, methodologist of the State Hermitage Museum and collector Ekaterina Bychkova at the 1703 annual lecture series.

From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

In ancient Greece, one often hears the word mouseion, a place consecrated to the muses, the sanctuary of the daughters of Zeus. First mouseions of this kind could be found in the 3rd century BC. That is where the term "museum" originated. When the modern concept of a museum begins to take shape in the 20th century, we first encounter a "temple" format where art needs to be "worshipped”. Many museums are now moving away from this idea, with the venues themselves becoming more democratic, more friendly, but the original idea persist.

There were a huge number of mouseions. One of the most famous is the mouseion of Alexandria, which was a storehouse for books. Another prototype of the modern museum space was the pinakothek, where the works of the ancient Greek painting school were kept.

The Antiquity shaped people’s self-image as descendants of previous civilizations. As custodians of the past. It became a pivot point in collectors’ minds.

In the Roman Empire, trophies were gaining a bigger importance, collecting them turned into a serious business. It was then that the first auctions were born, where patrons could purchase works of art. Another turning point, important for the art history: the nature of collecting moved from private to public, albeit accessible to a limited circle. In addition, a discourse on how to properly store and systematize collectables started back then. First inventory records appeared, however far from being considered catalogs.

In the Middle Ages, there was no collecting in its typical form. Churches became the main custodians and collectors, and the objects they compiled mostly served religious purposes. Private initiative was less common. The term "pre—museum collection items" is of importance here - true, the objects were quite diverse, they did not form a single narrative line, but they nevertheless made up a collection, with no claim to a museum purpose.

In Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the collectors were driven by the following motives: self-identification, ancestorial ties, curiosity, scientific exploration, trophies, prestige, knowledge of the world, fetishes and various forms of beliefs.

From Renaissance to Enlightenment

The Renaissance gave a new impetus to collecting, against the backdrop of thriving science, the era of great geographical discoveries began. During this time, out came the ideas of humanism and the importance of human work. It was the golden age for collecting, which started to gain momentum. The idea of patronage came to the foreground when artists partnered with philanthropists. Collections primarily served the purpose of portraying the status of a particular family. Private collecting became so powerful a phenomenon that it clearly needed to break into the public domain.

Renaissance saw the appearance of the so-called "Cabinets of curiosities", where people could marvel at not only grotesque, outlandish exhibits, but also exquisite works of art. These cabinets would task themselves with accumulation and classification of items. Their main motive was to create an image of an ordered universe: "The more objects you amass, the more accurately you can depict the world."

During the Age of Enlightenment, new species of museums appear, departing from closed private cabinets. The first national museum comes to the foreground — the British National Museum, joining three private collections. Museums start to expand, breaking the walls of single buildings, expanding to entire neighborhoods and even islands. Debates on their educational mission and the need for learning experience in a museum take over the discourse.

From the 19th century to the 20th

The first half of the 19th century turned museums into a landmark of identity building. The museum space becomes public, the circle of visitors expands significantly. A historical and documentary revolution takes place — collections are now systematized in the chronological order. There are changes from the inside as well, it is believed that visitors should gain more information from their communication with art.

In the second half of the 19th century, museums became an important component of a metropolis, turned into centers of attraction and securing a place in everyone's life. Industrialists actively promote collecting, and their endeavors pay off by becoming foundations to new museums. A striking example is the Tretyakov, Shchukin and Morozov collections in Russia, and Tate in the UK. The USA also enters the museum scene during this period explained by a strong outflow of European art overseas, while American artists expand their presence in Europe. Museum architecture and display practices undergo some key changes.

Out came the marchands, who serve as intermediaries between artists and buyers. The key figures are Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. Their "Memoirs of Art Dealers" can tell you more of that time.


The first museums of modern art sprang to existence at the turn of the century. In 1918, Kazimir Malevich, Vasily Kandinsky, and Vladimir Tatlin opened the Museum of Pictorial Culture, where the Black Square was exhibited as item number one and a reference point. The artists partook in own theory work, established their own museum, filled it with their own art and engaged in a dialogue with the public. In so doing, the artists gained an agency in the museum business, giving birth to a "life museum", a "museum-laboratory" only to be accused of formalism and hidden from the audience for many years.

The first museums of contemporary art populate the USA: the MoMA, the Guggenheim and Whitney. The question arises: how to exhibit the latest art, how to store rapidly disintegrating materials, installations and performances. The first director of MOMA, Alfred Barr takes over the new scene, laying down the foundations of modern art museums in general and proposing the idea of the "white cube".

Since the 1960s, joint visiting exhibition have become a regular practice, large shows of contemporary art are held. In the 1970s, museums become subject to more criticism, suggesting that they should reconsider their interaction with the viewer. The concept that we now call curation takes roots. In the 1980s, Japan makes an entrance to the art market, which became an important moment in the history of collecting and changed the market landscape.

By the 1980s, the economy was finally recovering, museums were growing and becoming a place of pilgrimage for tourists. Discussions on how to store the art of new media and how to document the process of creating an artwork continue throughout.

Today the museums are fighting for the right to become a "third place", something that will attract people in their free time. They combine many functions, new institutions are being created that combine exposure, education, research activities, the institute of curatorship, and public programs.

The main motives of collecting

→ Economic. Collecting is an investment.

→ Social prestige. Your own collection is an opportunity to demonstrate what position you occupy in the society, your level of wealth, your level of intelligence.

→ Magic. Collecting is a process of assembling meanings that we attribute to an object.

→ Curiosity and interest. It is a desire to learn something new.

→ Education. Especially when private collections become public.

→ Emotional experience from possessing an object of art, searching and finding one.


What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relationship to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness. What is this “completeness”? It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object’s mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection. And for the true collector, every single thing in this system becomes an encyclopedia of all knowledge of the epoch, the landscape, the industry, and the owner from which it comes."

Walter Benjamin, "On Collectors and Collecting"