Generally speaking, a collection may be defined as a set of material or intangible objects (works, artefacts, mentefacts, specimens, archive documents, testimonies etc.) which an individual or an establishment has assembled, classified, selected, and preserved in a safe setting and usually displays to a smaller or larger audience, according to whether the collection is public or private.
To constitute a real collection, these sets of objects must form a (relatively) coherent and meaningful whole. It is important to distinguish between a collection and a fonds, an archival term referring to a collection from a single source, which differs from a museum collection by its organic nature, and indicates archival documents of all kinds which have been “automatically gathered, created and/or accumulated and used by a physical person or a family in its activities or its functions.” (Bureau of Canadian Archivists, 1992). In the case of a fonds, unlike a museum collection, there is no selection and rarely any intention to build a coherent whole.
Whether material or intangible, a collection is at the heart of the museum’s activities. “Museums have a duty to acquire, preserve and promote their collections as a contribution to the safeguarding of the natural, cultural and scientific heritage” (ICOM Code of Ethics, 2006, article 2). Without saying as much explicitly, ICOM’s definition of a museum remains essentially tied to this principle, confirming Louis Réau’s long-standing opinion: “We understand that museums are made for collections and that they must be built as it were from inside to outside, shaping the container according to the content” (Réau, 1908). This concept no longer corresponds to some models of museums which do not own collections, or which have collections that are not at the heart of their scientific work. The concept of collection is also one of those most widely used in the museum world, even if we have favoured the notion of ‘museum object’, as will be seen below. However, one can enumerate three possible connotations of this concept, which varies according to two factors: on the one hand, the institutional nature of the collection, and on the other hand, the material or intangible nature of the collection media.
Museum collections have always appeared relevant provided that they are defined in relation to the accompanying documentation, and also by the work that results from them. This evolution has led to a much wider meaning of the collection as a gathering of objects, each preserving its individuality, and assembled intentionally according to a specific logic. This latter meaning, the most open, includes toothpick collections accumulated as well as traditional museum collections, but also collections of oral history, memories or scientific experiments*.
(*) Contents from: Key Concepts of Museology (ICOM, Armand Colin)
Edited by André Desvallées and François Mairesse,
With the assistance of the Musée Royal de Mariemont
And the assistance of the ICOM International Committee for Museology