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Reference: André Desvallées and François Mairesse (Eds.). Key Concepts of Museology. 2010. Available in 9 languages from http://icom.museum/professional-standards/key-concepts-of-museology/


n. – Equivalent in French: collection; Spanish: colección; German: Sammlung, Kollektion; Italian: collezione, raccolta; Portuguese: colecçāo (Brazil: coleçāo).

We have take off the photos of this article under the indication of Mr. Mairesse. 

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.

1. Frequent attempts have been made to differentiate between a museum collection and other types of collection because the term ‘collection’ is so commonly used. Generally speaking (since this is not the case for every museum) the museum collection – or the museum collections – are both the source and the purpose of the activities of the museum perceived as an institution. Collections can thus be defined as “the collected objects of a museum, acquired and preserved because of their potential value as examples, as reference material, or as objects of aesthetic or educational importance” (Burcaw, 1997). We can thus refer to the museum phenomenon as the institutionalisation of a private collection. We must note, however, that if the curator or the museum staff are not collectors, collectors have always had close ties with curators. Museums should have an acquisition policy – as emphasised by ICOM, which also mentions a collection policy – museums select, purchase, assemble, receive. The French verb collectionner is rarely used because it is too closely linked to the actions of the private collector and to its derivatives (Baudrillard, 1968), that is to say collectionism and accumulation, known pejoratively as ‘collectionitis’. From this perspective the collection is seen as both the result and the source of a scientific programme, the purpose of which is acquisition and research, beginning with the material and the intangible evidence of man and his environment. This criterion, however, does not differentiate between the museum and the private collection, in so far as the latter can be assembled with a scientific objective, even though the museum may acquire a private collection which has been built with very little intention to serve science. This is when the institutional nature of the museum dominates when defining the term. According to Jean Davallon, in a museum “the objects are always parts of systems and categories” (Davallon, 1992). Among the systems relating to a collection, besides the written inventory which is a basic requirement of a museum collection, it is just as essential to adopt a classification system which describes and can also rapidly find any item among the thousands or millions of objects (taxonomy, for example, is the science of classifying living organisms). Modern classification systems have been greatly influenced by information technology, but documenting collections remains an activity requiring specific and rigorous knowledge, based on building up a thesaurus of terms describing the relations between the different categories of objects.

2. The definition of collection can also be viewed from a more general perspective to include private collectors and museums, but taking its assumed materiality as a starting point. Since this collection is made of material objects – as was the case very recently for the ICOM definition of museums – the collection is identified by the place where is located. Krysztof Pomian defines the collection as “any group of natural or artificial objects that are held temporarily or permanently outside the circuit of economic activity, subject to special protection in an enclosed place designed for this purpose, and displayed on view” (Pomian, 1987). Pomian thus defines the collection by its essentially symbolic value, in so far as the object has lost its usefulness or its value as an item for exchange and has become a carrier of meaning (“semiophore” or carrier of significance).

3. The recent development of museums – in particular the recognition of intangible heritage – has emphasised the more general nature of collections while also raising new challenges. Intangible collections (traditional knowledge, rituals and myths in ethnology, ephemeral gestures and performances in contemporary art) have led to the development of new systems for acquisition. The material composition of objects alone some- times becomes secondary, and the documentation of the collecting process – which has always been important in archaeology and ethnology – now becomes the most important information. This information is not only part of research, but also part of communicating to the public.

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 col- lections of oral history, memories or scientific experiments.

Main photo: Ordinary Dioramas by Kevin LCK