Collectors and Collections: Passion Turned into Profession

Collectors and Collections: Passion Turned into Profession

For most people, a pile of toys when you’re a child is your first collection. Throughout one’s life, they go through many other collections, ranging from books to vinyl to even clothes. For Neal Matherne, Collections Ethnographer for the Tang Museum and the Library, this became the norm as he developed many different collections throughout his life.

Even though his job surrounds the world of collections, Matherne has found ways to not become consumed by items that he found meaningful to him. He explained how “as a little kid I had toys, I had Star Wars action figures, I had comic books,” but now, he tries to get rid of as many things as he can. He stated that he “actively collects as little as possible.”

Through using the methods of organizing sensation Marie Condo, Matherne only keeps the items he finds joy in. When you have moved 31 times in your life like Matherne has, “you realize you can rid get of a lot of stuff.”

This may seem strange, however, seeing as Matherne works with collections every day, trying to solve the question of “can we tell a better story about our stuff?” His goal is to tell four stories about the most interesting aspect of the collections; the origin stories, stewardship stories, access stories, and use stories. By combining each of these four aspects, Matherne hopes to tell a unique story about Skidmore’s miscellaneous items.

Matherne does in fact have a teaching collection that he used quite often in lesson plans when he was a music professor. This collection is still prevalent in his life and mainly consists of compact disks, books, textbooks, and instruments, such as his bass guitar and two mandolins from the Philippines. He keeps these items as a sense of holding onto his passion.

“The day that I get rid of that stuff is the day I go ‘you’re never gonna use this.’” Although hesitant to do this, Matherne realizes this time will eventually come, signifying to him that his days of being a professor have sadly come to an end. 

 Since both his personal collection and teaching collection contain items he is interested in, Matherne joked that his teaching collection is different because “I haven’t gotten rid of it yet.” He enjoys keeping his instruments and books readily available for the next time he could potentially need them to teach again. He expressed how “I have to sit there, every time I move, and go ‘what can I not live without?” and each time, his teaching collection fit into that category.

 Although he claims he no longer has collections, Matherne does in fact still collect some items that he finds interesting. One of these items is money from other countries — especially the Philippines. He finds himself thinking of intricate questions about the mythology and appearance of the money. Matherne portrays this interest not only with the money itself, but also with a number of different coffee mugs with different Filipino money on them. The colors and difference between U.S. money and foreign money are what draw him in to want to keep this type of collection going.

From time to time, Matherne still comes across collections of new items he finds interesting and ones that correlate with his passions. Whether it is instruments from the Philippines, or mugs with foreign money on them, he has found new items that have peaked his interest and has once again combined his profession of collecting with his love of different items.

Even though he does not actively collect, Matherne has proven that collecting is not something that one sets out to do, it is something that happens when someone has interests and hobbies; becoming an unconscious act of doing.

Photo courtesy of Scribner Library Rare Collections

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