Life at Home
Every collection tells a story 
Jane Harrison 
19 August 2006
Calgary Herald
Copyright  2006 Calgary Herald 

When we return from vacation and unpack, our bags often contain more than dirty clothes and half-spent tubes of toothpaste.

Mementoes of the trip follow us home: seashells from a beach, matchbooks from European bistros and postcards from whatever city we visited. For many travellers, the markets and shops are as attractive as the galleries and museums.

Even when we try not to, we collect. If you think about it, our homes are filled with collections: "any group of things systematically assembled," says The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Consider your neat row of wine glasses or stacks of dinnerware and towels.

Why resist the urge to collect when our world is filled with so many things that add texture and personality to home?

In Flagrante Collecto: caught in the act of collecting is a delightful new book with an irresistible title by author Marilynn Gelfman Karp (Harry N. Abrams, $84).

Karp is an art professor at New York University whose collections prove that "the hunter-gatherer instinct is alive and well."

Her curatorial instincts help sort and assemble objects that call out to her into remarkably diverse collections that "lie somewhere between Tom Sawyer's pockets and the Smithsonian Institution's storage shelves."

Karp's essays reflect on the nature of our material world, bringing a curious and observant intelligence to the job.

We are introduced to folded paper toys, antique lawn sprinklers and handmade crutches. There are calipers, shoe taps (designed to extend the wear of the sole) and seed packets.

Some collections are hers and some belong to others. For any collector, the story or social history is an important part of the enterprise.

Karp also gathers collections that don't need a shelf or dusting. There are impressions of leaves and pigeon tracks in sidewalks and metal objects so thoroughly embedded in asphalt they are now part of the street.