Discreet Hoarding: The Mystery of the Disappearing Horses and Cabinets of Curiosity


May 6, 2016
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I’m a dyed-in-the-wool museophile (no, I did not just make that word up). I love to look at collections of amazing specimens and artifacts. Turns out I also love to hoard things — oh, I mean collect items of great interest and importance. I like to believe my propensity to collect is an adaptive instinct that has been exponentially amplified over millions of years of selective evolution. This impulse to collect benefited my ancestors because they were driven to collect and accumulate scarce objects that could be used when times were tough. I’ll admit, if this is the case, my compulsion may have become somewhat maladaptive, though extremely satisfying.

I have different strategies and reasons for my collections. Some based on possessing as many objects as possible related to a specific subject and others amassed as a result of a shared relaxing activity, such as collecting “sea glass.” Still others evolved in an effort to collect and hold onto memories in a tangible way.

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Since we’re opening the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I have spent the week recalling the various collections I have assembled over the years. Some I’ve hung onto, others have been dismantled and distributed to others through garage sales, gifts, and donations to Goodwill. My first collecting experience centered on tiny plastic horses. I can’t recall where any of them came from or where most of them went (I still have one; more on this later), but I do remember how much joy arranging and rearranging them on my windowsill brought me as a child.

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The next memory is of my marble collection. Collecting marbles of all sorts became an absolute obsession and my friends and I spent hours negotiating trades, which could get quite heated. My collection was kept in a homemade blue drawstring bag and I took it everywhere. The final disposition of this collection is a mystery to me, one which still bothers me when I have occasion to think about it.

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As a child who attended elementary school in the 1980s, I had the obligatory sticker collection. Stickers stuck carefully to the slick pages of a photo album, repurposed to house a growing collection. The most prized members of the collection were the puffy stickers with googly eyes and the scratch-and-sniff stickers carefully peeled from homework assignments that were well done. Strategic trades were made at the bus stop and trading with boys was to be avoided at all costs because their collections were not well-curated.

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Around this same time I began collecting “sea glass” with my mom, grandmother, and great aunt along the shores of Maine. This was a time-honored tradition that they felt compelled to pass down to me. There really is nothing like it. The feeling of finding a rare piece of blue cobalt glass is truly indescribable, it might as well have been gold. A full jar sits proudly on my bathroom counter and I still get pleasure from gazing at the colorful shards with the well-worn edges and remembering the cool summer mornings combing the shores of Maine with my mom, my grandmother (now deceased) and great-aunt Mimi.

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Later, gargoyles were the object of my desire. I spotted my first gargoyle strategically placed in my brother’s garden, hiding beneath the fern fronds. When I saw it, I was hooked on these dark and macabre figures who were inexplicably cute while still being scary. I was beyond excited when I found my first one at a price I could afford. The collection slowly grew over the next 10 years. Now, pieces of this once-prized collection reside in many different places and serve a variety purposes, such as props for the Medieval Madness camp and guardians for a very special friend of mine, perched high atop a kitchen cabinet keeping a watchful eye. One sits atop my prized collection of “sea glass,” ensuring it stays safe.

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I then turned my attention to collecting items associated with death and funerary rituals, a proclivity my mother objects to, asking, “Why can’t you find something more uplifting to be interested in?” The objects range from those related to El Día de los Muertos to replicas and art related to mummification in ancient Egypt, the most prized piece being a full-size replica of an ancient Egyptian mummiform coffin made to hold CD’s.

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Last but not least, is the antique printer’s drawer hanging on my bedroom wall. It is full of tiny priceless items that spark memories from many different stages of my life. Some pieces are more interesting than others, like the replica medieval dice engraved with skulls and the only small plastic horse to survive the mysterious disappearance of my first childhood collection. It also has some of my most precious childhood memories, like my first house key and the name tag from the collar of my first dog.

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Home Cabinets Social Media Contest

Have a collection of your own? We want to see it! Post images in the comments section on Facebook or on Instagram under #HMNS. Include what excites you and why you collect certain items. HMNS Marketing will put entries to a vote, and the owner of the most impressive cabinet will win four tickets to the permanent exhibit halls, which includes entry into our new Cabinet of Curiosities. We’ll also feature images of the winning cabient across our social media platforms. HMNS is accepting entries until May 20. Winner will be announced the first week of June.

Kat
Authored By Kat Havens

Kat has been both the spokesperson for the CSI: The Experience exhibit and project manager for the Imperial Rome exhibit and has a love of all things historical and cultural. She is responsible for the Xplorations summer camp program, coordinating weekday labs during the school year, writing department curriculum and presenting at teacher trainings. Kat has worked at the Museum since 1996.

5 responses to “Discreet Hoarding: The Mystery of the Disappearing Horses and Cabinets of Curiosity”

  1. Judy Centurelli says:

    I loved reading this post! It brings back so many good memories. I still have Aunt Mimi’s spoon collection and the egg cup collection she started for me, as well as her bookmark collection to which I’ve added quite a few. You took me back, Kathleen. I thank you for that. I can see the traits passed down in your cousin, Laura, and her daughter, Linnea who loves collecting. By the way, I understand your fascination with death and the funerary rituals as there are some wonderful, interesting artifacts associated with them.

  2. Kat havens says:

    I love that our family is this way. Shows a real world sensitivity. I’m proud.

  3. Ce Ottenweller says:

    My niecelets and nephlets have all been informed that, when I go to the great beyond (a long, long LOOOONG time from now!) they are to be very careful about what they choose to toss out of our home. I’ve teased them with tantalizing little hints about the odd little treasures secreted all over the house. Some of them are quite obvious: the Moldavian Strega mask, the Turkish rug, the Ecuadorian hand-woven runner… but they’d better look very closely at the salt and pepper shakers, the rough pottery pitchers and the candy-striped wine glasses… I’m also a collector, and nothing makes it into my house unless there’s a story attached or some particular meaning. To me, a home – my own Cabinet of Curiosity – is the essential reflection of my husband’s and my hearts. Everything in it reflects back the many twists and turns of our lives and the many, many people we’ve been touched by and loved, whether in person or as our inspiration as writers. artists, or craftsmen.

    Great post, Kat!

  4. Joseph Peterson says:

    Our own cabinet has grown and expanded many times over and strangely includes many of the things you listed above. A wonderful article and a great bit of writing! Came a crossed it searching for a book with the same title. Booked marked to keep it to enjoy it again and again.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Thank you so much! You made my day

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