Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities, from Museum Wormianum, 1655
In 1917, Yusuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III, the melancholic prince of Hyderabad, slid into depression after losing the prime ministership of the Nizamdom. The family physician, Dr Hunt, sent in by a concerned mother, suggested that he take up a hobby—perhaps collecting artworks, as Europeans did to save themselves boredom. The Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad bears testimony to how seriously the depressed royal took his doctor’s advice. Known to be one of the largest private collections in the world—including artworks, curios, metal ware, textiles and rare manuscripts, among thousands of other objects—it was once housed at the now decrepit Dewan Devdi, the doors of which were always open to antiquarians, art dealers, booksellers, jewellers and others with curious things to offer.
Why do people collect things? What motivates them? What explains the need to collect and possess, hoard and arrange, guard and display such stuff, and that too with a passion that borders on the obsessive all so often?
The philosopher-writer-critic Walter Benjamin, a lover of books, explored the equation between collectors and objects in his writings, particularly in Illuminations. Describing the relationship as ‘a most profound enchantment’, he characterises the associated feelings as childlike and ‘not born out of greed or covetousness’. Often quoted in such studies, Benjamin says, ‘Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.’