Why do we collect?

By Rachel Beckles Willson

In 1974 the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote an essay called ‘Collection of Sand:

In a recent Paris exhibition about bizarre collections – collections of cowbells, bingo games, bottle-tops, terracotta whistles, train-tickets, spinning-tops, toilet-paper packaging, collaborators’- badges during the German occupations, embalmed frogs – the case with the collection of sand was the least showy but also the most mysterious, the one that seemed to have most things to say, even through the opaque silence imprisoned behind the glass of the jars’. (Trans. Martin McLaughlin, London 2013).

For Calvino, sand represented remnants of a world that had been worn away: the piles of homogeneous grain were all that was left from a multiplicity of forms.

The ouds collected on Oudmigrations may be viewed similarly. They have lasted beyond the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; they are traces of people and places long gone; and they conceal more than they reveal. And for the moment at least, they are silent (here). But the closer one looks at them, the more varied they seem and the more captivating they become. Little wonder that they have survived.

Oud collecting is not new. An early wave emerged from European greed. violence, and apparent failure: Napoleon’s attempt to capture Egypt 1798-1801. But anyone who has handled the resultant Description d‘Egypt will readily acknowledge an immense success.These copies are held in the British Library.

Description d'Egypt

Napoleon’s team of scientists had the help of Egyptians in creating a monumental collection of knowledge: 10 volumes of text (measuring 43.5cm x 28cm) and 13 volumes of plates (70cm x 53cm).

Egypt text and plates vignette

In Volume 7 of the Plates series we can find an oud, probably the first one to travel west for some centuries. It now seems to be lost (see ‘Egypt to France c.1800’).

Egypt musical instruments.jpg

But other ouds followed it over the ensuing decades. They were brought by Europeans in the interest of research, in extending their capacity to define the world, and in expanding their own prestige.

Today’s oud collecting is different, and involves relatively few Europeans. But it is still an intense and competitive activity that divides collectors in rivalry and also purpose. For some a particular oud is a reflection of a (lost) world; for others it is an affirmation of personal identity; for some, collecting is about a quest for the perfect sound, the perfectly crafted piece, or the perfect feeling cradling in the lap. But for others still, owning a particular oud is a mark of prestige and indeed wealth.

Of course while ouds divide, they also make connections. Otherwise disparate worlds stretching from Kuwait to Marseille, Lyon to Tokyo, Damascus to Vienna, Nazareth to California, are now connected by migrating ouds.

When Calvino reflected on the sands of lost worlds, he found himself thinking about the future. He asked whether grains of sand could yet be foundations on which the world could rebuild itself. Might we ask the same here? What shared worlds can emerge from these globally circulating ouds?

a bunch of ouds

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