Napoleon got it wrong - Britain isn't a nation of shopkeepers but a nation of collectors. And once a collector has filled every available nook and cranny of their home with objects of desire, their next obsessive step is to create a museum. That's how many of Britain's 3,000 museums started. But how many of these private collections deserve to become publicly funded museums?
In a few weeks, London will gain its latest museum, this time thanks to 1970s fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Like many such small institutions, the new Fashion and Textile Museum is Rhodes's personal passion. It has been built to house her collection of 3,000 dresses, and she sold her Notting Hill home to pay for it when public funders turned it down.
Rhodes may be an unusual designer, but her enthusiasm for making her own museum is much less so. Undeterred by the hard financial realities, lots of people want their own museums, hoping or believing that objects and stories important to them will matter to us. In Stockwell, a group of print enthusiasts is determined to set up a typography museum to house three massive collections - one of which alone has three million items. Meanwhile, Robert Opie, arguably the most assiduous collector of packaging in the world, is trying to get a space in Notting Hill to house his immense archive. But do collections of soap packets and typographic patterns and punches make for viable museums?
With so many museums in Britain, about 300 in London, there is arguably little room for many more. There are lawnmower museums and barometer museums, museums devoted to shells and salt and mussels. But despite the fact that many struggle to attract visitors and make ends meet, plenty of people are determined to create new ones.
It's one thing to collect things, quite another to make something the public wants to see. Britain is a nation of collectors, from humble lovers of teapots to fine art connoisseurs. Far from being the preserve of the rich and powerful, collecting takes place at car boot sales as much as at Christie's. While multimillionaire Manchester businessman Frank Cohen collects Young British Artists, Ann Widdecombe collects Franklin Mint teddy-bear plates.
According to Susan Pearce, an academic expert in the growing study of collecting, amassing objects fulfils a whole range of personal, social and intellectual needs. Collections may appear to be about science and enlightenment, but they also relate to identity, internal motivations, personal history and lifestyle choices. …