Passing on a Living Collection

In 1851, London’s Crystal Palace stood as a beacon of modern progress, of humankind’s capabilities, of a multiplicity gathered into one place. The 100,000 exhibits and millions of visitors from all around the world had never seen such a monument to global ingenuity. Writers and politicians who attended the truly international exhibition pointed out the “kaleidoscope of nationalities” present (Jeffries 2014, 15).


London’s Crystal Palace (1851)

The Great Exhibition of 1851 united the British colonies in a dramatic statement of progress, a statement heard all around the world. In Russia, it prompted fears that “modernisation was not taking place at all” and contributed to “the anguish of backwardness, the experience of underdevelopment, [and] envy of progress” which many felt (Katz 2008, 45). Dostoevsky’s Underground Man labelled the building a “Crystal edifice, forever indestructible” but nothing more than a glorious “chicken coop” (Dostoevsky 2004, 33). Like Dostoevsky, many saw the Crystal Palace as a symbol of human arrogance, while others believed it ushered in a “plateau of peace and prosperity” (Jeffries, 12).



This copy of Desiat’ Russkikh Poetov (Ten Russian Poets) shows that Brasch read classic Russian poetry in its original form.

Upon seeing the Great Exhibition, Charlotte Brontë noted, “its power does not exist in one thing, but the unique assemblage of all things” (quoted in Jeffries, 14). Before her stood the example of a global web of connections drawn from all around the world, the tangible product of a British imperial machine in action.

A Global Collection

When I look at the collection Charles Brasch amassed over his life time, I cannot help wondering if his collection was a kind of Crystal Palace. Brasch’s collection contains a whole web of connections condensed into one place, yet, spreading out across the globe. In this web sits the collector, pulling at a thousand threads.

Brasch amassed a truly international collection to reflect his diverse interests, which included Russia, Egypt, and China. His internationalism is a testament to the scope of his collection and a reminder that, much like the Crystal Palace, a larger modernist world exists outside of any one centre.


Brasch’s copy of Common History: Texts For Reading With Exercises on Vocabulary and Speech. 


Throughout the Brasch collection, Broadbent observes, “French, German, and Italian literature are well represented, along with 6.5 meters (out of 160) of Russian literature” (2003, 28).


“Brasch learnt Russian relatively late in life and attacked the mastering of this new language with his customary thoroughness” (Broadbent, 28–29).


A well-worn copy of A Manual of the Spoken Arabic of Egypt.


Brasch spent a lot of time in Egypt, he picked up an excellent knowledge of Egyptian Arabic. See Margaret Scott’s Charles Brasch in Egypt (2007).


Brasch’s annotations show that he made his own additions as he read: including translations for “it rests with God” or “In the name of God the compassionate, the merciful.”


Brasch’s clippings in the Hocken reveal his deep interest in New Zealander Rewi Alley’s continued life in China.

There are different ways of reading the Brasch Collection. We have started with a global focus, but now we turn to discuss the collection’s idiosyncratic and individual features.

The Collector: Individual and Mediator

If you’ve ever moved house you know what it’s like to dismantle and re-assemble your library. You may remember the feeling of picking up a book you never knew you owned, or rediscovering an old favourite you haven’t read in years. In his essay “Unpacking my Library,” Walter Benjamin contemplates this process, describing “the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions” (2000, 60). Benjamin assumes collectors have a deeply personal relationship to their books, an idea Donald Kerr echoes in Collectors: That Happy Band of Patriots (2014):

Indeed, in this most individualistic of pursuits, it remains for the collector to establish what is to be collected, ever-dependent on the book’s attraction to “eye, mind or imagination,” and how he or she will collect. (129)

Collectors assume responsibility for the content and life of their collections; they nurture their collections’ development according to their own inner logic.


Brasch’s copy of Etching of a Tormented Age: A Glimpse of Contemporary Chinese Literature.

As researchers, we encounter the nightmare of trying to discern the collector’s logic. With close reference to journals and biographical histories, the careful researcher may try to reverse engineer the habits, affections, and disciplines of the collector; however, despite this effort there will always remain a sense of detachment, of loss. The collector is long gone and all that remains is a collection in need of a collector. We can learn much from the individual, but the reader also has an important role in the life of a collection.

The Māori Notion of Living Culture

In her essay “From ‘Dead Things’ to Immutable, Combinable Mobiles: H.D. Skinner, the Otago Museum and University and the Governance of Māori Populations” (2014), Fiona Cameron responds to the common critique that New Zealand museums divorce Māori artefacts from their living culture, leaving them “dead” in their glass cabinets.

Māori see objects as part of a living culture, as vital, as valued possessions and as personifications of their ancestors. As living embodiments of people, objects and collections (taonga tuku iho) are handed on to succeeding generations and have an ongoing, active role in ensuring that kinship ties . . . remain intact. (209)

For Māori, the notion of living culture means objects, like people, carry deep ancestral history capable of connecting the present with the past. Like a necklace handed down from generation-to-generation, Brasch acts as a literary mediator, allowing his books to have a life beyond the grave. Pierre Delsaerdt has argued that some collectors “consider themselves intermediaries in the life cycle of individual books or complete collections” (2012, 194).

In the life of any public collection there is a moment where its ownership shifts from the private to the public domain. The Brasch Collection, as part of a living culture, finds new life in the present––and this blog is a part of that new life. Each contributor to the blog plays the role of collector, choosing items to research and so extending the life cycle beyond the collection’s originally individual purpose.

Studies of Modernist collections have tended to emphasise, as Braddock suggests, “a belief in the virtue of maintaining a connection to the idiosyncratic subjectivity of the collector” (2012, 3). If we are to take seriously the living and cyclic nature of collecting, we need to challenge this overemphasis on the collector’s ordering consciousness.

Webs of Modernism and the Process of Collecting


The Collector – Charles Brasch

Earlier I questioned whether Brasch’s “collection is a kind of Crystal Palace” made up of a web of connections. I suggested that, just as Britain gathered the resources of its empire into the Crystal Palace, so too the collector gathers a life time of books into one diverse collection. Since, all resources are drawn into, and related to, a centre – the crystal palace, or the collecting individual – some of you may see this allusion as just another example of the centre-periphery trope challenged in my last post, “The Irish Paradigm.” Tony Ballantyne’s book Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past (2012) offers us an alternative way of understanding the web-like process of collecting. 

Imperial institutions and structures connected disparate points in space into a complex mesh of networks (. . .). Empires, like webs, were fragile . . . yet also dynamic, being constantly remade and reconfigured through concerted thought and effort: the image of the web reminds us that empires were not just structures, but processes as well. . . not as a single web but as a complex accumulation of overlapping webs, . . . [with] individuals or institutions in the supposed periphery . . . [at] the centre of complex networks themselves. (44)

While you are collecting books you are taking part in a process. The books you gather constantly remake and reconfigure your collection. The books do not relate equally to you or to each other, since your current favourites will likely form centres in-themselves. (There are complex webs of connection even within the collection itself, and not just between the collector and their diverse interests.) Once a collection is complete, and there remains nothing more to add or remove, this process disappears with the collector–only a fragile link to the past process remains: the presence of the books themselves.

Without the collector’s knowledge it is now essentially impossible to differentiate between the incidental and intentional elements of the collection. The librarians perform the first destructive task in the new life of the collection: they classify and shelve the books. (See my post “Warning: Graphic.“)  Only the collector’s biography and annotations retain the fragile link to the past, while the present life of the collection rests on the process of today.

Viewing the collection as a finite whole––locked within the process of the past––fails to appreciate the intermediacy of the collection. As researchers here at Unpacking the Brasch Collection, we recognise our own structuring influence over the collection. Each blog draws upon the collection in ways that Brasch himself could not have anticipated. Brasch may have started the collection as an expression of his individual tastes; however, with the transfer of his private collection to the public domain, he also accepted his role as mediator. His books, therefore, are part of a living culture, continue their use into the next generation, or for as long as the life cycle continues.


As one way of revivifying the collection, I have considered how the library’s complex global networks shed light on the transnational webs of modernism. This global perspective teaches us to recognise the individual as part of a greater whole, and the Brasch collection as a site of many exchanges: between the reader and the collection, the collector and their world. As researchers there are many creative ways of reading the collection that allow us to see the larger, still ongoing, process of passing on a living collection.




Ballantyne, Tony. 2012. “Race and the Webs of Empire.” Webs of Empire: Locating New Zealand’s Colonial Past. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books Limited.

Benjamin, Walter. 2000. “Unpacking My Library.” Illuminations. ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schoken.

Braddock, Jeremy. 2012. Collecting as Modernist Practice. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessed Online December 4, 2015: [ books/9781421406640].

Camer, Fiona Ruth. 2014. “From ‘Death Things’ to Immutable Combinable Mobiles: H.D. Skinner, the Otago Museum and University and the Governance of Māori Populations.” History and Anthropology 25(2): 208–26. Accessed online July 9, 2016: [].

Delsaerdt, Pierre. 2012. “Bibliophiles as Intermediaries: the Case of the Antwerp Book Collector Jean Baptiste Lauwers (1755–1829).” Quœrendo 42: 193–200. Accessed online July 9, 2016: [ DOI: 10.1163/15700690-12341234].

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 2004. Notes From Underground. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Everyman’s Library.

Jeffries, Chloe and Rafael Manuel Pepiol. 2004. The Great Exhibition.” Historian 82 (summer): 12–17. Accessed online July 9, 2016: [ProQuest: docview/274947491?accountid=14700].

Katz, Michael. 2008. “The Russian Response to Modernity: Crystal Palace, Eiffel Tower, Brooklyn Bridge.” Southwest Review 93(1): 44–57. Accessed online July 9, 2016: [].

Kerr, Donald. 2014. “Collectors: That Happy Band of Patriots.” Script & Print 38: 3, 129–133. Accessed online July 9, 2016: [ISSN 1834-9013].

Scott, Margaret. 2007. Charles Brasch in Egypt. Wellington: Steele Roberts Ltd.


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