About a year ago I was eating oysters with K. Frank Jensen, a collector and historian of playing cards and oracle cards. Frank had just backed out of a potential deal to bequest his collection of tarot cards to a big tarot organization. ‘No money should be involved. No commercialization of cards. Only research,’ he said. ‘How about Roskilde University Library?’ I asked, in an attempt to offer a solution to a seemingly impossible task: To offer an institution, for the purpose of research, what is considered the largest and most significant collection of Tarot cards (and more) in the world decreeing that the institution is not to make money off knowledge. ‘Asking around costs nothing,’ I said to Frank, to which he replied: ‘then do it.’ First I met with Martin Bayer, the head of my department, the Institute of Culture and Identity, where I myself research into American studies, particularly esoteric, sacred and secret texts, Tarot as cultural text, and divination as a cultural praxis. ‘Tarot cards?’, asked Martin, ‘what’s that?’ I took my tarot pack from my purse – one which I always have with me, a French deck made by master cartier Jean Noblet in 1650 – I laid 3 cards on the table, and showed him. ‘Whoa,’ Martin said, ‘this is quite amazing.’ Indeed it is, I said. What I have here, in these 3 cards, is not only an answer to your question, but also history. You find in a tarot pack everything, from divination to art history, philosophy, hermetic philosophy, culture, high and low, occultism, semiotics and science; all the things we do in our department. ‘Let’s do it,’ Martin said. ‘Let’s have this gold mine in the house, and take it from there.’ With the Rector’s blessing, we proceeded to convince the Library of the value of such a collection for research.
On December 21 Frank signed the bequest papers, and his collection now belongs to the university. At the signing of the document, Frank brought a few rare decks and books, among them a Mayan Tarot pack. We all liked the idea that what the Mayans predicted was for us a very good omen, namely, not the end of the world on December 21st 2012, as popular belief had it, but the shift to a new consciousness represented by a new sun, new knowledge and new illumination. What we all hope now is that students and researchers, both at Roskilde University and worldwide, will soon discover what a gift Frank made.
The collection is set up under the name of K. Frank Jensen Collection, and it has a board consisting of 4 members. I had the honor of being appointed by Martin Bayer as the president of the collection, and now I look forward to collaborating on future research projects with all interested. I’m already planning our first Tarot conference due to take place this year, and which will mark the opening of the collection. Reputed scholars of Tarot have already been invited, and we look forward to honoring Frank’s request for ‘No money. Only knowledge.’ I see this as a great opportunity for Roskilde University to be as revolutionary as it has always been by promoting research into matters that counter the current discourse about having academics behave like business people.
Diving into situated wisdoms, which is what I call what Tarot cards represent, is a way of promoting self-knowledge in context. Such knowledge is and should be independent of clichés that make us forget what the purpose of higher education is all about: not to make money, not to pretend to make a global impact, not to promote meaningless visibility, but to participate in the creation of a decent human being.
For the Danish version of this story, go to the press release here.