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    In every family, someone ends up with “the stuff.” It is the goal of The Family Curator to inspire, enlighten, and encourage other family curators in their efforts to preserve and share their own family treasures.

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    Lessons from the Archive: Clutter or Collection?


    Things have been quiet around The Family Curator lately, but not because there's nothing to write about. My idea notebook is filling up, but time for writing has been severely limited by a new/old project and a looming deadline. It seems the time has come to clear out the in-laws' home.

    This is a task that many of us will face in our lifetime, sometimes more than once. It can be emotional, exhausting, or just another thing to do, but it must be done. And one of the biggest challenges in clearing out anyone's home is deciding What to save? What to toss?

    We are now going on Year Six since my mother-in-law passed away. It's time. So, for the last several weeks, Mr. Curator and I have spent many hours each day sorting and sifting through the remnants of 54 years of living in one house.

    Today's Lesson from the Archive is one I read somewhere, and it's making more sense to me every day:

    What's the difference between clutter and a collection?

    In a word, it's all about curating.

    A collector brings together things with some pattern of meaning and usually assembles the collection for display, for competition, or for personal enjoyment. If the stuff just sits around in boxes, closets, and drawers it can easily become clutter. This definition rings pretty true with me.

    My mother-in-law was an Army wife who lived in the Far East, Hawaii, and Europe before settling down in Pasadena. She loved buying local art, books, and decor. She had a great collection that she displayed and enjoyed. On the other hand, she also accumulated a considerable amount of clutter, stuff that filled the closets and drawers with random things that are "interesting" but What the heck do you do with 15 miniature cannon keychains??? and How many carved shells does a person need? That can't be a collection, can it?

    She saved every camera she ever owned, including the projection equipment to enjoy it. If we assemble them all in a glass cabinet we have a collection of vintage photographic gear. If we throw it in a box and keep it because it's "cool," we're saving clutter.

    Today, after a marathon session I am ready to make some serious decisions. Now, if I could just convince Mr. Curator that we don't need six vintage wooden clothes brushes, even if it is a collection!


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    Reader Comments (6)

    What a daunting task! I hope you end up with a few wonderful collections. The cameras and equipment sound very cool!

    April 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenna

    Oh, Denise, how every one of your words described what I am going through too! We are both going and doing the same thing . . . you just have much more of it all. My heart goes out to you as I know while I go through each one of the precious things my mom owned, I am trying to be reasonable about whether to keep it or let it go . . . I can't seem to let go of anything. Thank goodness for my sister-in-law, she has helped me make decisions I could never make! But, you are so right, if it sits in a box, it's clutter. I decided to un-box everything today, spread it all out and if I am keeping it, somehow it must be in the china hutch or put where it can be seen . . . otherwise, I need to let go or box it and mark it for my grandchildren but they must agree that they want it and will take care of it later in life. This is not easy and yes, it's emotionally draining at times . . . and then, some wonderful memories come to mind that were temporarily forgotten! Thank you for a wonderful post.

    April 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGini Webb

    Gini, I feel like we share this common sorrow, and now have to tend to yet another stage in the process. I had everything out yesterday, but just can't part with some things, especially the ones with Mom's notes. Maybe that day will come, but not yet. Do be kind to yourself over this and take your time. In the big scheme of things, there's no great rush.

    Xo, denise

    April 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

    Denise, a lot of people are going through the same thing as you. Separating the junk from the stuff you want to keep takes an emotional toll on family members.

    Remember one thing: It doesn't matter whether it was clutter or a collection to the person who originally owned it. If taking it home with you doesn't bring joy to your life, it's just clutter to you.

    You can always take pictures of sentimental objects that you have no use for. Good luck with the project.

    April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcie Lovett

    I can so relate. You're advice on what's clutter vs a collection is a great way to view the immense amount of "stuff."

    I received some great advice from a neighbor a few years ago that I also keep in mind. Essentially, he said that all of this stuff didn't accumulate overnight so take your time, it doesn't need to disappear overnight. Still sometimes I wish it would!

    So we keep plugging away. I do find that as time marches on the realization often comes that certain things can be let go. That does make it easier.

    PSYes, carved shells can be a collection!

    PPS You've reminded me that I need to work on a display for the 100 or so years of vintage photography gear that I have inherited. It's doing no one any good in that box! LOL

    April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Goodrum

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, I am "processing" slowly and steadily. I think it helps to know that it's okay to part with things bit by bit. And, sometimes, I'm glad I didn't toss a treasure later on.

    April 28, 2012 | Registered CommenterFamily Curator

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