History, Memory, and Why (Some) “Clutter” is Absolutely Essential

Often times we have urges to clean and downsize our possessions. I’m guilty of this, too. Sometimes too much so. We see something we haven’t used in forever and decide to get rid of it. Or see “old stuff,” “boring history” and see no value in it. Doing this too much is dangerous–yes, “dangerous” is appropriate diction–because objects, more than our brains, store memories.

For example, after guest speaking at Alvin Junior High, I went down memory lane for about a week. During this time, I looked at all of my old yearbooks from elementary and intermediate school. If I had gotten rid of these, I wouldn’t have these memories: pictures, names, and notes from teachers.

When people talk about having houses that are almost empty or that have been destroyed by natural disasters, memories have been destroyed. (Keep lots of pictures and have backups as possible!)

Or as this article discusses, when children don’t want any furniture from their parents, memories have been destroyed.

Objects (just like people) store memories. human brains are infinitely powerful but need help. It functions better with cues. Students learn retrieval strategies for taking tests. Objects are retrieval mechanisms.

I’ve read that if you stopped speaking and writing in English, for example, that in 5-10 years, you would have “forgotten” most of English. With brains it’s less about “forgetting” and more about under use. Similar things happen when we get rid of things, and consequently, memories are forever deleted. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Part of why nursing homes are so sad and detrimental is because people have to give up almost everything that gives them memories. Indeed, we are who we are because of other people and other things. Living in an empty, strange, isolated place is bad news.

Additionally, knowing and studying History is in part dependent on people not discarding everything. Imagine how much less we would know about 1800-1899 if no one kept anything! Save “stuff” for future individuals, if not for yourself.

Finally, we must acknowledge that we are privileged to be able to save primary sources and cultural artifacts. We have means of storage and shelter. When you decide to get rid of something, you are giving up your own voice as an historical actor. Think of all those across time and place who long for a voice.

Help yourself and others preserve and understand themselves and future peoples by saving and preserving, not discarding. Everybody can be a historian.

(Did you notice that “the” is not in this article once!? Compare that to most blogs/articles!) 

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Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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6 replies

  1. I have always said that fires and garbage cans are the main enemies to historians!! Please, people–write names on the back of photographs, make little notes about family heirlooms (who gave it, who made it, when, etc.) and most importantly . . . PASS IT ON TO SOMEONE WHO CARES (versus someone who will sell it on eBay at first chance)!!

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  2. Love it. I have clients from time to time that tell me that no one in their family cares about all the old pictures. My experience has been that eventually someone does care. Their children may just have not reached that phase of their life yet. So we work to reduce the duplicates and redundants and preserve, protect and identify the “specials.” Nothing makes me sadder than walking into an antique shop and seeing old heritage photos that someone discarded.

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  3. No “the”–quite a feat! I couldn’t do it! Excellent ideas. You will end up being my repository for historical artifacts. Your Mom will LOVE me cluttering up your house!!! Just kidding…. LOL. RAE

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