Curation

We’ve begun some of the conversations that will probably mark the rest of our lives. In a world where we have had so much privilege and been granted so many possessions, which things do we keep, which do we discard, and how do we find new homes and new uses to things that we have held onto over the years. Although it isn’t a completely accurate comparison, I feel a bit like a curator in a museum. We have a lot of things that have come to us and many of them are a bit old. Which of those items do we keep and how do we use them to tell the stories of our lives.

Of course there is much that is simply junk. We have things in our home that we haven’t used and will never use. We have other things that have outlived their usefulness.There are other items that can be used by other people. Solid furniture that we don’t need and our children don’t want can be put to use by other people and there are agencies such as Love, Inc., Salvation Army, Cornerstone Mission, and Habitat Restore who have some skill at helping those items find new homes.

But the things that make me feel like a museum curator are the family heirlooms. We have antique clocks that carry family stories. A wall clock and a mantel clock have been in family homes for several generations now reside in our home. In a sense they don’t feel like they are our possessions, but rather a trust from previous generations. We’d like to pass them on to younger generations, but the younger people don’t want them. A clock that needs to be wound ever day and needs to be cleaned by someone with a rare set of skills and is only marginally accurate and must be reset each day as you wind it isn’t exactly the kind of timepiece that enhances the busy lives of young adults.

There are lots of things about our future that we do not know. My garage is filled with lots of common hardware. There are items that can easily be obtained if needed, but also can be used in so many ways. How much of it is worth moving? How much just needs to be left behind. Just because you can keep a harness ring all of your life doesn’t mean you’ll find a use for it. Common screws and bolts may cost more to move than they are worth. Heavy and bulky items such as scrap lumber and plumbing parts are worth less than the cost of moving them.

As we prepare to move and sort through our lives, we are making decisions that are imperfect. Pictures and slides go. We’ll work at sorting them in the next phase of our life. We know that we will be transporting some things that later need to be discarded.

The curator’s task is not just to sort through things to determine their age, nor is it just determining what is common and what is rare. The curator’s task is to tell the story of a community. What we want to take with us is the story of the lives we have lived. And that is also what we want to pass on to children and grandchildren. Old cards and letters are valuable only if there is someone to read them. We’ve carefully sorted though many of the items that were a part of our parents lives and chosen to keep some of those things, but just because we kept them and they are meaningful to us doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be meaningful to those who come after us.

I imagine that every curator who begins a new job faces the same challenge. Imagine moving to a museum and having the job of adding to the collection. The amount of storage space is limited and items that are not displayed, but stored have limited value. Each generation of leadership must make decisions about what to keep and what to discard. In that sense it makes sense that we leave some of those decisions to our children. There are some things we will take with us that will one day become items they have to sift and sort. I do not apologize for this. We’ve had to sort through a lot of items that belonged to parents and grandparents. Nearing the end of their lives our parents became overwhelmed by the task and finally got to the point where they could no longer deal with all of the decisions. We ended up going to their homes and moving out the items we thought they would need in a smaller living space. Other items were sorted. At that point we kept items for which we had no immediate use, but that we thought might be needed or wanted by younger members of the family. Some of those items are easier to sort the second time, but there is an inefficiency in the fact we chose to keep them in the first sorting.

Then there is the issue of time. We could spend years sorting, but we don’t have years. We need to set a reasonable timeline for leaving this house and making our way to the next one. And, frankly, we don’t know what timeline makes sense. The shifting nature of the pandemic means that the rules for travel are changing every day. It isn’t reasonable to simply select a day and heading out. But failing to do that has its consequences, too.

So we have become, for a while, curators of a part of your family story. It has never been about the items. We aren’t people who own huge amounts of things that have great worth. There is no jewelry to be appraised, and few treasures headed for antique shops. What we have of value are the stories we pass on to the next generation.

I understand now how a shed full of junk at the back of the shop at my mother’s summer place got the name “Uncle Ted’s Museum.” My mother didn’t need anything that was in the shed. There were things there that she couldn’t even identify their use. But she kept them. One item made its way to a new home in a real museum as my sister sorted the shed this spring. Much of the rest was hauled to the landfill. Maybe in the future some archeologist will sift through the landfill in search of clues to an ancient society. In that case, we’ll be adding a few clues to that story as well.

Curators, however, also keep collections. There are more than a few that will end up in packing boxes and will make the trip to our new place.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!