Collection or Clutter?

How do you choose just one item from a collection of memorabilia to write about? That was my task recently. I’ve been absent from blog posts because I’ve been busy writing assignments for my latest unit in family history. I had to select one – just one item – from a house ‘littered’  (my dear family say cluttered) with family memorabilia and write its biography.

Writing a formal essay is as challenging as writing fiction, getting the facts straight and the words ‘just right’. Hours of research about the facts; a few phone calls to family who might recall something from the backsticks of their minds to add to the story; writing and culling word count to a meagre 1000 words barely did my great-grandfather’s clock justice. In some ways it is harder writing an essay than writing fiction because there was so much to tell about this family heirloom, so many interesting twists and turns and snippets of conversation I wanted to add.

My great grandparent’s clock: A Seth Thomas Adamantine Clock, made in 1902.

Sometime down the track, after the assignment has been marked and returned, I will add those snippets of trivia and share it with family and maybe publish the whole essay online. What do you think I should do?

By the way, if you are into writing family history, I can totally recommend the Diploma. This is the fourth unit I’ve studied of the University of Tasmania’s Diploma of Family History. I know two friends who have completed several units. In the unit, Place, Image, Object, I’ve gained valuable insights into dating photos and how to care for them as well as learning how to write the story around an object, like the clock for example, a fascinating exercise. In a previous unit, Writing Family History, writing a brief biographical story became a superb springboard into more extensive writing: I’m currently writing my grandmother’s story from a case filled with memorabilia from her life – which brings me to the point ‘collection or clutter’.

Collection or Clutter

I have a wall in my spare bedroom filled with cases each filled with family history. Sometimes I want to lock them away and forget about them, but they call to me occasionally, to sift through and find snippets that tell a story. I’ve read love letters and studied photos that tell stories and I’ve wrapped baby’s clothes in tissue paper, only ever imagining whose they might have been.

Suitcase Wall
My wall of cases filled with family history. The doll’s cot contains the baby’s outfit.

Not only do I have jam-packed cases, I also have many objects around my home dating back to the early 1900’s. The clock is just one item. A piano my grandmother bought with egg money is another. A hand-made bed-spread from an Aunt graces my double bed. The list goes on. In my modern home, I am most fortunate to be able to display these.

Patchwork bedspread
Patchwork bedspread made by my aunt

I’m ducking for cover though! I know there’s more to come! My mother has entrusted me to share and care for her ‘stuff’. That is down the track, but as with my first essay on the clock, a sense of urgency invites me to get busy and write more object biographies, to give the items meaning. There is a point when memories cannot be recalled because the relevant people are long since gone. If I don’t write what I know and ask family to trawl through their memories now I know it will be too late.

Do you keep family mementos?

Not everyone can house the items that are passed down through the ages, and not everyone gets that chance.  I was fascinated to read  The Privilege of Clutter  . Individual’s collections may be described as clutter. But is it? For the first time in my life I understood why I feel okay about having all these ‘bit and pieces’ I loosely call a collection.

Conversely, why do some people declutter, the current trend? Maureen Helen’s decluttering in old age provides a balancing insight into why it is sometimes necessary to cull our possessions.

I can only hope that some of my collection will be valued by the next. What do you think about keeping family memorabilia – collection or clutter?

Susan is a writer based in Perth's Darling Range, Western Australia. Her love for writing began as a child and is a life-long passion. Susan is also passionate about reading and attributes much of her learning to the wonderful world of literature. She enjoys photography and art and loves to write the occasional poem. She is often found indulging in a good cup of coffee and gazing over the hills from her backyard.

2 comments On Collection or Clutter?

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    A fascinating blog post, Susan, with a wealth of information about your home and collections. Your perspective is very different from the one I now profess, although I understand the magic and enjoyment of collecting and collections, and value the family history held in precious possessions. Thank you for sharing my post on decluttering.

    I disagree about writing factual material being harder than writing fiction, though. As a memoirist, I find writing fiction an absolute mystery. The draft novels on my computer attest to how difficult writing fiction is for me.

    • Susan Dunn

      Thank you, Maureen. I find, in a way, I agree with you about writing fiction, but on the balance, the intensity of academic writing may have skewed my perception! I do hope we get to read published versions of your novels one day soon!

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