Minimalist Memorabilia

memorabilia. What percentage of your possessions are you keeping for sentimental reasons? How much is too much?
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I’ve heard it said that the average home contains about 300,000 items. I’m not sure if this is true, but I do know most people have a lot of stuff. Some of it is useful, such as a plunger, frying pan, underwear, etc. Other possessions are largely pleasurable, such as a piece of art or plants. Still others are what we collectively call “memorabilia.” These are pieces we have chosen to keep because they provide an emotional connection to people, places, and experiences from our past. They are important not only to us, but also potentially to future generations as tokens of history. While there is value in holding onto memorabilia, sometimes we start to be overwhelmed by the quantity we have accumulated. Have you ever considered what percentage of your possessions you are keeping for sentimental reasons? Is there such a thing as too much?

Shedding the sentimental stuff can be tricky. When I work on decluttering with clients, I rarely begin with memorabilia. Reviewing memorabilia is an emotional process.  All of our logical, rational arguments for what to keep and what to shed tend to be overshadowed by our feelings. We want to keep everything. Unlike other belongings, these pieces can’t be easily replaced, so it makes sense to be sure about our decision before we let them go. Still, there are times – such as when we are downsizing – when we need to reduce our memorabilia collection. How do we proceed?

First, acknowledge that not all memorabilia is clutter. Every person deserves to have at least one bin, box or drawer’s worth of treasures.  Sentimental items provide a connection to our past, reminding us of who we are.

The second thing we can do is seek to retain a quantity of memorabilia that we can access. When we have one or two boxes of special mementos, we are likely to periodically pull them out and have fun browsing through them. Even better if we can put these feeling-laden pieces on display where we will regularly see and enjoy them. I loved seeing this display recently in a client’s home, celebrating his service in the US Navy.

If it gets to the point where we have 20 boxes of memorabilia piled on top of each other in an attic or are paying to store sentimental pieces in an offsite storage unit, we are unlikely to look at any of them. Alternatively, we may find ourselves unable to use our primary storage spaces for current items because our drawers and closets are filled with things from the past.

One of my favorite phrases is, “Too much of anything is hard to enjoy.” There is no hard and fast rule about how much is the right amount, but one way to know if you are keeping too much is when your memorabilia feels like a burden instead of a joy.

In her book, The Gift of the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh compares our lives to the process of collecting seashells. Imagine that we are exploring the beach, gathering shells along the way. Each time we uncover a shell, we carefully consider its beauty and uniqueness. We decide whether or not each is worth keeping, slipping only the most special ones into our pocket. By carefully choosing which shells to keep, we end up with a small collection of beautiful shells to treasure. We keep them in a glass vase on the nightstand, or line them up on the kitchen windowsill. In contrast, if we insist on keeping every shell, the most unique and precious shells get lost in the shuffle, get broken by surrounding shells, and eventually become too heavy to carry.

The lesson of this analogy is that we need to “curate” our memorabilia. Much as a museum mindfully picks and chooses the best pieces to acquire, so we can and should be choosy about what we keep.

There is a phrase that the women in my family use when trying on clothing. When we think a garment is particularly flattering, we deem that piece of clothing a “zinger.” We encourage its purchase because it really stands out.

When reviewing memorabilia, our goal should be to keep the diamonds, not the whole collection of semi-precious stones. Not every sentimental possession carries equal emotional weight. We want to prioritize space for those items that trigger particularly wonderful memories and feelings.

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Are you starting to feel ready to review some of your memorabilia? Here are a few truths to bear in mind.

  • Letting go of physical memorabilia does not mean that we will forget the person, experience, or event to whom the object is attached. It may be Mom’s old vase, but letting it go doesn’t mean that we will forget Mom.
  • Objects are not the same as people. Letting go of a loved one’s belonging, trinket, clothing, or creation does not indicate that we do not love the person or memory of that person. Objects don’t get offended when we decide we no longer need them.
  • Less is more when it comes to memorabilia. For instance, we may choose to keep one copy of our wedding invitation and one box of the “party favor” matches we gave out, but then we can release any surplus invitations, leftover cocktail napkins, and the monogrammed champagne glasses that we never use.

With these principles in mind, let’s dig a little deeper into the process. Remember, sorting memorabilia is rarely a “one shot” experience, so give yourself sufficient time and grace to slowly review what you have. After all, you kept these items to look at, so you don’t want to rush. Take the time to reflect and reminisce. If possible, have someone else nearby so that you can share and retell the stories that the various items inspire.

As you review, imagine that you are peeling an onion. Begin by aiming to eliminate the “outer skins” of your memorabilia. These are objects that no longer hold emotional significance. Items you aren’t sure about can go into a “maybe” pile for a second go-around. Don’t force yourself to get rid of anything. You want to be at peace with your decisions, so this is one of those times when you shouldn’t feel pressured to touch it once and decide right away.

Also, you may find it helpful to pre-sort your belongings into categories as you pull them out of their containers. It easier to make decisions when there is some context, such as when we can see that perhaps we’ve kept too much of a certain type of item. 

The four categories of memorabilia are:

  1. Family Heirlooms (furniture, family Bible, jewelry)
  2. Reminders of Accomplishments (rewards, awards, trophies, medals, varsity sweater)
  3. Memory Triggers (photographs, souvenirs)
  4. Connections to the Past (love letters, childhood items, keepsakes)

Now you can consider one category at a time. As you review the pieces, you might find it helpful to ask yourself a series of questions:

What does this item mean to me?

Simply being part of our past is not a good enough reason to keep something. Focus on things that spark the best memories. If a piece brings on negative feelings, let it go. We don’t want to hold onto things that bring us down.

Is there a story associated with this piece?

Memorabilia means the most when it carries a great story, much the way a piece of art can be more valuable because of its provenance. If there is an associated anecdote, consider writing it down so that the story can be saved as well as the object. If you can’t remember the story behind a piece, this might be a good indication that you can let it go. After all, if we don’t know what it means today, we probably never will.

Did I choose to keep this intentionally, or am I holding onto it for someone else?

Periodically we end up with items that someone else gave to us for safekeeping. This doesn’t mean we have to hold onto it forever. If a belonging doesn’t provide an emotional benefit to us, we can offer to return it to the original owner or pass it on. Never feel pressured to be the family historian if you don’t want to perform this function.

Does this mean anything to anyone else in the family?

Sentimental items are personal. It is possible that others may want specific pieces after we are gone, but we should never assume this is the case. Anything we decide to keep that won’t mean anything to the next generation can be marked “feel free to toss after I’m gone.” This keeps us from burdening others with guilt about shedding pieces to which they have no connection.

Is the item in good condition?

Memorabilia, by definition, tends to be older and thus more likely to be in disrepair. When we come across a piece in poor condition, we should consider whether it can (or should) be restored, and also if we want to invest the time, money and energy to do so. If not, we can let it go. It will only continue to degrade.

What is the best way to preserve the memory?

Sometimes the best way to preserve a memory is not by simply keeping a possession. For example, it may be wiser to keep a photograph of grandpa in his favorite recliner than it is to hold onto the fraying, sagging recliner itself.

As you might expect, there are no “right” and “wrong” answers to these questions. The goal is simply to thoughtfully prioritize.

*     *     *

What do I do with the stuff I don’t want?

As you go through the reviewing process, you will likely begin assembling a pile of items you have decided not to keep. What should you do with these things? Consider a few alternatives:

=> If it is something with practical value, use it.

A woman shared with me that she has three sets of china in her home: her own, her mother’s and her grandmother’s. These take up a lot of space, and her daughter has already told that she doesn’t want any of it. So, she decided to simply start using it. She wasn’t going to worry about breaking them or damaging the gold trim by putting them in the dishwasher. Instead, she was going to enjoy using them now and when they are no longer good enough to use, she will let them go.

=> Find an appreciative donation recipient.

Multiple people have furniture that is not “au courant,” but is still in good shape. Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity Restore can often use pieces like these to furnish homes for people who are in need. It is often easier to let go when we know our pieces will go to good use.

=> Sell them.

If you have silver or other valuable pieces that you no longer want, you can look into selling them. Of course, selling takes work, but there are auction houses and ebay resellers who are typically very willing to give you an estimate from a few photographs. You may find out that what you have is not worth selling but knowing this will make it easier to donate.

=> Utilize technology.

One of my clients had a grass skirt, flower lei, and ballet slippers that her granddaughter wore in a performance when she was little. The woman had been holding onto it because she loved looking at it, but the grass skirt was disintegrating. We decided take a photo of her, her granddaughter, and the outfit, and then wrote a few lines about her memories of that event. There are tools to help capture memories in this way, such as the Day One app.

=> Repurpose older pieces into a more practical format for your current lifestyle.

Especially when space is at a premium, think creatively about how you can keep the memories without having to keep large or bulky pieces. For instance, if you have a closet full of your deceased father’s flannel shirts, have them made into a couple of throw pillows. Another example is to make (or have made) a casual blanket from the t-shirts your teen has acquired over the years but will no longer wear. If you have a room full of large golfing trophies that won’t fit in your downsized condo, remove the faceplates with the names, dates, and tournament names from each individual piece and assemble them into a beautifully framed piece to display in the new space.

=>Recycle.

It may come as a surprise to know that most reputable junk haulers today will donate or recycle as much as possible of what they collect before heading to the refuse center. This process not only saves them money on dumping fees, but it is good for the environment. Fabrics can be taken to textile recyclers, auto parts can be dissembled and used, glass and metals can be recycled, paint can be treated and reused, and even some plastics can be used to create products like flooring, furniture, and more

=> Digitize paper memories.

While old papers often have significance, they are subject to deterioration and decay. We are fortunate to have the option today of digitizing old photos, documents, movies, slides, cassettes, and more. Companies such as EverPresent and LegacyBox will take boxes of memories and return them to you on disks, thumb drives, or other digital media. Children’s artwork can be scanned and make into photo books.

*   *   *

Memorabilia should enhance the quality of our lives, not detract from it. Do you have a lot of memorabilia? Do you think you have too much?

32 thoughts on “Minimalist Memorabilia”

  1. There are so many great nuggets and questions here, Seana! And when it comes to editing and assessing memorabilia, it’s important to ask good questions. I never heard of the Day One app. I checked it out, and it looks terrific!

    Those last questions…Do you have a lot of memorabilia? Do you think you have too much? My gut feeling is that I have a good amount of memorabilia, and I could probably edit some of it. It’s all organized, but I’m sure that if I were to look through some of it again, I could let go of some things. There are pieces that we have out and visible- photos, art, furniture. But we also have plenty of items in boxes that haven’t seen the light of day for a very long time.

    In truth, it’s not a top priority for me right now to go through things. But at a point, I’m sure I’ll enjoy sorting, editing, and letting more of it go. I had the daunting task of doing this several years ago when I cleared out my parents’ home. They did a good job of organizing everything, which was helpful. But they kept so much, and a lot of it had to go.

    At that point, I realized that some of what was meaningful to them for their lives wasn’t meaningful to my siblings or me. Or, there were papers and things that didn’t do well over time and had to go because they hadn’t properly survived.

    1. Sorting through a parent’s possessions is both a daunting and an emotional journey. I’m sure you’ve come across some things that you just want to ask about. If the sorting is only done after the parent has passed, it is harder in a way. Grace for the journey is the theme, taking the time you need. With many of my clients, it is just keeping the process moving forward, even at a slow pace, that seems to matter most.

  2. Truly great advice and memorabilia may be the hardest for so many (myself included) to figure out how to par down on. But will definitely put your good advice to practice now when I can. Thanks!! 🙂

    1. I’m finding it never gets easier, and as we get older, we have more. I think the best advice for young people is to be choosy along the way, so you don’t ever end up drowning beneath too much!

  3. This post answers really great questions for many people. I love the way you drilled down and looked at the many potential roadblocks folks encounter when dealing with memorabilia. I am one of those who likes to incorporate memorabilia into my home. I have furniture from my mother and father, paintings from my grandmother, and other collectibles. I love the stories associated with these things. Advice I gave a client recently regarding memory laden note cards her mother had written was to put them in a box. Perhaps call it a marinating or pending box. Label the box not only with a list of the contents but also with the date and set it aside to review in a month or two. These notecards were visual reminders that she hadn’t dealt with them. Creating a roadblock from further organizing that room. Removing the notecards to deal with in a couple of months allowed her to move forward. Sometimes these memories are too raw to touch and need to be set aside for a period of time.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…Teach Your Children Time Management Using These ToolsMy Profile

    1. That is so true, Diane. Often the memories are too “raw.” Such a great idea to find a way past that hurdle and to move on to other things. I’ve shed many a tear with clients when sorting memorabilia, and also have had the joy of hearing their stories. This job brings so much richness to my life!

  4. I love this post, especially because we are dealing with a loss in my husband’s family.

    While going through her stuff, I made it a point to take pictures instead of keeping stuff.

    My husband and I are in the process of reducing our stuff as well, and memorabilia is one of our biggest tasks. Taking pictures of the memorabilia or paper photos and adding them to our server has been the main task to reduce the clutter. Creating a properly labeled folder on the drive and describing each picture is key. Recording the stories while family members are describing it is wonderful if the people are ok with being recorded.

    Thank you for your thoughts on this topic!
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Decluttering Tasks by Season to keep your home mess-freeMy Profile

    1. I love that idea of recording the memory in the owner’s voice. That is such a treasure. I can’t imagine what it would be like to hear my great grandparents’ voices. That technology wasn’t an option then, but it is now. So easy to attach a voice memo, right?

  5. I know we’ve talked about this a lot – especially the memory triggers. I think part of why I write and take pictures is to remember. There are definitely items in this house that I never really look at, but I’m afraid that if I got rid of them, I’d forget. It’s such a weird back and forth dance!

    1. At least the photos don’t take up too much physical space, right? And as a professional, I’m sure you have them well labeled and organized, so a treasure for the future. I think the key with all things is to keep an amount you can enjoy, and not more.

  6. Memorabilia is my organizing downfall. What came to mind when I read this is the china teacups and saucers which belonged to my mother and grandmother. When my mother died, my sister and I each selected our favorites to keep. We were going to donate the rest, but for some reason my husband talked me into keeping them. Just this weekend, I realized that I really only want a few of them. I think I’m ready to pass the rest on to someone who may be hosting a tea party themed event down the road when we can have such gatherings again – which will free up space for something else!
    Janet Barclay recently posted…What’s with all the plugin updates?My Profile

    1. Teacups is a great example! Should we keep the whole set? Will we ever use it? Maybe one cup is all I really want, to use for myself. There are layers of emotion embedded in these decisions, but it is worth pushing through to figure out what really matters most to us!

  7. Seana, this blog post is a zinger! “Too much of anything is hard to enjoy.” “Objects don’t get offended when we decide we no longer need them.” Wow!

    I love ALL of your tips. My memorabilia is almost entirely limited to photographs, letters (not just greeting cards) and travel mementos. When I was younger, I saved all my ticket stubs, programs, matchbooks, everything I wanted to remember forever, but eventually realized if we need something tangible to remember it, most of the time, it’s not something we have to remember. When I travel now, I only buy souvenirs that I can put into use; I prefer the necklace I bought in Venice, the little ring I got in Edinburgh, and the Jane Austen magnet I picked up in Bath to be far more robust memory-keepers than tickets and travel brochures.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Flow and Faux (Accountability): Productivity, Focus, and Alex TrebekMy Profile

    1. I couldn’t agree more about the travel souvenirs, Julie. Another friend suggested gathering items that I would use years ago, and most of the time I buy a Christmas tree ornament. That way I relieve the memory at least once a year!

  8. I love all of these questions and suggestions – memorabilia is such a challenge for so many people. And I’ve actually used Legacy Box – had a great experience and am thrilled that I can view some of the old videos without having them take up a lot of space in our cabinets. Great post!

    1. That is a complete “win” to be able to pull out a small book and get the emotional benefit. So much easier than dragging a box down from the attic! I went through that process with my childrens’ artwork and we now keep those books handy and really enjoy surfing through them now and then!

    1. I love working with kids! I usually talk with them about having a display area for the new/most meaningful things, and then a container for the other items that are meaningful, but no longer need to be “out.” When the bin gets full, time to dump it out and review it. Especially with children, something that matters one year may not mean as much three years later.

  9. Love this, Seana! I’m all for keeping the diamonds — and it’s sometimes hard to find and appreciate them when you’ve kept so many other jewels. Breaking memorabilia into 4 categories is a brilliant approach, as it can help us better discern why we hold on to the things we do. Thanks for this great post!
    Cary Prince recently posted…Homeschooling: Strategies for SuccessMy Profile

    1. It’s been interesting to see the response to the categories of memorabilia. I can’t help myself – I categorize everything LOL!

  10. I need to share this post with my husband. This year marks 25yrs since I graduated high school and I felt it high time to part with my letterman jacket. My husband has one as well and doesn’t understand why I’m parting with mine. I told him if he really wanted I could wear it in the carpool line on our son’s first day of high school, but he didn’t find that funny. I let him know I wasn’t going to be buried in it (and that way getting rid of it would ensure I wouldn’t be buried in it as it’s so not ‘zinger’ worthy ). Yet he still doesn’t understand my viewpoint. I have my high school memories, some good, some bad, and that’s all I need.

    1. This comment is so fun to read! You are making me smile over here!! I got rid of my jacket a long time ago because I am an 80s girl and it was kind of huge. The beauty of memorabilia is we each get to choose what matters to us. It doesn’t matter if no one else would make the same choice, because this type of possession is completely personal:)

  11. The phrase “Too much of anything is hard to enjoy” really resonates with me. There is nothing wrong with keeping items for sentimentality’s sake, but when you have so many items that you forget what you have, you don’t get to enjoy it. If you forget the items are there, you might as well not have them.

  12. This is a thorough and comprehensive approach to memorabilia. Sometimes we can proceed onward in a linear pace and sometimes we need to sit and think with the keepsakes. Have a complete plan and keeping the end in mind keeps us on track.

    1. Yes, I love that! Sit and think. After all, we kept these items to trigger memories, so we shouldn’t force ourselves to rush the process, but rather allow ourselves to sit and remember!

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