Cleaning out your home as you “down size” or your parents’ home as they enter a retirement home, or pass, is emotional. Our lives collect an array of physical touch stones. They range from intrinsically valuable to “tchotchke” or junk. Parting with them tends to be hurried or harried.
The cleaning-out process usually ends in dumpsters, Goodwill, yard sales, estate sales, and eBay. There is a sense of loss along with closure. Except for the rare “Antique Road Show” moment, the cash or tax deduction are a pittance of what it was worth to you and your family.
There is a way to turn your cleaning-out process into a life affirming and family bonding event. Think about curating your family.
Look beyond the clothes and the kitchen items. Look at what your family members have done with their lives. You would be surprised at what items may be highly valuable to museums, libraries, and universities. All you need to do is understand the world of the curator and engage your family in the curating process.
In my case, my father served in World War II and Korea. He also spent his life leading wildlife management efforts for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and enjoying the outdoors as an avid fisherman and hunter. I am lucky to have him healthy and clear minded at age 91. I am also lucky that he kept his things in excellent condition.
The first step was to engage my father as a full partner in curating his life. That meant having his complete buy-in to donate his artifacts and documents. We discussed how there was a way for him to control his legacy for generations to come instead of leaving it to the randomness of family members.
We worked together on organizing his files and materials. My father revisited his career as various items triggered poignant memories. We learned much from each other and had more quality time together than during many previous years.
The next step was assessing who wanted to maintain my Dad’s legacy. Thankfully, the Fish & Wildlife archive and museum is located at the National Conservation Center only fifteen miles from our home. They were thrilled at receiving my Dad’s conservation materials and spent hours video-taping his recollections as he reviewed his files.
Even more valuable were my Dad’s fishing and hunting materials. His fly fishing equipment included flies he had tied himself - that were works of art, signed custom fly rods, and fishing nets from his family that dated back to the 1920s. His hunting items included duck and goose decoys he had hand carved, dating back into the early 1950s. They were all in perfect condition. The curatorial staff was in the process of acquiring loans from numerous private collections for travelling exhibits on fishing and duck hunting. In one windfall they had complete collections from one source, fully documented. My Dad’s hunting and fishing items were on public display within days of donation.
The multiple meetings with the curators became highpoints in my Dad’s life. He was the center of attention, with museum and archive professionals weighing on his every word. These were moments that gave him pride in what he did, a sense of still being relevant, and the peace of mind that one of his life-long aspirations – inspiring young people to love nature – would be fulfilled for generations to come.
The donation of his World War II and Korean War items unfurled the same way. In this case, it was the U.S. Army’s Heritage Center near the War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania – two hours from my Dad’s home. My Dad did something unique in World War II. He brought along a “Baby” Brownie camera to the front lines of the 10th Mountain Division fighting its way through the mountains of Italy. His photos of battles, fortifications, liberated towns, German POWs, and his comrades were in perfect condition and had detailed notes on where they were taken and who was in them. He also had kept his uniforms in mint condition along with a Nazi flag obtained when he led the capture of a German headquarters.
Once again, curators spent hours interviewing my Dad. They were amazed at the quality and quantity of artifacts. My Dad’s detailed written descriptions and clear recollections provided solid provenance for every item. Once again, my Dad felt honored to be telling the story of his unit and knowing that his materials would help scholars for many years to come.
These scenes of making the day of both a loved family member and curators can happen for anyone. Local museums want to tell the story of their community. Universities want to preserve the works of their alumni. National collections want to inspire others with tangible examples of unique cultures, professions, hobbies, and lifestyles.
All it takes is a willingness to learn about your family and to find the right match. The new memories and new bonds will be rejuvenative and revelatory for all involved.