I just deleted my Facebook account. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not a righteous person doing this for the right reasons, we all know how much I love Instagram which is also owned by ~Meta. The bad started to outweigh the good on Facebook, and when I thought about what I’d be losing – the 15 year archive of my life – I finally realized that there was nothing there that I really need. It didn’t serve me anymore, as the wellness baddies say. I’d outgrown it. Now before I make myself gag by continuing to wax poetic about deleting a social media account, I’ll connect this to today’s topic, which is hoarding old shit.
A colleague of mine asks new hires as part of a “getting to know you” questionnaire, “what do you collect?” My friends, I have essentially worked in museums for my entire adult life, and it was not until my friend and I started complaining to each other about museum people as hoarders and she suggested I write this post that I realized that he asks that because of MUSEUM COLLECTIONS because we work IN A MUSEUM. This never occurred to me before because I don’t collect things, but I know many people who work in museums love to talk about how they collect this or that – cookbooks from the 1960’s, guitars, vintage art sets, you name it baby. We all place value in tangible objects differently and obviously if we didn’t have that drive to collect, archive, and preserve, we wouldn’t have museums. (For a look into some of the weirdest collections, make sure to check out The Museum Camp podcast.)
Obviously, museums were founded as places to store and display stuff. We talked about museum origins and the cabinet of curiosities in Museums Got Expensive Habits and the pros and cons (and more cons) about what the idea of collecting a lot of stuff and putting it all in one place has meant for Western history. A little more on that later. Tons of folks who grow up to be “museum people” are attracted to the field because of a deep interest in a topic area, and getting to work first hand with the archives and collections is a literal dream come true. And I love that for them! I love when people get to geek out about the things they really love. My loyalties lie more with art than anything, but I can love a piece of art and I can geek out all day. Different museums serve different purposes after all. Anyway, I’m digressing.
What I don’t love is when people translate their obsession with objects and saving things and holding onto things into the workplace. Since I started working at my current museum, literally since the interview, the one thing that is repeated over and over is that we lack space. We don’t have enough spaces to hang artwork, or to conduct programs, or to have storage for things that we need. Well, ok, there’s not much we can do about gallery or program space. Recently I embarked on a project to clean up our office area to try to make it more functional and my friends, did you know that in some cases, you actually CAN make space if you dispose of things you do not use? Concurrently to my decluttering project, my dear friend started texting our graduate school friend group chat that she was doing the same and once she started sending photos of examples of the piles and piles of junk she was going through, we all chimed in with our own stories about having to clean up several file cabinets’ worth of trash when predecessors moved on or just when we got too fed up to deal with the mess anymore, even if the person whose mess it is still works with you.
You might be feeling called out right about now, or whether I’m describing you or not, you might be thinking, what’s the harm? I mean, besides a cluttered workspace, which is demonstrated to make workers more fatigued, stressed and less productive at work, especially for people with ADHD or other neurodivergent conditions. But what about literally making space for what’s new? The deaccessioning debate is something most of us in the museum world have at least a tangential awareness of and possibly opinion on. For my non-museum readers, museum collections are essentially held in the public trust and so selling collections to earn money for your museum is typically off-limits and the number one way to erode trust in your institution. Also, art and museum collection objects are very expensive, and so the ways in which they changes hands can be fraught with ethical implications, so it’s important to keep an eye on who gets to decide where these items have a home. In light of social justice movements and more critical lenses toward whose history we’ve privileged telling, museums have begun to think creatively about how to leverage their existing collections to shift to more diverse and inclusive representation. For most of museums’ history, we only collected objects used by a certain type of person or artwork created by a certain type of person. We collected things that were beautiful and expensive or things that represented a culture we feared would disappear. Deaccessioning came up again in sharp focus during 2020 when museums were reeling from a lack of revenue, but the 2018 Hyperallergic article, “The Deaccessioning Debate in Museums,” really captures the tension of preserving the past, serving the communities of today, and looking towards the future.
Mary Baily Wieler of the Museum Trustee Association went a step further. “Are we as a field saying that museums are ethically bound to continue ‘business as usual’ and never change their missions?” she asked. “Should boards’ hands be tied by collections donated decades or even centuries earlier? At what point does the survival of the organization outweigh professional standards?”https://hyperallergic.com/453416/the-deaccessioning-debate-in-museums/
It may seem like a leap to connect deaccessioning museum collections to museum people hoarding crap for decades, but it’s really not. The number one reason people give for why something in the offices hasn’t been thrown out is “it’s always been there” or “we’ve always done x that way, and that’s why we still have y books and z objects.” It’s indicative of an unwillingness to think about what is actually necessary in the here and now and to engage with those tensions about what should be let go of and what should be preserved.
To put a finer point on it, and indeed I don’t think the majority of museum people are unwilling to grow, there’s a reluctance to accept that something has completely outlived its usefulness. Part of this is due to thriftiness and learning to make due. Part of this is due to being a field that attracts people who care deeply about others and about the planet and efforts to reduce our footprint by not throwing things out. But part of it, too, is a desire to justify all the hard work that’s been done in the past; “oh, well that cable goes to this DVD player that we purchased to display this video that we used a grant to produce and I know the video lives on YouTube now and is 12 years old, but maybe one day we will need to show it in the gallery again.” I’ve talked before about how there is a tendency, in the museum world and especially in the arts, to make sure people take us seriously. Every binder, piece of outdated tech, random donated toy related to an object in your collection, that are clung to have stories of how much work went into the project with which it was associated. I can empathize with that. But what about when those past projects are used to shut down new ideas? Joan Baldwin wrote in October 2021 “How to Not Be that Person,” from both sides – how to not automatically shut down ideas because you’ve seen it before, and how to ask questions about how it might have gone before if you’re the newbie. At one of my jobs, my coworker and I decide to never save art lesson project samples because whoever was going to teach the project next would want to make their own sample and make the project their own. We decluttered by not saving a million art projects, and we intentionally made space for future educators to put their own spin on a project even if it had been done before. Not only that, we created an opportunity to revisit those materials and tweak them if anything needed to be updated.
Although this post has some teeth, it’s really just very light shaming. I have many people close to my heart who love to collect stuff and like most human people, I have a terribly hard time getting rid of things that were gifted to me in meaningful ways. But it’s important to remember that our work is dynamic. Know Your Own Bone posted an article a few years ago on leadership tips that stuck with me. One of them was to periodically reassess what you think you know – every five years or so – because the world is rapidly changing. Why not look at your clutter as an opportunity to have a staff retreat of sorts where you talk about the last few years and what’s changed? (Well, you’ll be in your building cleaning up junk so it’s definitely not a retreat. But maybe you could at least have snacks!) Propose keeping a limited number of items, maybe 5 max, from each decade past so you do have an archive to show the path your work has taken. If you have the luxury of paid internship opportunities, create an internship to digitize and organize past work into an accessible archive. Create an opportunity to share stories of successes and failures with newer colleagues and be open to the idea that it could maybe bond your team. (If you have high turnover, this can be super frustrating and I get that.) Take pictures of stuff you really want to remember. Embrace the process part of things. Don’t be afraid to read Marie Kondo aloud to each other. Idk, get weird with it.
And importantly, keep a few dumb things. What on earth would be the point of working in museum education/art education if not to stumble over a bucket of rocks? The materials hoarded by art educators may deserve a separate post. Although I’m pretty good about rotating things out, like any good art educator, never have I ever thrown away a decorative paper.