Ask Unclutterer: Displaying sentimental items in one location or spread throughout a house

Reader Amy submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer regarding sentimental items:

I do a pretty good job keeping my clutter contained. My partner is a clutterbug. We live in a small apartment in a big city and are preparing to move to a smaller apartment in a bigger city.

We have the clutter/anti-clutter conversation a lot, and our biggest problem is that even if we follow the display rule, it’s still lots of “treasures” all around our house collecting dust. What do you do with the treasures once you’ve decided which ones are display-worthy? We both rather like the idea of putting his treasures up on the wall somehow to keep it off the surfaces, and I am partial to having everything in one place, so there are obvious visual limits to how much stuff is allowed to stay (like shelves or some kind of cabinet).

What you’re trying to decide is if the sentimental items you’ve chosen to keep should be zoned together or zoned apart. Do you want a Sentimental Items District or would you rather they commingle with all the other design elements in your place?

I recommend starting with a Sentimental Items District. The first reason I think you should do this is just to get all of these pieces together on a series of shelves or in a display cabinet so you can really get a grasp on how much you have. Sometimes, when objects are spread throughout the house, they feel like a bigger collection than they actually are. Other times, you come to realize you have way more sentimental items than you intended.

Creating a Sentimental Items District is also a good idea because it forces you to be practical with how many items you can keep in your home. If you don’t have a single space that can display all your sentimental items, you’ll need to do some additional uncluttering to get your collection down to a size you can properly store. This is when the Unclutterer motto is a good one to recite to yourself: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” I also like the Sentimental Items District because it forces you to be realistic about the maintenance and upkeep of these items. How long does it take you to dust all of them? How much room in your apartment do you have to provide to keep them? Are some of these items more valuable than others (what did we push to the back of the shelf to make room for what we really want to see)?

After three or four weeks of living with your Sentimental Items District, sit down and talk about how you want to display these items moving forward. Did you miss walking past your championship bowling trophy on the way to the kitchen each morning? Do you think only having your sentimental items in one place makes your home less personal? Did you like it better when you could be reminded of different memories as you moved through your home? Or, are you happy with the Sentimental Items District? Does it help you to make better choices about what is worth keeping and what isn’t? Do you prefer to have the majority of surfaces in your home free of sentimental items? Or, is there a middle ground that will work best for you? Do you think you would like to have two Sentimental Items Districts — one for framed family photographs on the fireplace mantel and then everything else in the display cabinet in the dining room? You’ll have to figure this out together, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Starting with the Sentimental Items District, though, will give you the opportunity to stop thinking about this issue in the abstract and really see how it would work in a concrete way.

Thank you, Amy, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I answered your question, and be sure to check the comments for even more advice from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

11 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Displaying sentimental items in one location or spread throughout a house”

  1. posted by StLouisKaren on

    You might try making a few shadow boxes with your smaller items. It keeps them together, keeps them off table tops and shelves, and – best of all!- keeps them dust free! It is an easy project to hang these on the wall in an interesting display. They especailly look good moving down a hallway or staircase.

  2. posted by Cathy on

    I second the shadow box idea. Wiping dust off of two or three small boxes is much easier than wiping dust off of a dozen little treasures. I have a little “cluster” of shadow boxes that hang above a bookshelf, and they make me very happy every time I see them.

  3. posted by EngineerMom on

    I really like the concept of a “sentimental items district”. We’re preparing to (possibly – long story) move from a 1400 sqft house with an unfinished basement and a garage into a 2-BR apartment with a small storage space and no garage. Some things will naturally be left behind (no yard = no yard tools!), but dealing with the sentimental items scattered throughout the 4 bedrooms, living room, and dining room and condensing them down to what would fit in a space half the size… this sounds like a good way to start before we move!

  4. posted by Dede on

    Love the idea of a Sentimental Items District. We’re thinking of making the hall more of a picture gallery, a la those stately English manor homes and castles we see on TV. That keeps them all in one area and not on instant public display, but anyone needing to use the bathroom will walk right by them. We’re also saving $$ to install one or two of those solar tubes so the hallway is not always a dark passageway.

  5. posted by luxcat on

    This is exactly what we are doing in our new home. When I moved into hubby’s flat he already had his family photos hung all over the house. The effect was very…busy. Now that we (six years later) are starting fresh with a new house, my intent is to get all the family photos together- both his and mine- and display them on one long low table that fits into a niche under the stairs. At least then it will all be in one place! (Doesn’t solve the dusting issue though!)

  6. posted by winterjulie on

    We recently moved our kitchen into the livingroom to get an extra bedroom (instead of moving house). On the back of the run of units that divides the space we decided to put shelves instead of just a plain back. These shelves are to house all our ornaments. As most of our stuff had been packed in boxes for our renovation these shelves have been filling up gradually as boxes are unpacked. Things are added and viewed for a while. Quite a lot has been removed too. As the space fills up, you can prioritise what these objects mean to you, and which ones can go on their way to the charity shop. It has been quite a useful process… and it is still ongoing!

  7. posted by Meghan on

    my husband likes knick knacks. i told him it’s fie as long as he keeps them on his work desk. although now that he’s changing jobs, the knick knacks have migrated. this is a timely post.

  8. posted by Renee McGrath on

    We use the wall by our staircase to display sentimental photos. I call it, “the wall of fame.”

  9. posted by Karyn on

    I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person in the world like this, but I don’t like having photos of people staring back at me. :-D I prefer to have my photos in an album where I can browse through them now and again.

    Fortunately I’ve pared down to only a few decorative items–the walls look so much more spacious and open when accented with one focal point instead of an entire collection–and even my “mementoes” are now reduced to the point of being easily stored in a plastic sweater box.

    I don’t feel a great need to display them, because I like a semi-minimalist visual feeling in my space. However, this post does give me the idea of finding a special decorative “treasure box” in which to store the few mementoes I want to keep. Like the photo album, a treasure box would invite occasional reviewing and reminiscing, instead of simply being stuffed in storage.

  10. posted by Kelekona on

    I think collections should have “groupings.” Sometimes fragile items and non-fragile items just don’t fit together, or the size differences don’t make sense.

    If you’re just going to have one display area, rotate the items in that area. If you’re going to have everything out and once, it probably will be distributed displays.

  11. posted by Her from there on

    I had my doll collection all through the house until a visiting friend suggested adult and child zones. I only have boys and the 8 yr old was making comments about being embarrassed by the dolls. So the friend suggested I only put my dolls in two display cabinets in the front room which is where visitors enter from and where we our friends sit when they visit. There is still one shelf of teddy bears in the child zone but they dont seem to worry the boys. The pay off is I get to see my dolls a lot as I sit and watch TV or socialise in the adult zone. There isnt enough room in the cabinets for all my dolls (which is why I was spreading them out) so the next suggestion by another friend was that I rotate them. One or two months in the cabinet, some time back in their storage place. The benefit of that is I get to see all of my dolls plus have the option to remove less favourite items when I pull them out of their ‘rest’ phase.

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