Ask Unclutterer: Preserving cherished sentimental items

Reader Brittney submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I appreciate being uncluttered. It’s the only way I can stay organized and focused on the tasks I enjoy doing. My greatest obstacle is memory clutter. My family moved all my life. I live far from my loved ones and see them once in 5 to 10 years due to financial restrictions. As a result, I have boxes of family photos, cards, high school and college mementos, childhood drawings, well-worn childhood dolls & toys, yearbooks since middle school, etc. I irrationally keep these things to fill the loneliness I feel with my loved ones scattered around the world. But the memory clutter is suffocating me. How do I minimize this memory clutter without emotionally scarring myself.

I know how to display photos, but what about all of this other stuff? How can I possibly display and store such varied items in a one-bedroom apartment without looking like a junk shop? Help!! Thanks, in advance, for your desperately needed ideas.

A great question, Brittney. Sentimental items are difficult because some of the trinkets are clutter and some aren’t. One thing is for certain, though, keeping and displaying all of it doesn’t work for your space.

Start by sorting through all of your items and tossing out the junk. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find items that you can’t even remember why you’ve kept them. You might not have a lot of these types of things, but it’s best to get rid of the obvious clutter first.

Once the obvious clutter is gone, go through your items a second time. Sort the items into three piles: 1. Can be photographed or scanned and still have the same impact, 2. Definitely want to keep and display on my shelves, 3. Can’t yet decide what I want to do with the item.

For items that landed in the first pile (photographs, memorabilia, drawings, cards, etc.), set up a light box for the non-flat items and take pictures of them. Then, either scan all of your photographs or have a company scan them for you. Once all of the items are digitized, make digital scrapbooks of all of the images.

Next, make room in your space for the items you chose to keep and display on your shelves. Be honest with yourself about what you’re willing to dust and sacrifice space to store. You will likely find a few important pieces are worth displaying and more valuable than having everything out on your shelves. You notice objects more when they’re not in competition with dozens of other objects for your attention. Shadow boxes are a great idea if you don’t want to use shelves for these items. Group like items with like items, and aim for quality, not quantity.

(For advice specifically about yearbooks, check out this post and its comments: “Yearbooks: Worth keeping or clutter?“)

The third pile — those things you don’t yet know how to handle — are always the most difficult to process. I recommend putting them all in a box, writing a date six months from now on the lid and on your calendar, and putting the box on a hard-to-reach shelf in your closet. When the date six months from now rolls around, photograph or scan every item that you didn’t touch a single time over the six-month period. You were able to live without the items for six months, which means you can live without them physically being in your space. An image of the item should be all you need in the future.

Thank you, Brittney, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you as you go through this process. Also, check out the comments with more suggestions 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.

19 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Preserving cherished sentimental items”

  1. posted by Alex on

    My friend was in a similar situation and found the ‘digital scrapbooking’ idea here (and so I’m here too). She took photos, but rather than making a digital scrapbook, she created a physical “sketchbook” full of it. She left lots of margins so she could write her own thoughts and stories that went with it. Sometimes there were details she would remember much later.

    For example, look for the Twilight: Director’s Notebook.

    She also tried to donate as much stuff to people who could use it. It gave a really satisfying end to physically having something when it reads “passed it on to my niece”.

  2. posted by WilliamB on

    Erin really likes the idea of taking pictures of stuff then getting rid of the stuff. Since that isn’t emotionally satisfying for everyone, I offer some other suggestions. These are just suggestions, they may not work for you, or maybe some will help and others strike you as the craziest thing you’ve heard all week.

    – When you sort, sort into categories. Ones that work for me are by person (or family) then by time period. When I saw how many cards my grandparents send to me in college, I realized I needed only a few. I selected the ones with the most writing (many just said “Love G&G” or that had particularly strong memories.

    – Give yourself a space budget: how much space to you want to use to store memory clutter? Stop when it’s full. This can help prioritize.

    – What you don’t keep, offer to other relatives. If someone wants it, that person is happy and it item will have a good home. If no one wants it, then maybe it really is just clutter.

    – Go through photos with some a friend. If you can’t tell the friend who’s in the photo, then maybe you don’t need to keep it. (This works better for photos of friends from the past than for family.)

    – Although I pick and choose amongst recent pix of family (how many pix of 1 yo nibling in the bath do I need?) I always keep the pix of past generations. When I visit relatives I bring some to see if they know who’s in the pix. This can lead to great stories so you might want to film yourselves going through the albums, to catch the experience and stories. This movie then becomes a great gift for other family members and future generations.

    – Digitalize the photos you keep, and MAKE SURE you keep something that can read the photos. Nothing worse than photos on a disk you can’t access. (Remember microdots? MacPaint? Microfiche?)

    – If you like the experience of touching things, consider making an album of the photos that really matter to you. Limiting the number of albums will help you prioritize and stay within your space budget.

  3. posted by chacha1 on

    ^WilliamB has some great suggestions. I use the “space budget” myself. Used to have two file boxes full of correspondence from family, friends, etc … winnowed it down to one drawer in my platform bed.

    Categories are also an excellent tool. You can take it further and define, say, the ten most important people or experiences in your life. Then sort out the items amongst your memorabilia that represent those people/experiences. Then sort through the items to find the ten individual things that have the most powerful associations for you in relation to that person or experience. This could be hard to do for a parent or sibling, but should be much easier for extended family.

  4. posted by JustGail on

    This will only work if you have a bit of storage space, but does it all have to be out all the time? Can items be rotated on display? Are there items that remind you of certain holidays/times of year? You could display those for holidays, instead of traditional decorations, or for a person’s birthday month, etc. As far as things that I drew in school, I went through those boxes several years ago, and kept only the few items that made me smile yet. And yes, I do still have my childhood teddy bear!

  5. posted by Laura on

    One suggestion I’ve seen for displaying collections is to display only a few items at a time, and to rotate through your collection. This seems particularly appropriate for you in a one bedroom apartment. If you have the storage space and your sentimental items are not too large, you may want to keep 3-4 times as many items as you plan to display at a time (and keep each display relatively sparse). Once a season–or on whatever schedule works for you–swap out a few items. This will provide a nice opportunityfor you to reflect on those items, and they’ll be more noticeable to you when they’re fresh.

  6. posted by Pammyfay on

    No, you don’t have to keep every greeting card, every photograph (and then add more photographs based on the suggestion), every trinket. You can winnow.

    But why does describing these things, whether keeping them or removing them, elicit so many negative terms? scarring, clutter… I don’t think it’s irrational to keep them, either: You kept them, too, to remind you of a simpler time, perhaps, but I don’t get the sense that you are a hermit living only in the past. They made you happy and have deep resonance. It might be irrational to keep every toy you ever had, but I don’t sense that being the case, either. I think you’re too hard on describing what you are living.

    I have a “memory box” of sorts (sorry to those people who think that you don’t need a greeting card from a favorite person, even now deceased, to remember that person; to me, there’s something special about the physical reminder). I don’t save every little thing, either.

    But that box has all positive memories (whatever stupid high school issues have all dissipated, and now it’s all about the good times!). Every once in a while, when I tuck something else into the box, I go through the stuff, and it’s an incredibly uplifting experience. Yes, it makes me sad to think that some relatives and friends represented among the items are no longer here, but I smile at the memories.

    I think it’d be so much easier figuring out what to do with the stuff if you approach these things in a positive manner. If everything just makes you terribly sad, thinking that some of the people you love are way too far away, then maybe that’s an indication that you need to toss everything except for some photos (and for those, maybe you need to just have them scanned into your computer so that you have them close by but don’t have to look at them every day).

    I enjoy having photos of friends and relatives on display in my home in frames. I don’t think albums really get looked at after you’re done putting them together; they stay on the shelves and eventually you will see them as “clutter,” too.

    I’m also not sure that the 6-month rule should apply to these sentimental kinds of things; many times, these are things you don’t take out on a continual basis–they’re tucked away for safekeeping for those few moments in time that you want to reminisce.

    I think you’re in for a long journey of really thinking about each item and its true value to you. It’ll be hard doing that knowing that the trash can is one of the answers. (And if it gets too hard, you can always buy a trunk that doubles as a coffee table!)

  7. posted by Ellen on

    One category I think is missing from this is the category of ‘saved for someone’. This doesn’t mean a general internal allowance to never get rid of anything, but there are things I might not keep for myself which I am keeping because I have daughters who may want them someday.

    Styles change and tastes evolve. For example, my grandparents gave me a vase from overseas which is really not my thing. But it is a classic style and good quality and I could see it working well in another person’s home. I have it tucked away now and will make it available to my children at some point. If they have no interest, then I will probably donate it, but in the meantime I have no way of knowing whether it will be quite in style in a few years!

    I see this as a consideration for some items, but not as a wide permission to myself to keep anything and everything ‘just in case’. Also, because of the size of my home and the fact that I’m generally NOT a pack-rat, I do have the space to store some things that I really wouldn’t display.

    While I am someone who prefers to get rid of things and live clutter-free, I agree with some of what PammyFay is saying – if it gives you emotional pleasure, why is is clutter? The photo thing doesn’t do much for me, except in a few cases, such as children’s art.

    Give yourself time to think about things and maybe rotate stuff. And in your sorting, think about future generations.

  8. posted by April on

    Just wanted to say how much I appreciate my fellow Unclutterer readers. Erin gave great tips, and then you added equally useful suggestions & insights. I feel so blessed living in the digital age and being able to share the wisdom of so many! Sentimental clutter is definitely an issue for me … looking forward to putting these ideas into action.

  9. posted by Katha on

    From everything paper – or flat enough to be glued onto paper – that I wanted to keep from the mementos accumulated in my childhood room (and that I want to keep now) I created and continue to create “residue”-files in run-of-the-mill lever arch files.

    It’s like a non-pretty form of scrapbooking.

    I sort by years – and for time periods that were farther away and where I did not remember exact dates too well, I roughly sorted per period “Time Spent in “City” – 1992-1999″.

    It really does not look refined – some pages hold mementos from a trip (ticket stubs, postcards, city map etc.) and a few words jotted besides, another item might be everything that had accumulated on my pin board in seven years stuffed into a plastic sleeve.
    I put in a file divider for each year and/or notable evebt that I want to be able to find quickly.

    What I like about my method is that it is really a “quick and dirty” way of sorting and keeping things, and the file system guarantees a kind of coherence in look and size and is easy to store on my bookshelves. Plus, I am pretty sure that lever arch files will be around for some time and I can add to my collection.

    I can always take out or add things where I want, different from a usual scrapbooking album.
    I might even take out things at some time and put them into something more displayable, but for now, I do not have that urge; I enjoy going through the files as they are.

    At the moment, I have somewhat less than 40 cm of files which span elementary school to today – I am thirty years old and began filling the “system” about six years ago.

    Though I have to admit that many photos are still stacked in boxes waiting for processing…

  10. posted by Sarah on

    I agree with the idea of a memory box. I think everyone is entitled to a have some things that they want to keep for years but won’t necessarily use or look at within any given 6 month stretch. The kind of things you pull out when you are feeling sentimental, when old friends visit or you want to show your kids one day (my dad had saved his cap and tassels from high school graduation and my brother and I loved hauling them out when we were kids). The key is to limit yourself to a certain amount of space. Personally, I have a file box. If it fits in there, its not “clutter” and I don’t feel guilty about keeping it, storing it or lugging it from apartment to apartment.

  11. posted by Lilliane P on

    I adored my grandmother. I have her blue and gold teapot with the gold worn off the handle from her hands. I don’t make tea in a teapot as I only make one cup at a time, but I wanted that teapot out. It is on a table and is filled with individually wrapped candies. I’m very happy with using it this way, and I get to see it every day.

    Now to the digital media becoming outdated. Thoroughly agree with this. What about storing your photos in someplace like Google Picasa web albums? With maybe a backup in Photobucket or someplace similar? I think Google will outlive me. Think that’s a safe bet. LOL

  12. posted by CatherineD on

    Brittney says she keeps “these things to fill the loneliness I feel with my loved ones scattered around the world”. It seems to me that she should spend some time emailing, Skyping, FaceBooking, and exchanging photos with her loved ones. Remove the reason for keeping the ‘cherished memories’ and make new electronic memories.

  13. posted by Claycat on

    Wow, a treasure trove of great ideas!

    I still have way to much memory clutter, and that is my next project after I finish dealing with my MIL’s things. (Almost there, yay!)

    I did something interesting. I took my stuffed toys that were worn out and built a little funeral pyre for them. I said a few words and then sent them to toy heaven.

  14. posted by Hessiess on

    Make sure that you store all data which has to survive large periods of time in a well understood, OPEN STANDARD format like JPEG, PNG or PDF. Relying on proprietary software that uses its own, closed file format for this purpose is a EXTREMELY bad idea because the software may not exist the next time you want to view the data.

    Store the image files in standard file system folders, do not use a proprietary application to organise them.

    I have mixed feelings regarding on-line data silos. If you do use a service like Picasa make sure that you also keep a local copy of the data. It is notoriously difficult to get all of your data out of these services if you ever wish to move it else ware (vendor lock-in).

  15. posted by mydivabydesign on

    Decide before you keep something if it’s really worth it. I had boxes of things that got ruined after Hurricane Dolly. I do miss some of the things, but not that bad. I also have a clean barn to house my horses now! Much better use for the space!

  16. posted by Nastia on

    I suggest making it into art. Photos, cards, drawings, basically everything that is paper can be put together as a collage, and if you have a chance to dedicate a wall to it, you will end up with your memories making your space beautiful. You don’t need a huge wall, you can go with two-three narrow passages. Use non-toxic glue to attach pictures to think paper, and then put the paper up to cover the wall (you can only nail it at the top and at the bottom, no need for more). You can also hang a mirror in the middle so anyone who comes up close can see themselves surrounded by your memories.

  17. posted by Jean/habithacker on

    Some small items, such as old watches, grandmothers’ costume jewelry, trinkets, and charms can be made into wonderful, funky jewelry. Shadowboxes, if done right and not over-sentimental, are great, too. However, here’s my latest: I purchased several clear glass jar (removable top) lamps. I know people tend to fill them with shells and sand…but I’m going to do rotating displays of greeting cards, photos, old ticket stubs…stuff I’m not ready to throw but don’t want hidden in a basement box or put away in a scrapbook. Perhaps after I’ve observed and reminisced for a while, I’ll toss. I’ll be posting photos on my website late next month.

  18. posted by Joe Granville on

    So many good ideas here! Thank you, fellow unclutterers. It’s time to go throw away *almost* everything I own. 🙂

  19. posted by ecuadoriana on

    I am right up there with Nastia & Jean/habithacker! I love to make collages & shadow boxes of trinkets I’ve saved & collected. Some are thematic (old wooden toys for example), some are sentimental (things from when my daughter was a baby). I display these on my walls, or make table top collages under glass. I can change them out with the seasons. This way the things are displayed artistically rather than stored in shoe boxes under the bed. Why purchase art for the walls when one can make it themselves?!

    I’ve even decoupaged furniture with ticket stubs, cocktail napkins, fotos, etc. And later, when someone says “My gosh! That chair looks so cool!” I give that person the chair when I move or redecorate. Less clutter for me, and I know the recipient will love it.

    I’ve even made a bit of money by making personalized collage/shadowbox/decoupage displays for people! I get to play with their stuff & make money at the same time.

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