Perspectives on Disposal: Decluttering

In this guest blog, Professor Sharon Macdonald and Dr Jennie Morgan from the Department of Sociology at the University of York address the topic of museum disposal. They share insights gained from a different contexthousehold declutteringto prompt new ways of approaching and thinking about disposal. While it is perhaps no longer considered controversial’ or a ‘dirty word’ in the ways it once was, there persists (as Director of the Museums Association Sharon Heal put it earlier this year) a ‘shying away’ from disposal.

To open up debate, the authors offer a novel perspective by addressing the tricky question of what not to keep by looking to domestic strategies, here those developed by professional declutterer and anthropologist Dr Zemirah Moffat. This post is based on a workshop they ran as part of their work on the Profusion theme of the AHRC-funded Heritage Futures project 

What happens when you bring together a professional declutterer with museum professionals? We did just that as part of the AHRC Heritage Futures research project that looks at questions about what people decide to keep for the future and how.  

We are social anthropologists based in the Department of Sociology at the University of York. Our part of Heritage Futures is called Profusion and focuses on what homes and museums keep from everyday life today. The idea behind it is that, with mass production and consumption, the selection of what to save for the future and what to discard is especially difficult. By looking at both homes and museums we hope to get a better understanding of what motivates what is being preserved at present and ascertain whether household practices might be applicable to museums and vice versa. And that is where the idea of looking at the work of professional home declutterers came in.  

The New School House Gallery, York © J. Morgan and S. Macdonald

Decluttering is, of course, primarily about getting rid of things. But this can only be done by thinking carefully about what we keep and why. ‘Be careful not to throw out your sense of belonging when you re-home your belongings!’ was one of the top tips that professional declutterer and visual anthropologist Dr Zemirah Moffat of Insightful Moves brought to the workshop in York in March last year.  Held in in the New School House Gallery, with an exhibition of Bartosz Breda’s work called Feeling Good about Things on the walls, the ‘Curating Domestic Profusion’ workshop brought Dr Moffat face-to-face with a group consisting of museum professionals concerned with disposal, and academics who variously research museum disposal and practices such as re-use and recycling.

Dr Moffat—or Zem, as she presented herself—began by asking all participants to talk about a ‘meaningful object’ that they had been asked to bring to the meeting, to explain why they had chosen it, and to think about how they felt when that object was passed around to the rest of the group. Director of the Gallery, Robert Teed, showed his beautiful Montblanc pen —a ‘big identity statement’ as Zem declared —and one which some felt a bit nervous about handling. Other kinds of objects selected included things that had been inherited from family members (a grandfather’s dressing gown or book received from an aunt after a ‘sort out’), spoke to biographical trajectories (an archaeologist’s trowel, a significant piece of jewellery), or had persisted purely through accident of being mundane or forgotten about (a ‘Kylie club’ badge and a stoneware toothpick holder). Some people, anxious that Zem might ask them to throw away their object, brought something they anticipated would be easy to part with, if need be (a stone, in the case of one participant).  

A selection of meaningful objects
© J. Morgan and S. Macdonald

Throughout, the aim was to encourage participants to think carefully about the meanings of objects, what kinds of criteria could be brought to deciding which to keep, and thus which objects were imbued with less significance than others and could be discarded. Precisely how to make such tricky decisions was more explicitly examined in the afternoon session, when Zem introduced the group to a set of strategies she uses when working with her clients. Like significance assessment in museums, these are intended to help with making decisions about what to retain. She recited her 9 top tips for decluttering, and asked participants to choose one tip which they felt they could best respond to from their work or home contexts, or to potentially use.  

Fascinatingly, as Nick Merriman, Director of Manchester Museum, pointed out, the group avoided the tips for addressing issues of ‘shame’ or other kinds of blockage. ‘Clutter’, Zem explained, ‘comes from the Middle English word clotter or blood clot’.  Instead, participants gravitated towards tips such as decluttering being like going on a holiday: ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, then how do you know what to pack?’ Zem asked us. 

Discussing household ‘top tips’ for decluttering, © J. Morgan and S. Macdonald

 One tip that led into hefty debate was based on British artist William Morris’s assertion ‘have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’ and to which Zem added that things should also be ‘positively sentimental’. This resulted in discussion about whether museums are motivated by ‘moments of usefulness’, keeping something because it might ‘come in useful’, as so many individuals seem to do in their homes. Or perhaps, as one of us suggested, museums were more oriented to ‘moments of significance’ (which we then realised are also pertinent for homes too). The group felt that the challenge for museums is to recognise that for some things there might never be such a moment. Therefore, it was suggested, we might need to accept that we will never know enough to make some things significant, which could suffice as justification for not keeping them. Certainly, beyond our workshop, the logic of collecting ‘just in case’ on behalf of future generations is being challenged within the museum sector.  

The aim of the day was not to solve all museums’ problems or come up with radically new collecting policies. Rather, it was to highlight some of the creative possibilities for reinvigorating debate that might come from approaching this issue from expertise developed in an alternative context and by engaging multidisciplinary perspectives. Nick Merriman, for example, argued that we cannot know the future and therefore should not try to second-guess what those in the future will want, and argued that, if museums are memory institutions, we should recognise the role that they play in forgetting, as well as remembering. Curator Beverley Cook, who is leading a major collections rationalisation at the Museum of London, emphasised that what is needed are systems and procedures to ensure that there are mechanisms that we can rely upon.  As Nick Merriman pointed out, however, the risk is that these have the counter-effect of putting people off disposing, something to which there is already a professional aversion: ‘people get credit for adding to collections, not for getting rid of them’. 

One piece of advice that all participants agreed was especially useful was Zem’s assertion that ‘like eating, excreting, and exercises, clutter-clearing is best done regularly’.  Some participants described having tried to resource and build collections review into everyday work, or to make it part of the accepted ‘life cycle’ of museums, though they often faced struggles in doing so. Nevertheless, the kinds of household approaches presented in the workshop were perceived as having potential to embed a kind of ongoing decluttering process into museum work. As Michael Turnpenny, Head of Museum Development at York Museums Trust, commented in written feedback on the event: ‘Zem’s 9 thoughts could be used in a preventative fashion. For example, at object acquisition. The idea of packing for a holiday – are we collecting for a realistic future state?’ 

Overall, the day led to much creative thinking and invigorating discussion. Participants especially enjoyed the innovative mix of professional and disciplinary backgrounds, which encouraged comparisons to be made across the personal and professional, as well as domestic and museum contexts. Such comparisons have not been made before, as far as we are aware. As discussion during the event made evident, they hold rich scope for enabling professionals to think through the profusion issue in museums in potentially novel ways. We hope this might encourage conversations across the sector to consider new directions for museums and collecting based not only on ideas of acquisition but also in terms of what has recently been discussed elsewhere as ‘degrowth’. As one participant wrote: ‘[I ]became very aware, possibly for the first time, how similar household collecting and decluttering is to museum collecting. These two activities are also totally interdependent e.g., museums benefit from household decluttering (and previous collecting). Perhaps we should now consider how the wider community could benefit from museum disposal/decluttering to bring the mutual dependency full circle.’  

Decluttering is clearly not easy for individuals or museums. This was expressed through the group’s association of ‘mourning’ and ‘grief’ with processes of letting go. Zem herself told us that her 9 top tips ‘took me longer to write than my 3 year PhD thesis!’ However, perhaps we should all feel reassured that through the process of decluttering we are prompted to think more carefully and critically about what to retain. And, as Zem told us, ‘I promise you will find forgotten treasures that warm the cockles of your heart. These are the ones to be cherished, celebrated and shared.’