If the Smithsonian is “America’s attic,” then America’s attics (& basements, garages, sheds, etc.) are personal Smithsonians…
Collecting? Or something else? Basement storage
The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and galleries, nine research facilities, and a zoo (the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.). The Smithsonian is sometimes affectionately referred to as “America’s attic,” and the nickname is apt. Visitors to Washington, DC and its environs are routinely impressed by the sheer volume of objects which the Smithsonian displays: over a million objects in building after huge building covering over 2.7 million square feet of display area. The scale of the Smithsonian’s collection of stuff is truly mind-boggling in number and scale. One photo alone covers more square footage than my entire house (a 3,375 square foot pinhole photo of an airplane hangar).
However, the Smithsonian only displays a tiny fraction (~ one percent) of its entire collection at any one time, so their massive displays are not even the tip of the proverbial iceberg; they pale in comparison to the actual Smithsonian collection itself, which consists of about 137 million objects which are housed behind-the-scenes in the museums (about 58 percent at the Natural History museum), in other off-site storage facilities, and at Smithsonian’s state-of-the-art Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland. Think of the closing scene in the first Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which the ark is put in a nondescript wooden crate and stored in a gigantic warehouse, presumably to be lost and forgotten among the rows upon rows of other identical wooden crates. Except that in reality, the actual Smithsonian is far larger than what’s depicted in the Indiana Jones movie; and of course, the Smithsonian is (presumably?) far more careful about keeping track of what it has.
Americans can appreciate the Smithsonian as “America’s attic,” the place where Americans collect objects deemed valuable, because this relationship also works in reverse: because so many of us have attics filled with treasures — our own personal Smithsonians. Each reflects the other: if the Smithsonian is “America’s attic,” then America’s attics — and its basements and garages and “spare rooms” and sheds and barns — are small-scale museums commemorating individual homes, families, and their lives. And my house was certainly no exception.
Words like hoarding or accumulating or grasping may sound too harsh or judgmental to describe this phenomenon. One could simply call it collecting — so long as one recognizes the difference between collecting with a purpose and just plain collecting.
Even though I didn’t own a huge amount of things to begin with, there was no shortage of collections in my personal Smithsonian: household furnishings and recreational equipment and gardening tools and childhood games and boxes of photographs, just to name a very few. Some of these were designated as personal treasures, but other things just seemed to accumulate for no apparent reason. Once I became aware of this, however, I eventually owned the process. Things didn’t simply accumulate; I collected them. More accurately, I collected them and held on to them.
Oddly enough, one of the first things where I noticed my tendencies for collecting and holding on to things for no (initial) apparent reason was with my collections of papers. Like a lot of people, I kept paper copies of bank statements and utility bills, mortgage documents and tax returns. I also kept paper copies of most of my work related to my consulting business — documents produced for clients, meeting notes, client-produced documents, you name it. I often kept paper copies even if I also had a digital copy or two somewhere.
When I started wondering why I resisted getting rid of these paper files, the inner voices at play emerged. There could be valuable work in there. I’d put a lot of hard work and thought and effort into creating those documents. They embodied ideas and insights and personal creations of a sort, the products of a successful business over more than a decade’s worth of work. There might be valuable ideas in these documents that I could use again on a future project. Even if I had the file in digital form, they felt more immediate and useful somehow in paper form.
Those were some of the thoughts, anyway; the reality was that I had no idea what was valuable in there. It dawned on me that saving paper was a legacy habit for me, which followed one simple rule: keep old paper files for as long as possible. The result was my own particular case of weakness in numbers: I had a hard time finding things in my office, or in the bins I kept old files and papers in, because there were so many of them. I could tell which old projects were in a particular bin or filing cabinet, but I couldn’t really tell you what was where. I certainly couldn’t find a particular idea or concept or work product embodied in a document very easily.
There was also this lingering idea that I was preserving history. That maybe someone someday would want to look through my things as a form of cultural anthropology or some such. The typical office of a self-employed office worker, late 20th/early 21st century. Look, here’s a document that was clearly printed on an Apple IIe, circa 1990, during the dot matrix printer period. Now, this one here is clearly more recent; this font was not widely used until the mid 1990s… Digging deeper into my paper stash, this intrepid cultural anthropologist might also be delighted to encounter a historical record of the transition between a paper-based and a digital-based enterprise: old exam books written in ink; papers I’d written in college on a typewriter, the white outs and typeovers still visible in some cases.
There was some truth to this. But it wasn’t as if my office was the only remaining example of these types of relics. There surely must be millions of them still out there. Why should I be the one to hold to them? Why should I continue to have my own personal museum?
This was when I realized that there was a difference between collecting with a purpose, and just collecting and holding on. In fact, collecting is too nice a word to describe the latter process; the word grasping is more accurate way to describe it. More on that soon…