Collecting without a Purpose #2: The Color Chest Story

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Sure, it’s organized. But why do I still have all those Christmas cards I’ll never send…empty flashlights…floppy disks?

The Color Chest Story

My parents’ possessions were often assembled in collections without a purpose. The bins in my father’s bedroom were examples of this: random objects thrown together in a container for no apparent reason. One bin, for example, had a hat. And a rock. And an expired pizza coupon. And a plastic bag filled with old candy wrappers. (I have no idea why he collected candy wrappers, nor why he put them in plastic bags.) And other assorted useless objects and — oh, look, here’s my son’s birth announcement. My other family members are unsure about another recollection, but I thought we also found an uncashed check for $22,000 in one of these bins. Each bin was a collection without apparent purpose or organization.

Even weirder, though, was when we encountered collections of objects in their house which were clearly organized around some principle but with no apparent reason for that organization. Perhaps the most memorable example was what I came to call the color chest, an old piece of furniture in the basement. This gray-painted chest was originally a bedroom dresser, but when we opened its drawers during the house clearing process, we were astonished to discover how it had been re-purposed: as a place for storing old toys and other objects, all sorted by color. There was a drawer filled with nothing but red toys and other assorted red objects. There was a drawer filled with blue toys and objects, and one filled with pink ones, and another with green ones, and another with black ones. None of the objects in each drawer related to any of the other objects in that drawer, except by chance (for instance, two plastic cars or dinosaurs from the same set that happened to be the same color). Some of the objects were broken or had missing pieces; a few of the objects had no discernible purpose at all. The color chest was one of many examples we encountered, along with the pennies wrapped in rolls, organized by year, and scattered throughout the house, or the barrels of scrap wood and scrap metal and scrap window parts, of stuff that was “organized,” but not in a very useful way — organization without a purpose.

I didn’t have anything quite so weird as a color chest in my store of possessions — or at least I didn’t think so. But I did find myself wondering at times if I too had collections without a purpose. What was the point of keeping all those gardening supplies in the shed if I never did any gardening? Why have a collection of board games if no one ever played them? And what about so many of those other nests with their somewhat random combination of things together in one place, like the cart pictured above?

Having these thoughts made me feel uneasy about my own tendencies to hold on to things.  As the Lonely Planet describes it, “If America was a quirky grandfather, the Smithsonian Institution would be his attic.” Both my parents’ and my own collections of things made me feel as if I was on the way to becoming a ‘quirky grandfather,’ or worse. Collecting, purging, and organizing were useful but also toxic beyond a certain point: when collecting became grasping, when purging was a reaction to being overwhelmed, when organizing served no rational purpose; if not a disease, then certainly a dis-ease. However, the 1000 things project taught me that that if my Smithsonianesque tendencies often made me feel ill at ease, the Smithsonian also offered a way to a cure…

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