Don’t let your home become a museum of the past

We aren’t born clutching material possessions in our hands and can’t take anything with us when we die. So why can we become so attached to objects while we’re here?

Woman remembering the past

There’s a poignant moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, when the family are packing to leave Oklahoma and must quickly decide which few possessions they can take and which they must leave behind. With eleven adults and two children about to board a dilapidated old truck with no idea if it will make the journey to California or what future awaits them if it does, there’s no room to salvage anything but essentials.

‘How can we live without our lives?’ ponders the mother, as she sorts through the family’s meagre personal belongings. ‘How will we know it’s us without our past?’

This is radical decluttering on a scale that most people never have to experience. But the thoughts she voices are similar to those I’ve often heard people express in modern times while clearing their personal clutter, as they confront their internal tug-of-war between wanting to live in the present and embrace the future while realizing they can only fully do so if they are willing to let go of the past.

Our relationship to material possessions

Psychologists have identified that babies only start to understand they have ownership of their own body at around two months old and it’s not until they are about twelve months old that they begin to bond with items such as teddies or blankets. At around 21 months, they start using the word “mine” and may start to squabble with other children over toys.

So it seems we are hard-wired to own things. But sometimes people take this too far and their entire home becomes a museum of things that relate to their past. I’ve been given guided tours where each item has a special story attached to it about how long the person has had it, how it came to be in their possession, what was happening in their life at that time, why it’s special to them, and so on.

These stories are often long and complicated, requiring a lot of detail and explanation, and the person can be very convincing about how important the items are. They believe that their well-being rests on continuing to own each object so that they can remember the particular event in their life that it relates to.

But when viewed through an outsider’s eyes, it looks like a home full of useless stuff. And when the person dies, it’s highly unlikely anyone will want any of it. It will most likely end up in landfill or, at best, be donated to charities.

Why a museum of possessions is no substitute for life

When people ask me for my advice about this as they sort through their things, I point out that the question to ask yourself is whether you really need to remember all the people and events of your life? What purpose does that serve other than to create mental and emotional clutter?

You are the sum total of all your life experiences. They have made you what you are, and whether you remember the events or not, it doesn’t change who you have become. You are the walking, talking embodiment of your life to date, as any facial diagnosis expert can tell you (a person’s entire history is recorded in their face). You can’t change the past, but you can certainly change the future through the choices you make in the present.

The truth of the matter is that anyone can archive the past. What takes far greater skill and courage is to let go of the past and live fully in the now, to become all that you can be. As one woman said to me after letting go of her personal museum of things, ‘When I gave such importance to archiving my life, it felt as if I was already dead.’ She realized, as many others have done, that resting on old memories brings only limited pleasure. True happiness can only be found in the present.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2018, updated 2023

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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6 Responses to Don’t let your home become a museum of the past

  1. I guess we keep those things hanging on our walls to remember our stories from the past. The thing that bothers me most, is that those stories don’t necessarily have to be true.

    Thank you very much!
    I like to read your articles.

  2. Interesting–I always feel this way not only about clutter but about traditions. Stuff we celebrate that are really collective clutter, like eating certain foods in certain dates or follow some rituals that people do but have no idea why except that everyone else does.

  3. There is another way this habit hampers the present. The archivist chooses what story to tell and what facts to record. It is subjective, and tends to get fixed in place and accepted as gospel. In fact, a past event can be retold many different ways with many different lessons, some that serve the present, and many that stifle it. Beware the archivist in your family that thinks she knows the whole story. Why does she need the last word? That is a rhetorical question, but excuse, fear and control come to mind.

  4. Awesome article which really made me sit up & take note (I have been the family historian for 25 years).

  5. I know what you mean, but… 🙂
    I’ve spent so much of my life compromising myself virtually out of existence, always making room for other people’s preferences in how to spend time and how to use space. Now that I’m finally living on my own again I find that bringing my personal history back into my living space, through items that carried meaning for me during various phases of my life, brings me comfort and and a sense of validation that the road I traveled was worthwhile. It seems to give me roots upon which to finally feel grounded in my own interests and accomplishments. And in that, I think that a sharply curated collection of items can be beneficial.

    I know the past is past and I have many adventures ahead if I will only look forward. I know I’m not looking forward enough; not even living enough in the present as I try to “catch up” with acknowledging what my life has meant so far. But I also do realize that it doesn’t matter if the items in my home represent my current interests, or reflect the twists and turns of my personal history – because those who clear out my space after I’m gone will not understand one bit of it and will label the vast majority, useless stuff. And that’s okay.

    For the time being it suits me. As I clear out my ex-husband’s belongings, and turn the house into my own home, I do find solace in living with things that more clearly represent Me. The complex and diverse me that I’m finally rediscovering and appreciating, as I haven’t done in years.

    Still – always – I thank you for this article. And I will do my best to find that balance between a museum of my past and a springboard to my future. You are a constant inspiration and guide.

  6. The very last comment of this article is the one to remember – true happiness can only be found in the present.

    Can you expand on this sometime – in one of your blogs, please Karen?

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