Developing ‘The Museum of Me’: a sentimental person’s 5-step guide to decluttering paper mementos

aerial view of a field

Sentimental items are often the hardest things to get rid of when you’re trying to pare down your possessions.

Once you have created your capsule wardrobe, sold your DVD boxsets and ditched those trinkets you never really liked anyway, often you are left with a pile of paper mementos to somehow sort through.

Photos, concert tickets, wedding invites, hand-written letters, sketches and doodles, newspaper cuttings and perhaps the odd autograph or two. Fragments of a life well-lived.

If you’re anything like me, they’ll be found in boxes, drawers and cupboards all over the house. Sometimes they will be in some semblance of order, like that year you methodically put all your photos into an album, but more often than not they’re a bit of a jumble.

They’re also not taking up too much space, so you end up torn about whether to let them go or let them be.

Yes, you hear the argument that your memories don’t lie in these objects, they lie in your mind, and that as a result they will always be with you.

But it’s not the reality you experience when you stumble across that movie ticket from your first date with your high-school sweetheart and you are unexpectedly transported right back to the bench outside the cinema where you shared that awkward kiss.

You also hear the assertion that looking back on years gone by is unhealthy, that it stops you from looking forward.

But that’s not how you feel when you find a silly caricature drawn by one of your oldest friends and then realise you really should give them a call.

So how can you start to clear away these mementos when you still want to be able to use them to reminisce about the many twists and turns your life has taken to this point?

I’ve been trying to develop a solution.

But first, a confession: for a so-called minimalist, I’ve discovered I’m a deeply sentimental person.

I really wish I wasn’t. When I was a teenager I went as far as writing a punky fanzine called Anti-Sentimentality with a close friend. The irony isn’t lost on me that, 20 years on, I still have copies of each issue stashed in my spare room.

In fact, I’ve kept a hell of a lot from my teenage years onward. Programmes for plays I’ve seen, certificates from minor achievements in school – the kind of thing that might have been valuable had I somehow turned out to be the next John Lennon.

It’s almost as if I’ve been keeping items to display in some future Museum of Me.

So if it’s all so damn important to me, why on earth haven’t I been curating it, like a real museum would?

For the past few months I’ve been trying to set this right, and if you want to try it out for yourself, here are the steps:

  1. Find somewhere on your computer hard-drive, a cloud account or a pen drive where you have a spare few gigabytes of storage.
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  2. Create a folder for each year of your life (an optional step for the ultra-nerdy like me: create sub-folders within each year for each month, labelled 01_Jan, 02_Feb, and so on. Using numbers at the beginning of the file names means they will stay in date order).
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  3. Scan all your ticket stubs, party invites, letters and so on, and save each image into the relevant folder. Make sure to back up your files as you go. For safety, I have mine saved on my computer, with a back-up in the cloud and a back-up back-up on a pen drive.
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  4. Add to your collection with a selection of photos, videos, music files, screengrabs of social media posts, or anything else that helps piece together the story of your life. Once your library is assembled, you can use it as a permanent archive to trawl through when you want to reminisce.
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  5. Use web programs to bring the collection to life by creating digital yearbooks. Choose a few photos, images or other files from each year that really make you smile – that picture of you mid-skydive, that time you met the minor celebrity – then compile a slideshow, video or collage for each year (or each five years or decade if you prefer). A quick web search will bring up a host of free and easy-to-use programs that will take you through the process, but I personally like PhotoCollage for collages and Kizoa for slideshows.

Once your ‘Museum of Me’ is properly curated, and you have found a way of honouring all those paper keepsakes, it should be far easier to get rid of all but a select few.

7 thoughts on “Developing ‘The Museum of Me’: a sentimental person’s 5-step guide to decluttering paper mementos

  1. Serene Focus says:

    Outstanding, as usual!
    I am doing something similar myself, still believing I will be famous one day?!?

    One thing I struggle with, are journals, should I scan them (and take a few months of my precious life to do that) or just keep them (I like that solution because I find that some of the memories just lies in the paper and in the smell – but the minimalist in me rebels a little bit against that).

    Something I find very useful when I know I don’t want to keep an item but still have some sentimental attachment to it: I have created an online decluttering journal. Whenever I part with something from my past, I take a picture of it and attach it to the day. That way, I can scroll back and see if my decision made sense over time – they always do. For me, it is a great help to keep some trace of the item even if I have decided that it should not follow me for the rest of my life. It takes less time than if I would want to include it in the “museum of me” (especially if you don’t remember exactly who gave it to you, where you got it, which year you were the most attached to it etc…). I usually have less than 10 items per year in my “decluttering journal” but that makes the decision process of parting with them much easier. They usually belongs to my childhood or my “fantasy” me.

    1. Hmm, whether to scan journals. That’s a great question, and a dilemma I’ve also faced. So far, I’ve decided not to scan journals and diaries, simply because of the time it would take. But I’m considering flicking through them to see whether there are only a few pages that are really worth keeping, and if so, I’ll just scan those and get rid of the journal. If it’s packed with awesomeness, and I really think I’ll enjoy going through it again and again, I guess it’s a keeper!

  2. Camilla says:

    I think minimalism is about discovering what really matters to you, and in my journey I have found that I really like and appreciate my sentimental items. Of course I have decluttered a lot of them, but I love having a box containing stuff that reminds me of happy times in the past. After I became a minimalist I also became a scrapbooker. Now that’s a big no-no in the minimalist world, I know! But getting rid of the excess in my life made it clear to me that I really enjoy having my photos in albums and I enjoy the creativity of scrapboooking. So here’s to celebrating the past in a way that makes you happy, as a minimalist and as a sentimental person!

    1. Right, who are these minimalists guilt-tripping you about scrapbooking???!! I will go and remonstrate with them! Seriously – if you love it, do it. No-one should ever let other people’s ideas about minimalism put you off from doing what you love. Sounds in many ways like a physical version of what I’m doing. Love it.

  3. While I don’t have a ton of sentimental clutter, I do find that this is the hardest stuff to deal with. I’ve become more ruthless in my sorting of sentimental clutter but actually following through with organizing what’s leftover tends to always get pushed farther down on my to do list. Maybe summer 2018 is the season to finally deal with it all…

    1. I know what you mean, it’s so easy to put organising off…often quicker and more satisfying to bin the stuff you don’t want than to sort out the stuff you do.

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