KonMari is good for me, but is it bad for museums and archives?

Last month, I took my first girls’ weekend trip away since my daughter was born a year ago. I found myself relaxing in a lovely lake house (expected), sipping wine (expected), and talking, talking, talking for hours on end (expected) about how to “tidy” my house (utterly unexpected!).

Perhaps I’d been living under a rock — or a newborn, to be precise — but I was floored by how thoroughly The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo had infiltrated my peer group. From whip-smart Manhattan studio dwellers to uber-hip parents raising enviably-dressed toddlers in the ‘burbs, this book was the Kool-Aid and everyone seemed to be slurping it up.

The gist of the KonMari method is this:

  1. Get rid of anything in your home that does not “spark joy.” This requires handling each object, a timely endeavor but also an incredibly intentional act which the author claims will cure you from clutter FOREVER.
  2. Once the discarding step is complete, you’ll have so much space (literal; figurative) that it will be clear how to organize everything (read: maniacally fold your underwear into rectangles and stack vertically in a drawer; also, FIGURE OUT YOUR LIFE).

I took a skeptic’s journey.

At first I thought the book’s principles seemed obvious (duh, get rid of stuff). Then I thought it was over-the-top (Kondo says to free unused belongings from “the prison to which you have relegated them.”). Then I thought it was hokey (would someone ever say “Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me” while dumping a pair of flowy gaucho pants from Target?). But in the end, this weekend getaway group of smart, no-BS women were so enamored with the book that I felt I would be really missing out if I didn’t try it. I Amazon Prime-d the 200-page book before I headed home and read it cover-to-cover within a week (partially aloud, as a serial “bedtime story” for my wee sweetie and husband, poor things.)

“Start by discarding, all at once, intensely and completely.”

Kitchen drawer post-KonMari method. Yes, that red spatula brings me joy.

The discarding step has been unsurprisingly easy for me. I have long felt the urge to purge and have gotten rid of things easily throughout my life. When left to my own devices, my style is relentlessly minimalist.

That being said, as a wife and mom I am rarely left to my own devices. I have found the book “life-changing” and “magic” in that it is an effective tool for getting my husband on board. He has shockingly and fully embraced the concept of holding possessions, one by one, and honestly answering the question “does this spark joy?” (If the answer is anything but a resounding “yes!”, Marie Kondo advises you chuck it.) The ball made up of many tiny rubber bands stays. Those old art-school paintings gathering dust in the basement will go. I’ve gone on cleaning campaigns before but this is the first time he and I are really (literally) on the same page. And I think it comes down to our agreement on this KonMari gem:

Being surrounded by things that spark joy makes you happy.

The choice to keep a thing is actually quite easy. And after a few wrinkles in deciphering the meaning of “joy” (expanded to include things that are of use and not hideously ugly), I’ve come to deeply appreciate the KonMari method as a litmus test for determining whether to hold on to something as well as whether to acquire a new thing.

The act of discarding, on the other hand, can bring up all kinds of issues.

Problem: How to discard responsibly?

My first issue with the book has to do with HOW to discard or — to be more precise — the lack of guidance on the proper ways to discard. Surely if our unused possessions are miserable in a box at the back of the closet, they’d be utterly despondent at the bottom of a landfill. (While I don’t really buy into Kondo’s fondness for personifying objects, I think we can all agree that more items in landfills in general is not a good thing for anyone.)

About half of the books we discarded (sold and donated) are seen here. Nearly 3 bookcases worth!

I’ve had to spent a significant amount of time researching and implementing better ways to pass along, donate, recycle, or sell items which I no longer need to possess. So far I’ve discarded items in the following ways:

  1. Books: Bookscouter and donating to my local library
  2. Clothes: ThredUp, Goodwill, maternity/nursing clothes to friends or a local mom listserv
  3. Everything else: Craigslist, Freecycle, and good ol’ place-it-on-the-curb-and-see-what-happens

Frankly, I think it is rather reckless to publish a book with such deep empathy for things and the people that own them without also considering the impact of a massive dumping-in-the-trash on our communities and the environment.

Problem: Does the right to discard belong to the individual?

My investigations into the most eco- and people-friendly ways to discard got me to thinking about the larger implications of this book and its resulting get-rid-of-all-the-things movement. Kondo states the positive impacts of her method for possession owners in no uncertain terms: you will be happy, you will discover what you really want to do, your real life will begin. But what are the implications beyond me as an individual?

Kondo talks about attachment to the past as a barrier for properly putting one’s house in order. This concern seems to be particularly relevant in the “sentimental items” category. She writes:

The purpose of a letter is fulfilled the moment it is received.

On the face of it, I agree with this statement. And I see the sense in discarding a piece of paper once it has outlived its usefulness. (I do it all the time.) But here’s the rub: I’ve been working in museums and archives for well over a decade. Curators and archivists often say that we don’t know what objects will hold significance until much later. If everyone who ever received correspondence that seemed to simply detail everyday life, or only seemed pertinent to a select few, had decided to discard it after reading it what on earth would we have left in our cultural heritage institutions?

This rejection letter from Yale University dated July 14, 1945 reflected the prejudicial sentiments that characterized reality for people of Japanese ancestry. National Museum of American History. 1986.3097.01.

Thinking back to the lake trip, one of my co-vacationers talked about being gifted a bin of “treasures” — a group of vintage ski t-shirts from the 1970s. Her step-father, a skiing enthusiast, had saved them, perhaps out of love, or peharps he just never got around to donating them. Now, almost 40 years later, they are cool retro gems to his step-daughter. But if he had followed the KonMari method all those years ago, he easily could have deemed them out of use and discarded them. They weren’t vintage yet; they didn’t yet possess nostalgia. Thinking about these treasured shirts, it dawned on me: museums rely on the mild hoarders of the world. This book could be the downfall of future museums!

But it gets worse. Marie Kondo writes:

Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.

Perhaps this is true for an individual. But once the person passes, that memory goes with her. Isn’t the whole point of collecting and preserving evidence of our past that we will not and cannot forget? Which raises the question: What is the responsibility of the individual in determining when a thing is worth saving? If not the owner, whose job is this? Memories can and do vanish when the objects attached to them are lost. What are appropriate methods for enabling individuals to discard and tidy without wiping out huge swaths of human history?

And perhaps most troubling is this statement:

When you think about the future, is it worth keeping mementos of things you would otherwise forget? We live in the present.

Despite the risk of sounding maudlin I will submit the example of the shoe room in the Holocaust Memorial Museum as representative of the type of thing we would (rather) forget.

Shoes were just one category of belongings the Nazis systematically confiscated from their victims. When Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek camps, they discovered huge mounds of shoes, hundreds of thousands of pairs, but very few living prisoners. At the sight of these inanimate witnesses, veteran CBS News correspondent Edward R. Murrow commented, “One shoe, two shoes, a dozen shoes, yes. But how can you describe several thousand shoes?” U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I also find myself bristling at Kondo’s admonishment to live in the present. Every Facebook notification, email, and text message reminds us that we’re here now (NOW NOW! NOW!) in the present. I wonder — as many in museum and cultural heritage professions do — if our particularly era is not precisely the time to emphasize the value of the past and its influence on who we are today.

What do you think?

I’d really love to hear what others think about these two overlapping and potentially conflicting issues. Of course we should live with the things that bring us joy and have the freedom to (responsibly) discard the things that don’t. And, of course, human society collectively deserves a way to preserve, honor, and learn from the evidence of humans who came before us.

So: Is the KonMari method good for you but bad for museums and archives? Or is there a way to reconcile the two needs?

My copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, on a newly tidied (emptied!) bookshelf.

Check out Instagram for thousands of posts illustrating #KonMari adoption around the world.

Note: I originally published this post on Medium. Check it out and comment or follow me there if you’d like to try it out!

One thought on “KonMari is good for me, but is it bad for museums and archives?

  1. I will return to resume reading this, but I was stopped in my tracks by the goosebumps and ways I could relate. If you’re interested in how I happened upon here, I am a library science student and we’re social media in curation so I decided to look further specifically into the way museums are curating digital content and hashtags.

    This specific post caught my attention because I’d heard of a couple (with a newborn) purging books last year after reading this book. I am a constant purger, but also a functional-organized hoarder, mainly book collector. I struggle with the balance between the two. Not only is this a natural concern for all of us, but I lost my possessions in a fire ten years ago – fortunately my pet was not home. I recognize that objects are temporary and not the centers of our existence, a meaningful life is about much more than material things. But material things also facilitate experiences and provoke thought, innovation, discussion and surrounding ourselves with our interests is a form of expression and curation of our images/perceptions of the self. Simultaneously, I feel like clutter inhibits being more present and creative.

    I love shopping around Goodwill and after attic cleanings, deaths, or just because have been the happy recipient of interesting items. Before I ramble much more, the point is this – it’s a line to be straddled, purging the clutter and saving ephemera. As a lover of museums, myself, I realize these are ongoing considerations for their future existence. Then I scrolled down to the leather/suede shoes of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. I’ve been on repeated visits there and the shoes remain one of the most visceral experiences I’ve ever had, so I stopped there. I don’t have a great point, but you’ve made some incredible points that I just wanted to thank you for sharing.

Submit a comment