Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Do We Do With All This Stuff?

By Supriya Savkoor

Supriya may live near some of the most famous American museums—chiefly, the Smithsonian—outside Washington, D.C., but she still chose this week to rerun a slightly off-topic post from last year.
The Museum of Childhood 
in Edinburgh
This week, while researching our topic of the week, I learned about museums devoted entirely to jars of prepared mustard (in Wisconsin); ham (there are actually two such museums--one in Belgium, another in Spain); arts and crafts inspired solely by owls (Korea); lawnmowers (the UK); bananas (on the island of Martinique); asphalt (California); toilets (India); toilet covers (Texas); mice (Russia); and even phallic symbols (Iceland). There are countless others dedicated to almost any specialty, niche topic you can think of. (Seriously, think of one then do a web search. Chances are, it exists.)

I adore museums, but the problem is I also live in one. I collect books, few of which I plan to read again, clothes I haven't worn in years, old gifts I feel too guilty to donate, baby items I’m hanging onto in case someone else (not sure who) might need them, and an avalanche of papers that need sorting, dealing with, and/or shredding. I know I’m not the only one who lives like this. Most people I know have little museums of some sort or other in their homes. Wine bottles, matchboxes, old photos, cookbooks, gadgets, mementos. We live in a culture of collecting things. It’s what we do. The question is, why?

The Berger Collection with Teapot Museum in
Amorbach, Bavaria, houses countless exhibits
of modern art as well as Europe's largest teapot
collection, featuring nearly 2,500 teapots
and another 500 miniature ones.
A couple weeks ago, a friend told me she lies awake at night worrying about the amount of stuff we collect. Where will it all go? Reminding me of a few years earlier when my then-first-grader was in a panic about her elementary school cafeteria not recycling. What a waste of all those little milk cartons, plastic cutlery, paper bags, and cello paper that went straight into the trash! I’ve been worrying about the same issues, in my own life and all around me. We live in a community filled with pockets of great affluence. Collectively, we keep buying gobs of new stuff, getting rid of the old (the amount of packaging alone gives me the shivers), and I don’t always see as much recycling or re-using as I’d expect from such a resourceful (and well-resourced) community.

An exhibit at the Museum for Funeral Customs in
Springfield, Illinois, displays mortician's restorative tools.
I'm trying to do my part. For starters, last weekend, I took my daughter’s Girl Scout troop on a tour of a landfill. My plan was to point out the tall, stinky piles of rubbish and wag a finger at the kids: “Be responsible! Waste not, want not!” And so on. But we were all stunned, kids and adults alike, by how pristine it all was. It turns out that in most parts of the States, landfills are not the tall monuments of debris they once were. It’s highly compressed, mostly covered, and set deep in the ground between an amalgam of liners and tarps to avoid contamination. Not just out of sight, but odorless too. 

In contrast, in many parts of the world (Zabbaleen City in Cairo, Kachri Kundi in Karachi, and the Matuail landfill in Dakka, to name a few), communities spring up on top of exposed landfills and become a meager source of income for its residents (who pluck out reusable and/or resellable items) and even innovation for scientists and city planners.

For generations, we’ve been fascinated with digging up the debris of past cultures through archaeological digs. But what will future generations think about the debris we leave behind? Will we be considered one of the most wasteful generations, not caring about the environment? Or might we be the ones to turn things around and become the generation that rescues Mother Nature? I wonder which of our stuff future generations will choose to collect and build their own museums around.


  1. OMG,Supriya, what a post! First, I've just been to the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh (even thought of writing about it, LOL!) second - I always think - what do we do with all this stuff! Are you inside my head? By the way, in Russia, I've been to The Museum of Irons (as in ironing clothes) and in Canada I've seen The Shoe Museum.

  2. So I search for them on the Internet and you've already been to them, huh? Great! The Museum of Childhood sounds wonderful though. Just the name is captivating.

    And yes, I'm inside your head. It would be crazy if I were the only one worrying about this, right?

  3. I am not a huge fan of museums, but my favorite one that I don't mind going back to a hundred times is the Museum of Natural History. Something about all those dinosaurs and planets gets me thinking about the bigger things in life. Of course, it makes me wonder about the future too, and what we'll leave behind for our grandkids and their children. For now, I hope we can all leave our writing. How is that? :)

  4. I'm right there with you worrying about what to do with all this "stuff". Mountains of it collect in our house, from clothes to papers. Easy to feel suffocated by it all, and maddening when trying to clean the house, overwhelming when deciding where to put things and what to get rid off. Everyone I know has this problem.

  5. Lavanya, our writing! What a great idea. Interesting how you left open the question--paper or digital? ;) And funny, but the Natural History museum here in D.C. is my favorite too.

    Marianna, I'll bet if we swapped houses, it would be much easier figuring out what has to go. That's the thing: we get too attached to our stuff, even when it's choking us.

  6. Lavanya, I just read your fabulous interview with Jeff Corwin and see you touched a bit on this topic as well:

    (Love how the vcab pages swish as they turn!)

  7. Supriya -Nice read !!
    There seems to be ways to manage the "stuff" - the problem is the effort to research all the new stuff that's out there to help control the stuff :((

  8. I agree, Savita. The old stuff breeds new stuff. ;)

  9. Supriya, thank you for reading my Jeff Corwin interview. :)

  10. I had to laugh--just before I sat down to read your post I was shredding old papers and throwing away/trying to plan who would take small mountains of useless junk preparing for our upcoming move. I always feel like I shouldn't throw *anything* away. Glad I'm not the only one!