As I child, I kept everything. Every toy, every birthday card, every outgrown t-shirt, every brochure from every tourist attraction my family ever visited. I’d keep things in desk drawers or under my bed until they were full to bursting, then I’d load the contents into cardboard boxes to be stacked in the attic.
Essay: The courage of our collections
And it’s all still up there. I finished high school, went away to college, followed by graduate school, and now I have returned to find that I am still the owner of ephemera such as my second-grade pencil case, a plastic cup featuring the likeness of Kent Hrbek, and several empty bottles of mineral water. (I once saw Mendota Springs beverages as representing the very height of sophistication.)
These days, I no longer save everything, but. . . recent acquisitions include a miniature model of Mount Rushmore (still bearing the $7.99 price tag from Wall Drug); a balsa-wood glider advertising the YMCA of Newton, Massachusetts; and a cowbell. Then there are the countless binders of photographs, cards, and notes. Some of this correspondence (say, the letters my father sent to me when I was in college) was likely intended for permanent storage, but most of it (say, the dozens of newspaper clippings my father sent along with his letters) was likely not. “Your room,” my sister tells me, “is like the museum of you.”
About a hundred miles southeast of my personal archive is Ed’s Museum, a collection representative of the entire 91 years of Edwin Krueger’s life. Krueger, who with his wife ran the Jack Sprat Food Store in Wykoff, Minnesota, was a local fixture: he sold food, volunteered for various civic duties, and saved things. Magazines. Clothes. Receipts. String. Piano-player rolls. His childhood toys. His deceased cat Sammy, unembalmed, in a cardboard box in the basement.
When Krueger died in 1989, he left the entire building and its contents to the town of Wykoff, with the request that it be turned into a museum. Everyone in town loved Ed, so they respected his wishes and created one of America’s most unique tourist attractions, the Museum of Ed. The museum holds all of Ed’s stuff (except for six truckloads of “trash” that were hauled away before the museum was opened to the public), and only Ed’s stuff. The museum does not accept donations, as additional items would compromise the “purity” of the collection. Few of the items are particularly rare or unusual, but in total the collection is completely unique.
Why collect everything? I cannot speak for Ed, but I do not consider myself a packrat. I have no irrational attachment to ephemera. There just doesn’t seem to be a good reason to throw things away when there is still room on the shelves, under the bed, and in the attic. After all, you never know when that transforming robot pen will come in handy; or when you’ll run into someone who’s looking for a 1988 travel guide to Arizona.
I’m aware that such indiscriminate collecting carries a whiff of absurdity. Ed kept every issue of TV Guide from 1954 through his death. Was he afraid he would be suddenly struck by the urgent need to read a profile of Dick Van Dyke and he wouldn’t have the appropriate issue on hand? Am I afraid the world will experience a dice shortage and my family will need to rely on my multi-colored stash to feed its Parcheesi habit?
Even if there is an element of silliness in this sort of collecting, there’s also an element of courage. Your stuff tells a story, and it’s a story that is tempting to edit. Neither my collection nor Ed’s testify to particularly scintillating lives. Ed kept 45 years of TV Guide and a box of string, while I have a variety of Reader’s Digest condensed books and a novelty golf ball wearing flippers and a snorkel. Surely it would paint a more flattering picture if I kept the Talking Heads tapes and lost the Huey Lewis, kept the funny childhood poems and lost the meticulous notes on the construction of lightsabers, kept the Mark Twain and lost the Mary Higgins Clark. Maybe someday I will—but I’m glad I haven’t yet. It’s more fun and enlightening to wince through stacks of OMNI (a defunct publication dedicated to “science fact, fiction, fantasy, and the paranormal”) than to contemplate a tastefully edited stash of childhood curios.
One tends to think of “collecting” as a deliberate activity: visiting dozens of antique shops to find the cup that will complete the set, or crawling through Northeast Minneapolis season after season to assemble a suite of paintings perfectly representative of an individual aesthetic. Collecting everything is less deliberate and more dangerous—not only do you risk ridicule, you risk calamitous fire. That said, documenting one’s life through comprehensive collecting is an exercise in personal revelation. It holds considerable fascination for oneself, of course, and—as Ed Krueger has posthumously proven—others.
Another individual’s collection that has been preserved is Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, devoted to the possessions of Ms. Gardner, a 19th-century socialite who labored to assemble one of the greatest personal collections of fine art in modern history. It occupies the palatial home of its namesake, and as with Krueger, Gardner’s museum contains only her own property, arranged essentially as she left it. However her personal living quarters are off-limits, so if she hoarded any undistinguished collections of string, whalebone, or train tickets, the public is not privy to them. Perhaps my overflowing attic makes me a biased observer, but this priceless collection of objets d’Isabella seems to me much less fascinating than Ed’s sprawling accumulation of nothing in particular.
Jay Gabler is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.