Without a Story it is All Just “Stuff”!

May 9th, 2014
by Karen Osburn, Archivist
I think I have written before that I am a collector.  I am interested in many things, try out many crafts (with varying degrees of success), read lots of books and am constantly curious.  I love working in museums because they not only provide me with gainful employment, they provide me with the opportunity to learn about and work with other peoples “stuff”.
What is “stuff”? I looked up the word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary to get a complete definition; here is the Full Definition of STUFF:
1:  materials, supplies, or equipment used in various activities: as An obsolete:  military baggage
2:  material to be manufactured, wrought, or used in construction <clear half-inch pine stuff — Emily Holt>
3:  a finished textile suitable for clothing; especially:  wool or worsted material
4a :  literary or artistic production
b :  writing, discourse, talk, or ideas of little value :  trash
5a :  an unspecified material substance or aggregate of matter <volcanic rock is curious stuff>
b :  something (as a drug or food) consumed or introduced into the body by humans
c :  a matter to be considered <the truth was heady stuff> <long-term policy stuff>
d :  a group or scattering of miscellaneous objects or articles <pick that stuff up off the floor>; also :  nonphysical unspecified material <conservation and…all kinds of good stuff — Eric Korn>
6a :  fundamental material :  substance<the stuff of greatness>
b :  subject matter <a teacher who knows her stuff>
7:  special knowledge or capability <showing their stuff>
8a :  spin imparted to a thrown or hit ball to make it curve or change course
b :  the movement of a baseball pitch out of its apparent line of flight :  the liveliness of a pitch <greatest pitcher of my time…had tremendous stuff — Ted Williams>
— stuff·less adjective
As you can see, “stuff” has as many meanings as it has forms. For the sake of this blog post I will just refer to two or three dimensional, inanimate materials that take up space in our lives, mostly my life. 
Just “stuff.”
My own house is filled with “stuff”, figurines of animals, stuffed bears, model horses, lots of books, and the materials needed to do several different crafts.  I also like to cook so my house is filled with unusual bake ware, odd dishes, ceramics, and ingredients.  I could go on, but I am sure you get the idea.  My life at home is filled with “stuff” and my life at work is filled with “stuff”.  At the museum I have 50,000 photos, numerous books, some art work, manuscripts, maps, family collections, business collections, religious collections and information on the city of Geneva.  At work the majority of my collections are two dimensional, the majority being paper or film.  The 3-D collections fall under the expert care of our curator, John Marks.
Everywhere I turn there is “stuff”.  So what is the point I am trying to make here?  All of these wonderful collections are invaluable, but I don’t mean in a monetary way.  Of course some items are valuable in a material way, but almost all of the things that fill my office, fall under my care in the museum, or collect dust in my home are valuable for the information they contain, the sentimental value or attachment they hold, or what their existence tells us about the people who once owned them.
Valuable “stuff” – Clio wishes for fish.
For example, in the archive at the Geneva Historical Society we have a many photograph albums.  Most of these albums are of local people living their lives in and around the City of Geneva.  Albums like these are history.  In context they tell the visual story of a family, their friends, and their pets in a place that is common and familiar to those of us who live in Geneva.  However, a small minority of these albums are filled with images of unknown places and unknown people.  They have no context for us to place them in so we guess at the dates, guess at the places and make judgments on the images because we have no way of knowing the truth about them.  The first albums are valuable historic documents; the second albums are interesting, but not as valuable and are more likely to be considered “stuff”.
As I look around my office I see a good example of “stuff”, a dream catcher.  Now I have a dream catcher at home that was made for me by a very good friend and given to me for Christmas.  It has sentimental value, it is unique, it was made just for me, and it tells me something about my friend and her ability and knowledge.  It is valuable “stuff”.  The dream catcher in my office was a promotion from a Native American group wanting a donation.  It is not unique, it is not carefully crafted, and it has no meaning for me except to remind me that someone was looking for money from me.  As far as I am concerned it is just stuff.
Just “stuff” – V-E Day in Paris, 1945
The difference between plain “stuff” and valuable “stuff” is not so much about what it is made of, but does it have a story behind it?  Items with history tell stories and become much more than “stuff”, generic items with no provenance are less valuable no matter what they are made of and fall into the realm of just “stuff”. 
Just to see if this idea of “stuff” makes sense to you, see which category “valuable stuff” or “just stuff” you would put the following items in:
1.)    Red Fruit of the Loom T-Shirt you have worn for 2 years; Crosby, Still, and Nash Concert T-shirt from an event you attended at CMAC; Land’s End T-Shirt bought in the Land’s End Store in Maine while on vacation in 2001.
2.)   Christmas card from your first Christmas; Christmas card from an acquaintance; handmade Christmas card from a good friend.
3.)    Small dog figurine purchased when you were 10 at you first trip to Niagara Falls;  a dog figurine you bought for 10ȼ at a garage sale; a ceramic sculpture of your first dog handcrafted by a local artist.
Valuable “stuff” – Walt Doupagne (my dad) in Paris on V-E Day
Sometimes it isn’t very easy to decide is it?  These are choices we all face whether you are in the museum field or deciding which of the 263 flower figurines of your deceased aunt’s to keep.  In the end it is all just stuff, the deciding factor is the story behind each piece.  If you have an interesting story to go with a photo, book, sculpture or any object please think about writing it down and keeping it with the item so it doesn’t get thrown away for being “just stuff.”
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