A personal account of what is a too-common story for many across this vast country of ours—how my childhood home became FILLED WITH STUFF! Not just ordinary stuff—like my 4th grade math homework—but the stuff that makes The Museum of Mom and Dad…
Almost 60 years ago, a pack rat married a hoarder, and together they became collectors — and eventually dealers, in order to feed their habits. They hunted at flea markets, yard sales, thrift stores, and church sales . . . the dustier the better. Over the course of 25 years in business, they found some rarities: an 18th century pornographic watch, an original King Kong movie poster, a Strangl Art Deco punch bowl. We had a temporary thrill when what looked to be a real Jackson Pollock was discovered in the basement; upon appraisal, it turned out to be an incredibly well-done reproduction—a collectible in its own right (the real thing hangs in the Whitney).
The business of collecting and selling advertising items and collectibles — what they referred to as “funky junky” — was really an excuse to enlarge their personal collections (stamps, coins, postcards, pocket watches, belt buckles, carved ivories, hats, just to name a few), and a means of selling off our childhood (I still miss my talking Casper doll, and my brother bemoans the loss of his Silver Surfer #1 comic). Their customers included senators, statesmen, Hollywood stars, antiquarians, collectophiles, memorabiliacs, and maybe even a few curators.
The wares from the antique business have now commingled with our family’s treasures to create a bizarre exhibition, with no goals, objectives or intention, but fascinating nonetheless. A player piano is buried under Indian baskets, the piano rolls include “Rhapsody in Blue,” cut by Gershwin himself. Old 78 albums are filed behind the soda fountain syrup dispensers, before you get to the library stacks of juvenile series books (e.g. Tom Swift and Nancy Drew). Postcards mounted on display boards are piled with care in the den, next to the box of Grandma Sadie’s beautiful hand-crocheted and embroidered tablecloths, in front of the mid-century sideboard full of original childhood refrigerator art (by budding Pollacks) and science projects (Einstein has nothing to worry about). In the corner are items destined for the local history museum, for which my father served as board chairman. Oh, and then there are Mom’s costuming supplies, which explode in every direction.
As a recent museum studies graduate said, “It can be argued that without collectors we would have no museums. Collectors are not only the founders of their own institutions, but also the source of donations for many already-established museums”(Letowski, 2010). It’s thanks to people like Mom and Dad that many museums have objects of historical significance and charm, and curators have the unenviable task of saying “no thank you” to unsolicited donations that, while significant to the donor, do not qualify as important artifacts worthy of display—especially my homework sheets!
Many famous museums large and small started this way, though I don’t think the Gardner’s mid-century ranch-style house on Downing Drive can compete with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and sadly there is not enough of any one thing to start an institution of our own. So now we have begun the task of deaccessioning the Museum of Mom and Dad (that we kids refer to as the “Hall of Wonders”). My homework will be recycled, the collectibles will be sold at auction, we’ve agreed who gets the working 50’s pinball machine, the grandkids have adopted some vintage clothing, and the rest . . . anybody need an empty Moet champagne jeroboam or genuine pith helmet?
 Letowski, Jan T. (2010) museum-making: transitioning from private collection to public museum. Unpublished manuscript. Washington, DC: the George Washington University, the Marie C. Malaro Excellence in Research and Writing Award.