Downsizing Your Collections While Preserving Family History

silver ware collection with overlay How to Downsize Your Collections

Modern men and women tend to collect keepsakes, souvenirs, and other items of interest. When you begin decreasing the contents in your home, follow these steps for downsizing your collections while preserving your family history.

My mother collected bears and salt and pepper shakers. My mother-in-law collects dolls and things from her travels. I collected Russ Troll Dolls (which you can see here). Our collections defined us during different parts of our lives BUT our children don’t want our entire collections.

Penny Geiszler's bear collection.
Penny Geiszler’s bear collection. (Among other things)

In fact, I told my mother I didn’t want her bears and salt and pepper shakers so she got rid of them. Years later I kick myself for not taking time to preserve her life by photographing each item and then record the stories behind each piece. Within each piece are elements of her personal history which I no longer have access to.

DON’T let that happen to you.

Photograph the Collections Before Downsizing

Before you begin downsizing your collections, grab a digital camera and photograph the entire set of teaspoons, shot glasses, china, historic flags, and so on exactly where they appear in your home. Photograph the collections from following angles:

  • How you saw them– on a shelf as you sat on the couch, at eye level as you walked down a hallway, on the window sill as you sipped your morning beverage of choice
  • From the best angle to see all the details – this may involve stooping down or climbing on a ladder.

Once you photograph the collection in their typical location, remove them and group them again for photographic storytelling. Group them by:

  • Theme
  • Manufacturer
  • Person Who Gave Them To You
  • Similar Features or Colors
  • According to Memories

You may have other ways to group them, but the idea is to tell a story with your photography.

Photograph the Items Separately

Once you have photographed the entire collection, then take time to photograph each individual item. Many past blog posts show you examples of the artifacts that I have digitized to preserve my family history before I gave those items new homes.

These blog posts will inspire you to use your photography skills, even if you’re an amateur like me, to preserve the artifacts even if you no longer have space to keep it in your home.

Photograph of Dr. Snoopy outfit from childhood.
Just one of our collections that we photographed and then gave to a new home.

Begin Downsizing the Collection

Your collection might have significant value if it is not broken up. Determine whether your relatives, a collector or a museum would like to have the entire collection before you start breaking it up. Then, make arrangements for how and when those individuals will receive your collection.

If you can not find someone to accept the entire collection, then do the following:

  1. Choose 5-10 of your favorite pieces and keep them for your home (space permitting)
  2. Give individual pieces to family members as part of their inheritance (but do it now to reclaim the space)
  3. Find a collector who wants individual pieces (depending on the value o the collection)
  4. Find a history, ethnic, community, or art museum that would take specific pieces
  5. Sell items online, flea market, convention, or at a consignment store.

Preserve the Family History of the Collection

Once you finish downsizing your collection, take time to preserve the stories behind each piece and the collection as a whole. Answer the following questions:

  • Why did you begin collecting these items?
  • How long did you collect the items?
  • How much did each piece cost?
  • What are the historical details about each piece (think in terms of a curator or cataloger)?
  • What are the sentimental memories you have attached to each piece?
  • Where did each piece go when it left your collection?

With the images of the collection and the individual pieces and the stories that support the pictures, then create a photo book. Have one page with the story of each piece facing a page with one photo or multiple pictures of the artifact.

You can use my favorite website, to create such a book by dragging and dropping the images. It’s super easy and you’ll preserve the history of the collection you downsized.

Even though you may dread downsizing your collections, recognize you can find homes where the items can live on. Your family will also have a wonderful treasure even if, like me, they don’t want the physical items.

Photo of vintage silverware with the caption How to Downsize Your Collections
Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee

Devon Noel Lee is passionate about capturing and preserving family stories so no one alive today has to be researched, or forgotten, tomorrow. She has authored 6 how-to books, a memoir, two published family history biographies, and over 60 family scrapbooks. She's an enthusiastic speaker who energizes, encourages, and educates at the same time.

10 thoughts on “Downsizing Your Collections While Preserving Family History

      1. Devon,
        Thank you for a great post! After both us us helped our siblings in emptying the houses we grew up in, my husband and I have decided to start giving some possessions away now. We didn’t want to leave that task to our children.
        I like this idea that you have for collections. You tend to see it as one big collection, instead of the individual items, groupings, etc. within the collection. I will take this to heart, and start working on this!

        1. Diane,

          I see segments as one big collection rather than individual pieces. So the salt & pepper shaker collection that my mother had would be one collection. My personal My Little Pony Collection and Troll Dolls are two separate collections within a larger collection of my childhood toys.

          I hope you are able to part with the possessions knowing you have saved the sentimentality behind the items.

  1. Some years ago we downsized our house and we had over 40 years of belongings to sort, including items from my parents, aunt and parents- in-law. I kept my favourites and photographed the rest (mainly china and embroidered linen), before passing them onto charity shops. – and that was all I did. You have taken this task much further and I do like your advice of documenting the items as well – a lesson for my own treasured ornaments.

    1. Susan,
      So glad you enjoyed this post and congratulations on photographing the items before sending them to charity shops. I tend to take things ‘a step further’ as I come from a scrapbooking / home movie / journalist background. (Sigh)

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