Trash or Treasure? What Gets Saved *Might* Get Remembered

Made By Us
(History) Made By Us
15 min readApr 16, 2020


Thoughts from Made By Us partners

To power a better tomorrow, it’s never been more important to harness lessons from the past. History has been unevenly written and unevenly shared, but even if we never arrive at a singular “truth” or telling of our story, it is our aim to do better, to make the tent bigger, to understand a more multifaceted perspective. Made By Us is a beacon, a collective effort and guiding force that provides historical context and perspective to inspire action. We use our Medium presence as a forum for exposing more of our process, our perspectives, and the people doing the day-to-day work behind our projects.


How do we know anything about Cleopatra or Julius Caesar? Or George and Martha Washington? Or your great-grandparents for that matter? From personal journals to societal remnants, it’s often the stuff that gets saved — intentionally or accidentally — that makes up the patchwork in the rearview mirror that becomes solidified into what we know as history. This unprecedented moment, as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 sweeps around the globe, brings up the contradictions and complexity of how we learn about the past — based on what gets retold and remixed and remembered and mis-remembered. Have you ever wondered about what does NOT get saved and what THOSE things might say about us?

Puzzle Balls, ivory, 1.75 to 4 inches diameter, late 19th century, China. Because of the classification as folk art, almost no one documented the process or artistry behind these magnificent and flabbergasting objects themselves. Copyright: Heritage Museum of Asian Art

Like, did you realize that we actually know very little about Chinese ivory puzzle balls, the incredibly beautiful and boggling “Rubik’s Cube” of their day, because they were considered folk craft and not high art? Or how, though Native communities in the U.S. have a rich and vibrant past and present, we learn less about that history in school because many of the primary sources are in the oral history tradition, rather than written or published?

Enter archivists and curators, conservationists and historians…since we know that different periods in time, cultures and individuals themselves have valued Marie Kondo-style minimalism over STORAGE WAR$ type hoarding and vice versa, we started to wonder what historians might consider a “jackpot” find — something that would normally never be saved but would reveal fascinating, little-known insights — when looking into the past? Luckily, Made By Us is all about tapping into the collective spirit to respond quickly to what’s happening and provide relevant context and suggestions. So, we’ve invited the behind-the-scenes heart and soul of our partner organizations to submit their own items with a bit of commentary on why they’d make their choice. And we’re also inviting YOU, too, since history is made by all of us!

It’s clear that this moment is historic, if devastating in new yet familiar ways, thus the more we should be proactive in capturing it from many angles as it unfolds. This will better allow historians to make sense of it in the years to come (and to help future generations of citizens at large — admit it, how many of you have only recently learned about the 1918 Flu for the first time, on a late night Google search for “what to do in a pandemic?”…). Also, we know a lot of us are spending WAY more time online and on screens than usual — so, if you’re looking for a break, we offer this as a simple experiment to do offline that still connects to our shared moment and story (and, yes, you can still share to social when you’re done).


Ask yourself, and/or anyone else who might do this with you, the following questions (we encourage you to ask your parents, kids, colleagues, friends and neighbors, because this offers a break from whatever else they’re managing). These will help you pick just the right things to document. You don’t have to answer all of them, but it’s part of the fun to try out different answers.

  • What do you think are the top three things being saved right now, and why?
  • What is NOT being saved that should be, and why?
  • What item or object (or photo) could tell future generations the most about your unique experience at this time? And what do you hope people will learn?
  • What item or object (or photo) could tell future generations the most about our collective experience at this time? And what do you hope people will learn?
  • What item do you wish had been saved from a some moment in the past? Why is it important to you?
  • If you live with someone else or a few people, and they are willing to explore these questions, did you pick different objects? Why? And what might it tell you about how each of us manages experiences differently?

Once you have “carefully” selected your item for posterity, you’re ready to document it and share with the world.


Depending on what you’re saving, you need a different kit. These are a few of the things a “story forager” might keep within reach. But use what you’ve got. And, if you can’t resist the editorial urge to select a bunch of items, you can always arrange them like this and take a photo.

Given that we’re doing this in a pandemic, it’s okay to bend the rules a bit. For our purposes, we’d love for you to simply take a photo and then email it to yourself with your answers to the questions to look back on at some date in the future when this has begun to feel like a distant memory. (To: Me; From: Me; Subject: That Time I Lived Through A Pandemic…) Of course, email is hardly secure for posterity, as we’ve seen papyrus last longer than pixels. If you want to share it on social media, we’ll be keeping an eye out for anything using #TrashOrTreasure or #HistoryAtHome and #FutureMadeByUs.

While there’s no need to be precious about how we document our artifacts for this project, we’d be remiss if we didn’t share some pro tips, so you know how it’s usually done. Things to consider when saving things for posterity:

  • Make sure any writing in your photograph is legible, especially if it’s of a document (there’s nothing worse than finding something fascinating and not being able to read it when you zoom in!)
  • If you need to take a few photos to really capture it, consider taking close-up shots of different sections of your object (especially if the front and back are both important)
  • Add a caption or description with a date, so you won’t forget when you find your treasure under a pile of junk mail
  • If there’s a person or place in your photo, write down the who, what and where specifically, since that’s always what people wonder if there’s no label to refer to
  • If you plan to keep the item, consider sealing it in a Ziplock bag and keeping it in a dark place (newspapers yellow and fade in direct sunlight over the years and books might mold)


History is made up of all the little bits and bobs that different people have saved and contributed — some of that is from passing stories down and some is through passing “stuff” down. There are pros and cons to both, as even a photograph or family lore of the ticker tape parades in New York after World War 2 can’t capture the smell in the air and the roar of the crowds echoing between the buildings — which is why descriptions are excellent when paired with artifacts or photos. Since we only remember what happens to get saved or what the resident people in power decide what’s important, it’s up to all of us to become part of this moment’s collective memory.

Each Voyager spacecraft carries a copy of a Golden Record, a kind of “time capsule” filled with Earth’s sights and sounds, including images, music and audio clips of people and animals. You can listen to the greeting from Earth’s children in 1977.

In service of sharing what’s unfolding around the country (and the world) with each other, especially what’s not making it into the news coverage, we appreciate your every oddity or close-up or favorite-thing-that-you-just-can’t-resist (museums got started, after all, as cabinets of curiosities), since we all experience different challenges and moments of beauty. Please share the image you took with a few words about why you chose it on social media, and we’ll highlight themes and unique “jackpot” finds-for-our-future in the days to come. Since we rarely use the Dewey decimal system to find things anymore (the what?), let’s help people discover our stuff by tagging when we share:

  • #TrashOrTreasure
  • #HistoryAtHome
  • #FutureMadeByUs

To inspire you, we’ve added examples and submissions below from the people who actually DO the work of collecting, curating and designing educational programs at our Made By Us partner institutions. We’ll continue to update this post as we get more. And, just think, you no longer need to defend your decision to keep that box of [insert the random ephemera of choice] that your mom always wants you to throw away. Who knows, maybe years from now, finding your ephemera will be as exciting as finding John Milton’s’s notes in a forgotten copy of Shakespeare’s work!


— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Kaz Brecher / Los Angeles, CA / Made By Us

After waiting 24-hours to touch this (I’ve since learned that you can microwave the newspaper or papers like this to make sure they’re virus-free), included in a delivery box, I dug into this Farm Fresh to You delivery letter over my Sunday coffee. And, more than the odd mailers from the Trump administration on COVD-19 guidelines or makeshift masks, this heartfelt and personal note felt like something that people years from now might appreciate. I hadn’t considered how difficult it might become for us to get food. After years of perfecting just-in-time delivery and big box markets, it isn’t supply from the fields that has crippled the supply chain — it’s logistics, aging infrastructure and the laborers who power the system itself. We use trucks and people to box and package goods, and our last mile bottlenecks combined with panic have meant a renewed interest in homesteading and food pantries, for even those new to food insecurity.

Caroline Klibanoff / Washington, D.C. / Made By Us

I choose to include an image of my federal student loans, now at 0% interest due to the “Coronavirus Pandemic National Emergency Act” — a name and an action which has made all of this feel even more irreversible and momentous to me. I think of all the big “Acts” that I read about in history, affecting entire generations of people unknown to me. And now I’m part of a National Emergency Act myself, living through history as it happens. If a future historian found this, they would see both the scale of the burden that my generation faces with education costs (10 to 20 years of payments!) and also the way things changed so dramatically and quickly in the wake of the pandemic. Nothing in the 10 previous years was big enough to trigger a change, and it’s not really a welcome one considering the awful, larger circumstances, but it does signal that things are seriously different now.

Kate Doak-Keszler / Tuscon, AZ / Made By Us

For our family, the feeling of simultaneously over and under reacting is strong. We focus on how we can help. Our four year olds make art we can send to family. We read books over Marco Polo to friends. We buy from our local businesses — especially Viva Coffee House which has set up a community exchange for necessities in their now empty shop. We donate toiletries and shelf stable food where we can. We do our part to stay home, and wear PPE when we go out. I want people to remember we found ways to show that community doesn’t end with distance. That we truly were #AloneTogether.

Valerie Donati / New Yorker living in London / Made By Us

During this interesting time — I am not calling it unprecedented and/or the “new normal,” because it has happened before, and I refuse to consider this normal — I’ve grown quite fond of my gloves. They are a soft and subtle leather and meant mainly for keeping my digits warm. But, over the past few weeks, they have become my go-to protectors, accompanying me just about everywhere, especially the grocery store, where I can take my pick of freshly picked over produce without fear of contamination. But seriously, it’s a tiny bit weird how much I not only count on them, but how familiar they feel. Like friends. I wouldn’t leave home without them. And they are so accommodating. In their former life getting them wet was a no-no. I would never, ever, wear them in the rain. Now, they are subject to a hefty slathering of gel sanitizer whenever we get home. I’ve washed them too. The things we do in “interesting” times. I think they are a jackpot find because with all the gel and detergent they still look remarkably fresh, as if they were made for a time such as this. Magic gloves.

Tracy Dennis / Kansas City, MO / National WWI Museum and Memorial

I choose this photo of my at-home workspace after being invaded by my 2-year old daughter. Notice the meeting notes with her scribbles, added while she sat on my lap during a video meeting. This picture reminds me of the struggle of many parents, myself included, balancing working full time with parenting a young child. It feels like I am either neglecting her or my work. I am also reminded of how fortunate I am to spend so much time with my daughter and believe we will survive this difficult time together. Probably with the help of a lot of crayons [her] and coffee [me].

Natasha Hartsfield / Tallahassee, FL / The Tallahassee Museum

Our museum is a 52 acre site with both living and non-living collections — and our animal care team recently received a new anesthesia machine, not compatible with an old ventilator used for the previous machine. The team donated it to one of our local hospital foundations, and the ventilator will be rebuilt for use in today’s crisis. Who would have thought that this old piece of equipment that might have otherwise ended up stored away forever, would be resurrected to serve a need in such demand today?

Sarah Henderson / Cedar Rapids, Iowa / National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library

This robot was created from recycled material found in the creator’s home. It was a part of the educational initiative by the NCSML to engage people creatively from home. The word robot is a Czech word and originates in a 100 year old play called Rossum’s Universal Robots. Written by Czech author, Karel Čapek, this play underscores the need for human connection and purpose. Check out #NCSMLbots

Erika Holst / Springfield, IL / Illinois State Museum

I am one of the lucky ones; I still have a job and am allowed to work from home. One of my “other duties as assigned” now includes being a second grade teacher to my son, a duty I split with my husband. Every day, we take him to the local park for fresh air. We pick up trash, take nature walks, and even do some plein-air painting. This is a landscape painting he created of his favorite spot in the park. It’s an example of how complex this situation is: in the midst of a global unraveling of life was we knew it, some of us have been lucky to slow down, reflect, and savor the company of our loved ones. Of course this doesn’t come without associated feelings of guilt — how did we get lucky enough to remain healthy and employed? But there it is. My hope is that a better world — kinder, more appreciative, more aware — will be born from this crisis.

Mariruth Leftwich / Pittsburgh, PA / Senator John Heinz History Center

While I have saved my home and work calendars for ages, as a reminder of all the things that have been accomplished, this calendar page is quite different. The ‘X’ marks represent the days we have been in lockdown, which we have been putting on our calendar since March 14 — the day our world seemed to change overnight. Each mark represents more than a day lived solely in the confines of our home, it represents music lessons cancelled, the start of my son’s soccer season that he was so excited to play deferred indefinitely, the spring break to my mom’s house in North Carolina that became a FaceTime session, one of the largest public programs at the History Center that was cancelled, the family fun of watching our Pittsburgh Riverhounds pro soccer team delayed, and even Cotillion, for my daughter, cut off abruptly and leaving her to wonder when she will finish learning the manners and dances. Yet this calendar also represents what has been added to our lives, written in purple, the music lessons that are now virtually done on FaceTime, the school classes that are being held through Google Meetings, and the reading lessons that happen over Zoom. Our calendar is a map for our new digital lives and a reminder of the life we should have been living outside these walls.

John Lustig / Lockport, IL / Illinois State Museum-Lockport

Creativity and innovation will carry us through these times. With basic personal protection equipment making the difference between life and death, products developed on the ground such as the above pictured hand sanitizer is a collaboration between The Illinois Soybean Association and The Chicago Park District. Glycerin is the main byproduct derived from the production of biodiesel, produced from soybeans grown in Illinois.

Teresa Stenstrup / Cedar Rapids, Iowa / National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library

This is the window of my office that I haven’t been in for over three weeks. Signs like this have been popping up all over Cedar Rapids. Even though so much is closed down, our community has come together to continue supporting and uplifting one another. I want to remember that even during this trying time communities, like ours, came together all over the United States.


Wirecutter email newsletter

Everyone poops, as the beloved children’s book tells us. But how often do we get to ask the questions — and get the answers! — about habits that unite humanity across the ages? Too rarely. And, while we’re still not clear why people started hoarding toilet paper as news of the virus spread (did you know we weathered a Great Toilet Paper Scare in 1973?), it’s an ongoing thing around the country. Friends from around the world have wondered why this is happening in the United States, when so many have other means to manage, from bidets to washcloths. But such is the state we find ourselves in. And organizations from CVS, who put a limit of one roll per person, to Wirecutter have tried to address the situation.

Self-Quarantined: The Adult Activity Book from McSweeney’s

Many have begun to rightly point out that we’re not really working remotely or trying our hand at home-schooling, we’re managing as best we can in a crisis. And, where myriad methods for managing our emotions and cultivating mindfulness have crept into product offerings from coloring books to Calm apps, it was publishing powerhouse, McSweeney’s, who stepped up with the first offering in this unique time. The NSFW pages are perfectly suited to a break in-between bedroom board meetings and “commuting” from the couch to the kitchen table. We people look back and wonder how we didn’t totally lose our minds, as we lost our jobs, this will give a hint at how humor connected and sustained us.

Still Reading?! Extra Resources For You Then…

If you’re really interested in archiving or making a time capsule, here are some additional resources: