The Science Museum is currently exhibiting a whole month’s worth of its own waste. Jon Emmett, LSE Sustainability Projects Officer, went along to take a peek at what they put in their bins, and what it says about the institution, its visitors, and our society’s approach to resource consumption.
In June and July this year, curators at the Science Museum spent a month trawling through their bins to see what was inside. They extensively categorised and archived every item in this gargantuan mountain of waste, and invited visitors to get their hands dirty and participate too. Finding everything from old banana peel, to love letters, to giant fake bombs, the waste was then brought back out and put on display later in July.
Having organised similar events at LSE in the past – albeit on a smaller scale, and without the artistic and analytic features of this exhibition – I was intrigued to see this for myself.
The more generic waste streams (glass bottles, paper, etc) were sent off via their normal recycling contractors, and followed through their transformation processes into new raw materials – re-emerging into the gallery in the form of huge sacks of glass pellets, giant rolls of paper ready for sale to goods manufacturers.
Meanwhile, more unique items of waste – e.g. this bomb prop from an old display about the science of explosions – were kept intact, and saved to appear ‘in person’ in the exhibition. The bomb was one of the highlights of the show – LSE doesn’t get to throw away many props of mass destruction. Similarly, these unassuming bits of wire were once frames to make giant bubbles in the children’s ‘Launch Pad’ section.
These games made by children were really sweet. I wonder what they were made for? (“Pretend to eat pork pies.” “Slap each other when you see a yellow car.”…?) Especially poignant is the piece of paper stuck to a lightbulb box, sternly instructing its finder “Do not throw away”.
The exhibition was curated by artist Joshua Sofaer, who has produced a number of other similar exhibitions on waste including ‘Scavengers’ at the Tate Modern, and creating a ‘rubbish library’ in Japan. In his words, the exhibition “inverts the idea of the museum preserving what is sacred or unique, asking us to consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why”.
This theme is picked up in a blog post by Mark Champkins, the Science Museum’s Inventor-in-Residence (best job ever?), who describes the “disheartening pattern” he encountered, whereby much of the waste comprised perfectly good-quality items. Numerous pairs of shoes, enough clothes to fill a suitcase, and three wheelchairs were all retrieved.
The curators clearly had an eye for how spotting the beauty in apparently mundane objects. This beautiful tree-like pattern is formed on a piece of sandpaper used to buff the floor, while the coloured deposits on the cotton swabs below could almost be tiny segments of a painting by Seurat.
But while the more unique and personal items tell intriguing stories on a human level, the sheer scale of the quantity – and the quality – of goods disposed of asks broader questions about how our culture and economy assigns value to products, and when it considers them waste.
I was particularly tickled by Mark Champkins’s project to find creative ways to re-imagine and refurbish some of the items into new objects, giving them a second lease of life. Like turning this copper funnel into a light fitting. On a mass scale it’s difficult to see this working as a ‘solution’ to our waste and resource crisis, but it’s certainly an elegant approach to starting a conversation about how we address the underlying issues.
The Rubbish Collection demands that we rethink what we classify as ‘rubbish’, and take a more holistic view of the cycle of production, consumption, disposal, and back to production again. Without reassessing how to achieve this in a more sustainable way, we will find ourselves running out of stuff to consume in the very near future.
The Science Museum’s ‘Rubbish Collection’ runs until 14 Sept 2014.