New York Museum of Sanitation: Designing a Sustainable Future

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Today, there are museums dedicated to all kinds of topics—from sports and toys to firefighting and education—but why not a museum about trash? New York’s Sanitation Foundation is proposing a new Museum of Sanitation that will look at the waste we generate and where it all goes—and how we can live more sustainably—both now and in future.

Contributor Franck Mercurio speaks with Maggie Lee of the Sanitation Foundation to learn more.

Trash. It’s something that most of us try to ignore. Throw it in the can and then promptly forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

“I think that waste is something very invisible to a lot of people,” says Maggie Lee, a Deputy Director of the Sanitation Foundation in New York City. “But we’re in an era now where people are starting to get a lot more interested in sustainability and more critical about throw-away culture. I think a museum would really help with the visibility of the problem. Museums are keepers of the public memory, so to speak, and having an institution like this could really help to make visible this topic that’s been neglected for way too long.”

This struggle between producing waste and living more sustainably can be seen on a vast scale in New York City. Nearly 9 million people call New York home—and those 9 million create a lot of waste. The city’s Department of Sanitation collects and processes some 12,000 tons of trash and recyclables each day. But despite that, New York has set an ambitious goal of zero waste to landfills by the year 2030. How to do this? The first step is to educate citizens about this thing called “trash,” how much we generate and where it all goes.

Most U.S. cities pay private companies to haul away and dispose of waste. But New York is fairly unique among American municipalities for keeping waste removal under a city-run agency: Department of Sanitation New York (DSNY).

Making DSNY even more unique is its Sanitation Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting the Department’s public outreach efforts. The Foundation is charged with educating the public about waste reduction and waste management while promoting sustainable solutions for the future.

“The city has an ambitious plan to send zero waste to landfills by 2030,” says Deputy Director Lee. “The mission of the Foundation is to support that, but in a way that’s more nimble. Because we’re a nonprofit, we’re able to facilitate public private partnerships and respond to things a little more quickly than DSNY is sometimes able to do as a city agency.”

Still a tall order! How does the Sanitation Foundation begin to reach out to New York’s 9 million citizens about the many ways to reduce waste and live more sustainably? There are, of course, the traditional methods, such as workshops, lectures, and online courses. But how to get people really engaged and excited—and maybe even entertained? The answer: a museum. The Foundation is currently developing the New York Museum of Sanitation with Lee in charge of its planning.

There is at least one precedent for a museum dedicated to waste in New York City. Over the course of his 30-year career with DSNY, Nelson Molina, a retired Sanitation Worker collected some 40,000 objects that New Yorkers have thrown away. The discarded objects are now stored in an active sanitation garage in East Harlem, what Lee calls the city’s de facto “Museum of Trash.”

But the proposed Sanitation Museum will be more than a collection of interesting objects that people have thrown away over the years. It will strive to educate museum visitors about the unsustainability of our throw-away culture—not just in New York, but everywhere around the planet.

Sanitation workers, like Molina, are critical to this understanding. They are the ones who serve on the front lines, seeing the “invisible” and witnessing how much actual waste New Yorkers generate and where it all goes. And the Sanitation Foundation has long recognized their vital roles—even heroic roles—in keeping the city moving and working.

Robin Nagle, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at New York University is DSNY’s Anthropologist-in-Residence. (That’s right! How many sanitation departments around the country—or anywhere—have their own anthropologist on staff?) Nagle became a Sanitation Worker herself, in 2004–2005, to learn firsthand the important roles these “heroes” play. She also helped create the idea of a museum dedicated to waste.

“One of Robin’s colleagues at NYU, Bruce Altshuler, who’s the director of museum studies, suggested ‘This should be a museum,’ and it kind of clicked for Nagle,” explains Lee. “And in 2007, she and fellow professor Haidy Geismer co-taught a course about making a museum and using DSNY as a case study. So, we had a little exhibit that ran for four weeks in 2007/2008, and it got some really good press.”

The exhibit, Loaded Out: Making a Museum, coincided with the Great Recession, so funding a permanent museum at that time proved to be difficult. But more recently, the Foundation has worked with Maria Elena Gutierrez of Chora Creative (a speaker at last month’s SEGD Management and Leadership Summit) to develop the proposed museum’s mission, messages, and target audiences. The brief—New York Museum of Sanitation: Educate, Promote, Celebrate—will be used as a fundraising tool to help potential donors visualize what this museum can be.

And, just in case you think the Sanitation Museum will be devoted exclusively to the science of trash, think again. It will also engage visitors in art.

“Mierle Laderman Ukeles is the longtime Artist-in-Residence with DSNY, and she really pioneered the concept of a public artist-in-residence,” says Lee. “Her work is incredible, and her concept is called ‘Maintenance Art.’ It’s about turning the unglorified work of people who maintain things, people who clean things—mothers, janitors, sanitation workers—into a level of art.”

Ukeles became famous for “Touch Sanitation Performance” (1979-1980), a mega-performance piece where she spent nearly one year shaking hands with all 8,500 New York sanitation workers and greeting them with “Thank you for keeping New York City alive!” She documented this work through photographs, videos, maps, news clippings and written text which was most recently exhibited at the Queens Museum in a 2016 retrospective.

Working with scientists like Nagle and artists like Ukeles, Lee and her counterparts at the Sanitation Foundation hope to move the New York Sanitation Museum from concept brief to design project. And with good funding, an idea that was sparked by a college course at NYU will become a real bricks-and-mortar museum, and one that will lead New York—and other cities—down a more sustainable path into the future.

Want to stay informed about the Sanitation Foundation’s programs and learn more about the status of the New York Museum of Sanitation (and perhaps make a contribution to the museum initiative?) You can find these opportunities on the Sanitation Foundation website: