While researching a book on the solid waste industry, New York University (NYU) professor and anthropologist Robin Nagle wore a city sanitation uniform. Immediately, she had the sense of disappearing into the city's concrete landscape. “I knew the department was generally not recognized or appreciated by a larger public but to actually experience having people looking straight through me…,” she trails off.
Nagle's inherent curiosity about and respect for the solid waste industry became starting points for a much larger project. In April 2007, Nagle and NYU Museum Studies assistant professor Haidy Geismar approached the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) about a sanitation-themed museum studies course. The class would culminate with an exhibit based on the student's work. Before anything could happen, Nagle and Geismar needed the blessing of DSNY, and, perhaps, to convince sanitation workers themselves of the importance of their garbage collection. “It's ironic that some of the most vocal detractors of sanitation work for sanitation,” Nagle says. “I'd really like to change that.”
During the semester, students cultivated archives of DSNY history, including photographs, interviews, and newspaper and magazine articles. Everything was scanned into a digital database, from which the exhibit was created. “The three-dimensional space of a gallery or exhibition is so much more compelling than reading about something in a brochure or just hearing somebody talk,” Geismar says.
On Dec. 13, the final day of class, “Loaded Out: Making a Museum” opened its doors in a DSNY field office. Inside, visitors are greeted with large, historic photographs. A sanitation locker room, reminiscent of a time when workers often salvaged tossed objects, has been recreated. Panels detail the history, influence and physicality of DSNY work. One panel illustrates how artists and residents use trash in creative ways, while another recounts the importance of the department to the Sept. 11 cleanup, an effort that both Nagle and Geismar say has gone largely unrecognized. A flag from the Sept. 11 cleanup also is on display.
While observing the vast collection of helmets, uniforms worn by workers during the 1939 World's Fair and protective wooden shoes worn in incinerators, visitors are treated to audio excerpts of interviews with DSNY employees. Monitors show short films about the department and allow visitors to search the digital archives. Also included are replicas of a tugboat and barge that, decades ago, transported waste to the Fresh Kills landfill.
The exhibit ends its current run in January, but will re-open in March at NYU. Nagle, Geismar and their students hope it generates support for a permanent museum dedicated to solid waste management. “[Visitors] are astonished to learn the diversity of responsibilities that sanitation has, and to learn how important sanitation is to the well-being of the city, historically and today,” Nagle says. “They then consider the entire department and its job with new respect.”