Last month, I attended a lecture on the history of sanitation in New York City given by Dr. Robin Nagle, a professor of anthropology at NYU co-teaching a class on making a museum AND holder of the supercool title “Anthropologist in Residence” for New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Today, Professor Nagle has been kind enough to answer some follow-up questions for the very exciting revivial of Trashtastic Tuesdays, everyone’s favorite irregular weekly blog feature!
everydaytrash: As an anthropologist, what drew you to the subject of trash?
Nagle: I was originally drawn to the subject of trash through one central question that continues to inspire and confound me. How is it that we are content to “throw” “away” our garbage with little or no regard for what happens to it next? Subsidiary questions grow from that. Just what does happen next? Who picks it up? What’s it like to pick it up? Where does it go? How does it get there? Then what happens?
Luckily for me, each answer opens a new bundle of fascinating questions.
everydaytrash: How does one become the anthropologist-in-residence for the city’s sanitation department and what does that job entail?
Nagle: One bombs as a sanitation worker but wants to maintain a title within the DSNY, so one proposes “anthropologist-in-residence” to enable one to draw on one’s training, one’s experience within the DSNY, and one’s larger goals within the context of the Department.
The job entails good old-fashioned fieldwork — taking part in parade clean-ups, snow storm responses, hanging with people on their rounds, interviewing current and retired employees. It also entails putting together the nuts and bolts that will one day be the DSNY Museum. And it entails writing about the DSNY — its work, its mission its history.
everydaytrash: I visited the student exhibit, Loaded Out: Making a Museum. In your ideal world, what would a full-fledged sanitation museum look like?
Nagle: A full-fledged DSNY Museum will have permanent and revolving exhibitions that reveal the fascinating history of sanitation and public health in the context of urban America and especially in the context of New York City. At least one exhibit will always focus on some aspect of the work involved in keeping New York alive by keeping the city’s streets clean. And the DSNY Museum will house the Wall of Honor, which lists all employees who have been killed in the line of duty since the Department came into being in 1881.
The museum will have educational initiatives that will appeal to school children, scholars, and everyone in between. It will include historic and contemporary equipment, trucks, carts, sweepers, mechanical brooms, flushers, wreckers, uniforms, tools. There will archives in digital and hardcopy form that will hold all sanitation-related material we can collect from within New York City, and that will point to related resources in other places.
The museum space itself, which will be vibrant, colorful, and welcoming, will be used for community and DSNY-related events, including meetings of the DSNY benevolent societies and DSNY pipe-and-drum band rehearsals.
Phew! It’s a big dream. But you gotta start somewhere.
Photos ripped from the Slate.com and DSNY Web sites.