Making a Museum - New York University

Making a Museum: The Anthropology of New York’s Department of Sanitation
DRAP-GA 3330.01 / MSMS-GA 3330.02
Professors Robin Nagle & Sabra Thorner
Graduate School of Arts and Science
Wednesdays, 6:20 – 8:20 / Spring 2016
New York University
This course teaches how to establish the start of a museum by creating an exhibition and
digital resource that concentrates on the history, legacy, and daily workings of New York
City’s Department of Sanitation. By actively participating as researchers and
fieldworkers, students will be trained in challenges and methodologies of museum
development, accession practices, documentation technologies, ownership debates, and
preservation protocols. The class is organized around a collections-based research project
contextualized through a range of theoretical and thematic considerations, including the
role of rubbish in society; regimes of value surrounding different kinds of material
culture; representations of unseen labors of maintenance; the sociality and experience of
being “on the job” with Sanitation; the legacy of collective forgetfulness accorded urban
flows and infrastructures; and the dual task of any solid waste management system to
safeguard both the economic and public health of the polis, however it is defined.
Students will read a range of texts, attend and participate in class meetings, contribute to
the class blog, complete regular writing assignments, and conduct fieldwork.
Research, writing, and the mastery of relevant organizing, cataloguing, and
documentation skills will culminate in a Museum of Sanitation website and digital
objects repository; the digital repository will use assemblages chosen from the Molina
Collection. Based in an East Harlem Sanitation garage and the focus of our fieldwork, the
Molina Collection reflects the unusual labors of Nelson Molina, a recently retired
sanitation worker, who gathered and carefully curated thousands of discarded items from
his trash route during 34 years on the job.
The Molina Collection is becoming an unexpected cultural resource for diverse
audiences; it suggests innovative possibilities in telling the story of the Department of
Sanitation and its relationship to the city. This is especially timely because the DSNY is
in the process of determining the Collection’s fate; our class has a chance to influence the