One Man’s Treasure

Family photos on display in East Harlem’s “Treasures in the Trash Museum”

In our studio, we spend a lot of time thinking about how objects we call “belongings,” and the systems we use to govern their arrangement, may reveal more about us than our most intimate conversations. The seemingly ordinary items we keep such as a spatula, a blanket, a comb, a camera, or a piece of jewelry may in fact be emblems of our sentiments. So it makes sense that we measure the value of our things not only by their utility and market cost, but also by complex criteria of meaning and mattering. But how do we decide that some of our things, which we once deemed important enough to acquire and cohabit with, must eventually be tossed out? Why do covetable things become trash?

A wolf head decanter stopper peers out through an arrangement of discarded crystal

A recent visit to East Harlem’s “Treasures in the Trash Museum,” gave us a unique opportunity to witness the result of our wanting and unwanting. Since 1981 when he first started working for the Department of Sanitation, Nelson Molina has been collecting, arranging, and stewarding selected pieces of New York City’s trash on the second floor of what was once a garbage truck depot. He began by saving choice items from his route’s truck to decorate the depot locker room. Over time, coworkers added their own finds to the collection. When the building became structurally unsuitable to serve as a garage, the trucks were moved out and the little museum spread across the entire floor. Today, more than 50 thousand objects are housed there. Though he is recently retired, Molina still cares for the collection, dusting objects, playing found CDs on a found player.

Trashed trolls

Molina grouped things by likeness of function, color, size, and style. Aesthetically, the tables covered in carefully arranged typewriters, ceramic housewares, doorknobs, books, photographs, and musical instruments seem familiar. Visitors often comment that the display looks a lot like a flea market. In fact, while perusing the aisles it’s easy to forget that these items are not available for resale. It is impossible to visit the museum without discovering at least a few things that evoke the expression, “I can’t believe someone threw this away!”

But these things, which became the property of the city when they were put out for collection on curbs, will not be reanimated again in tiny New York apartments. The fate of these items — of the entire collection, is currently in limbo. The old building is slated to be torn down so that a new functional garage can be built in its place. DSNY’s anthropologist-in-residence Robin Nagle is trying to save the museum from being landfilled by finding it another home. She and Molina have been giving small private tours to interested parties in the hopes of drumming up open sourced strategies, available space, and resources to transfer and preserve the museum.

Social scientists have long sought ways to talk about and understand how people relate to her things. In her iconic book Purity and Danger, Anthropologist Mary Douglas posits the idea that there is no such thing as pure dirt, but that rather dirt is simply “matter out of place.” Douglas uses a pair of shoes as an example. Resting on the floor or in the closet, your shoes may not seem particularly dirty, but most of us would be offended to see them placed on the dining table or in the bed. When dissonant things are mixed together, their brew can even conjure feelings of disgust. An onion peel left on the cutting board is in itself benign, but thrown into a waste basket where it comes in contact with discarded pieces of paper, plastic, and other kitchen scraps, it becomes nasty. Things make their way from our apartments to the curb when we decide that they disrupt the systems of order we work to uphold.

In his museum, Nelson Molina has restored order to New York City’s rejected things. By doing so, he’s given us the opportunity to reconsider the value of each item, to imagine their biographies, and to grapple with the notion that the things we discard may tell us as much or more about ourselves than the things we choose to keep. As designers in this space, we are confronted with the fact that not only is it our responsibility to think about how to introduce the things we make to people’s lives, but to try to imagine how what we produce will ultimately leave the lives of our users.

Though the museum is not currently open to the public with regular hours, you may email tours@dsny.nyc.gov and request to join a scheduled tour.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Learn more about our object design theory at Matter-Mind Studio.