Category Archives: Contemporary art

Open for Business: The story of contemporary British industry

Curator Ben Russell reflects on the story of contemporary British industry, on show in our Open for Business exhibition. 

Our collections include some of most celebrated icons of manufacturing and engineering in history, including Puffing Billy, Newcomen’s engine and Stephensons’s Rocket. These objects embody the ingenuity, resourcefulness and resolve of the engineers and manufacturers who created them.

Stephenson's 'Rocket' (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ (1829) on display at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Fast forward to the present day, and it seems like many people’s perceptions of manufacturing continue to be dominated by heavy industrial images of men in boiler suits bathed in oil, up to their elbows in a machine. Of course, that’s still an integral part of industry, and one not without its attractions. But what we don’t often recognise is just how much contemporary British manufacturing has (literally) smashed these conventions into pieces.

Many people think Britain doesn’t actually make things anymore, but the reality is very different. Making things and selling them around the world remains strategically important for Britain, and its resilience continues to draw many manufacturing companies back to the UK after relocating to the Far East. As well as the mass production of everything from tin can tops to cars, many British companies thrive by carving out their own unique niches, from building yachts to weaving fine textiles. Many companies make a reputation for the excellence of their product: Quality sells.

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Princess Yachts. Plymouth. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Chris Steele-Perkins, Magnum Photos

Our exhibition Open for Business tells the story of contemporary British manufacturing through the images of nine Magum photographers. They each concentrated on a different region of the UK, visiting one-man businesses and FTSE 100 companies like Airbus and Renishaw, to try and create a snapshot of industry across the UK.

Their subjects can seem surprising, with photographs that include Aardman animators and theatre propmakers, as well as shipbuilding and factory workers. Renowned photographer David Hurn wanted to show the variety of manufacturing in Wales. Rather than just focus on the coal mines more commonly associated with industry in Wales, he chose to photograph Corgi Hosiery, a Welsh company that produces a range of socks designed by Prince Charles.

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

Renewable Energy. Scotland. GB. 2013. Open for Business © Stuart Franklin, Magnum Photos

The incredible diversity of British manufacturing challenges the perceptions of what’s needed behind-the-scenes to make things. Roles in contemporary UK industry are vast, varied and can no longer be defined by the image of men in boiler suits.

Of course, it was ever thus: in the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s reputation as workshop of the world was attributed, not to the rise of the machines, but to the excellence of her people. In 1803, a French commentator praised ‘the wonderful practical skills’ of Britain’s ‘adventurers in the useful application of knowledge, and the superiority of her workmen in rapid and masterly execution’. The same could equally be said about making things in Britain today.

See more stunning images in our Open for Business exhibition, which closes 2 November 2014. 

Make Life Worth Living – Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter, 1968-72

In this post Hedy van Erp, co-curator of the new Media Space exhibition Make Life Worth Living, looks at the background of the exhibition and the significance of the photographs on display.

Nick Hedges was commissioned by housing charity Shelter to document the poor conditions suffered by many around 1970. He travelled around the UK for four years and photographed people in slum properties in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow and other major cities. A selection of these images – 100 out of the 1000 vintage prints held by the National Media Museum – can now be seen in the Virgin Media Studio at Media Space.

Children playing at 'Weddings', The Gorbals, Glasgow, 1970 © Nick Hedges  National Media Museum, Bradford

Children playing at ‘Weddings’, The Gorbals, Glasgow, 1970 © Nick Hedges National Media Museum, Bradford

Detached from the original Shelter context and combined with many images which have never been seen before, Make Life Worth Living does not just show the misery in housing around 1970, but is in fact a cinematic narrative of Hedges criss-crossing the UK from 1968 to 1972. The selection is reminiscent of Robert Frank‘s groundbreaking book The Americans. Like Frank, Hedges at the time was a true ‘noir’ photographer.

It has been said that Nick Hedges’ work for Shelter is strongly related to the American tradition of social documentary established by photographers like Lewis Hine and Paul Strand. Moreover, an analogy can be found in the work of Walker Evans, when he was hired by the Farm Security Administration to document the poor conditions of the farmers in pre-Second World War America.

“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

“Make Life Worth Living”, terrace of back-to-back houses, Leeds, West Yorkshire, July 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Hedges also continued the rich tradition of socially committed photography in Britain. In fact, few photographers have captured better than Hedges what is both so upsetting and captivating in the look of Britain around 1970. Yet this is more than the aesthetics of poverty. Hedges’ Britain is at times a gritty place full of shadows, where you get the feeling things may not end well, but you still can’t stop looking.

Kitchen of slum house, Birmingham Duddleston, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Kitchen of slum house, Birmingham Duddleston, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

The images taken outside the derelict houses – street scenes, city and rural landscapes – have a casual, almost drive-by feel. But you quickly see how carefully Hedges chose the images he shot over four years. Signs, interiors, children and animals keep cropping up, echoing from image to image. These images possess an energy and a visual harshness that contradict what may at first glance be mistaken for objective photojournalism.

It’s not only permissible, but also rewarding to take pleasure in Hedges’ images; the way light falls on a kitchen floor, the terraced houses running down to a factory, the pile of shoes in the window of a second hand shoe shop, or the vacant stare of a mother holding her baby. When life is hard, which it often is in these photographs, we have to look hard, but when we do, Hedges shows us beauty in many places.

A playground by the shipyards. Govan, Glasgow, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

A playground by the shipyards. Govan, Glasgow, August 1970 © Nick Hedges / National Media Museum, Bradford

Apart from showing beauty, disconnection and decay, Hedges’ poignant work offers us an important part of Europe’s past and culture. 40 years later, his Shelter archive is an incredibly strong body of work with which Hedges created history with his camera, history that happened in the form of scenes that can now become symbolic archetypes embedded in a national consciousness. Nick Hedges shows us life worth seeing – the words ‘worth seeing’ in fact being a gross understatement.

Make Life Worth Living: Nick Hedges’ Photographs for Shelter, 1968-72 runs in the Virgin Media Studio at Media Space until 18 January 2015. Entry to the exhibition is free.

The Rubbish Collection by Joshua Sofaer

In the final post of our series linked to The Rubbish Collection the artist behind the project, Joshua Sofaer, looks back at a truly ambitious exhibition. 

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection is coming to an end. The Head of Exhibitions & Programmes at the Science Museum, Emily Scott-Dearing, asked me how I felt about it all. The truth is that now I just want to get to the end of it and for nothing to have gone wrong. I’m looking forward to looking back and for nobody to have succumbed to any of the long list of potential hazards that we had to consider on our lengthy risk assessment.

Joshua Sofaer in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Joshua Sofaer in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

The project to document and display 30 days’ worth of Science Museum rubbish started several years ago. For the first years, I spent my time trying to convince scientists, curators, managers and pedagogues that it would be a fantastic idea to let members of the public get elbow deep in the museum rubbish before displaying it all in galleries that are normally reserved for precious and unique objects. Once they agreed I suddenly had a panic, as I was forced to seriously consider all the things that could go wrong: “But what if…?”

Volunteers sorting the Museum's rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Volunteers sorting the Museum’s rubbish in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the 30 days of the first phase with 4 assistants, 30 Science Museum volunteers and the help of over 400 visitors, we collected, laid out and documented all the rubbish produced by the Science Museum’s:
281,647 visitors
500+ staff and contractors
5 cafés
2 building sites
3 shops
2 Science Nights
1 Lates event
…and several storage cupboard clearances.

We had predicted that around 28 tonnes of rubbish would be thrown out but it was actually closer to 33 when we got the figures back from the Science Museum’s main waste contractor Grundon.

We brought over 18 tonnes of materials back to the gallery for the second phase of the exhibition, including:
7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels
2.4 tonnes of bottom ash aggregate
2.3 tonnes of glass sand
1.4 tonnes of wood
1 tonne of fertilizer
698 kilograms of steel
650 litres of dehydrated sewage sludge
291 breezeblocks made from air pollution control residue
…and nearly 1 tonne of various recycled plastics.

7.4 tonnes of paper and card in reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Items that we retained from the rubbish included:
3 fridges
1 dishwasher
3 kettles
3 wheelchairs
1 sleeping bag
1 mini snooker table
16.5 pairs of shoes
2 two-piece suits and ties
1 bra
1 negative pregnancy test
1 love letter
£40.16
…and a crazy amount of disposable cutlery, usable stationery and discarded medicines.

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Some of the items retained for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Whether disgusted or curious, everyone it would seem, has an opinion about rubbish. We are all throwers away. The psychological desire (and most often the psychological effect) of throwing something away, is to forget about it. We throw something away precisely because we don’t want to think about it any more. I have loved watching the faces of the Science Museum visitors as they realise that they are looking at what we have collectively tried to forget. There are moments of surprise and moments of recognition. Reactions have perhaps been strongest when confronted with the sewage.

The Italian artist Piero Manzoni cleverly played with the reverence that is accorded to the artist and the art object by producing a number of actions that resulted in sculptural provocations. Merda d’Artista (or Artist’s Shit) is what is says on the tin: 30g net freshly preserved, produced and tinned in May 1961. The performance is of the artist’s action that we are asked to imagine: that of him taking a dump. Manzoni places this object on a gallery plinth in a simultaneous act of gross self-aggrandisement and fierce condemnation of the gallery system. By making shit art, Manzoni cleverly manages to critique what he also aspires to (and has subsequently achieved), the reified status of the artist.

In the Science Museum we have on display not just a tin can but a large gallery vitrine full of human waste: 650 litres of dehydrated sewage. This is perhaps the ultimate waste, the stuff we really want to forget. But when our poo is pushed in our faces it asks us to think about what we choose to keep, what we choose to get rid of, and what happens to our stuff once it has left us.

Sludge cakes formed from a month's worth of the Museum's human waste © Glasshopper

Sludge cakes formed from a month’s worth of the Museum’s human waste © Glasshopper

I would like to thank the Science Museum for allowing this to happen. I would like to thank the many waste contractors who have been involved. I would like to thank all the assistants and volunteers who tirelessly sorted through bags of café waste late into the evening after the museum was shut. I would like to thank you, the Science Museum visitors for donning gloves and getting stuck in and also for throwing things out, without which there would have been no project. Only, paradoxically, that would be better: the very thing that this project has relied on – that people throw stuff away – is also the thing we want to reduce. Let’s work towards a time when a project like this is unnecessary or even impossible. Disposal is the last resort.

Continuing our look at climate and sustainability, our Antenna team will be bringing Bio-Bean – recently announced as winner of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge – to the Museum from next week. The Rubbish Collection continues until Sunday 14 September 2014.

Living in a materials world – the human story of rubbish

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey follows some of the unexpected stories and personal objects that were found in the Museum’s bins. As the exhibition nears its end, what will happen to all this ‘rubbish’ afterwards?

Much of the feedback I have received about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection, from both visitors and staff, has been about the surprising personal items and stories that have come out of the bins. When we were first carrying out trials for the project it was one of the unexpected outcomes of the documentation process. This revelation, that sorting through waste was like a form of contemporary archaeology, inspired Joshua to invite the public to take part in the documentation process so that visitors also had the chance to experience the wonder of piecing together those narratives.

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Lunchbox notes on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

The stories we found in the bins ranged from the very general (like what the favourite crisp brand amongst visiting schoolchildren was) to more Museum-specific (like which new galleries were under development and which events had taken place). Even the volume told us how busy the Museum had been on a given day. There were also very personal stories such as notes put into someone’s lunchbox by their partner, a surprising number of medicines, and children’s drawings of their day out. In a painfully frank teenage love note, the author proclaims that they are not worth the attention of their crush and recommends they should go out with someone else. We even found a pregnancy test (negative; was its user disappointed, happy or relieved by that result? We’ll never know).

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Pregnancy test on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

We don’t often think about our rubbish, full stop, let alone consider it as a personal document of our lives. Archaeologists have long been aware of this when piecing together a picture of the lifestyles and living conditions of people’s past, as have the paparazzi in finding out private information about celebrities and public figures. Looking at the landfill of the last few decades, I imagine, will tell a story of the rise of plastics and packaging, the dominance of certain supermarkets and brands, the affordability of electrical goods, our increasingly global markets and the enormous growth in waste generally. Hopefully, as with the Science Museum’s bins, an examination of more recent landfill should document a more positive change, that of recycling and our increased awareness of the value that materials still hold. The next step may be mining our municipal dumps to try to recover some of those precious materials that are now scarce in the natural world, such as the rare earth metals that are so important in the manufacture of electronic goods.

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Electrical goods on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

And what will become of all the rubbish and materials on display in The Rubbish Collection? Well, the materials, like the paper reels, plastic pellets, metals and fertilizer, will be returned to the companies that lent them to us, to continue on their recycling journey to become new products.  Electrical goods will be sent to specialist recycling companies to separate any reusable parts and recycle what cannot be salvaged. The items that we retained from the rubbish bags, though many would have originally gone to incineration if we had not intervened in their journey, will be recycled wherever possible. Medicines will be taken to a pharmacy for safe disposal, usable stationary will be returned to offices and the 16.5 pairs of shoes, 2 suits and other items of clothing will be taken to charity shops.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Going down the drain

In the latest of our blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey talks to Nick Mills, Waste Innovation Manager at Thames Water about what happens to our sewage and what the future holds for wastewater.

Sarah: What do Thames Water do with our sewage?

Nick: We have 350 sewage works and 68,000 miles of sewers across our region, which stretches from East London to the Cotswolds in the west. Last year, we removed and treated 4,369 million litres of sewage from 15 million customers. At our 350 sewage works we treat the sewage to remove contaminants and return it safely to the environment, it is often cleaner than the water in the river.

Sarah: What happens to the end products of the processing?

Nick: The main end-product of the sewage treatment process is something called sludge. This energy rich by-product is put to good use in anaerobic digestion, producing renewable energy that helps power our treatment sites. The digested sludge is then recycled to agricultural land.

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sludge having been put through a Bucher press to reduce liquid content © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the biggest challenges you face in dealing with our sewage/ waste water?

Nick: London has outgrown its sewer system. The Victorian sewers are in great condition, but simply not designed for today’s population. They were designed for just over two million but are used today by just over six million. The proposed Thames Tideway Tunnel will stop tens of millions of tonnes of raw sewage flowing into the Thames every year via the outfall system. It is a must-do job. We can’t keep treating the Thames as a sewer.

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

The Lee Tunnel © Thames Water

Sarah: What are the strangest or most difficult things to deal with that people throw down the drains?

Nick: ‘Bin it – don’t block it’ is our campaign to end the misery caused by fatbergs. Leftover cooking fat and oil poured down the sink will set hard. This creates stinking, pipe-blocking fatbergs beneath your house or in your street.

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

A sewer flusher in London digging out a fatberg © Thames Water

Wet wipes are another big no-no because they are made of plastic. They don’t break down like toilet tissue, clinging to fat and clogging up the system. If drains get blocked, what you flush can come back up through your toilet or even your sink.

Sarah: What can consumers and organisations do better?  Is there a top 3 list of things people could do differently to help?

Nick: Our message is simple, if it’s not water, toilet tissue or poo, please… ‘Bin it – don’t block it’.

Sarah: What do you think the industry will be like in 20 years’ time? What are the new innovations and technologies that you are exploring at the moment?

Nick: In 20 years’ time I can see the wastewater industry becoming a net energy producer, by employing more efficient processes and increasing energy recovery. Combining advanced anaerobic digestion and technologies like pyrolysis, large increases can be made. Our Innovation team are busy demonstrating this at the moment. Phosphorus, a finite resource essential to life as we know it, will be recovered at every major sewage works and sold competitively as a fertiliser to farmers, this has also been demonstrated recently at our Slough sewage works by the Innovation team.

Innovation works at Slough © Thames Water

Slough sewage works © Thames Water

Sarah: What did you think when you first heard about Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection project?

Nick: I think it is great. It shows the harsh reality of waste, but at the same time reveals the great work that people do behind the scenes to keep society moving. I hope it will encourage a new generation to start what is a very interesting and rewarding career as there are huge challenges yet to be solved.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Shedding light on the matter of rubbish

In the latest of our blog series linked to The Rubbish Collection, the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence Mark Champkins finds an ingenious use for our discarded materials.

The second phase of The Rubbish Collection exhibition is open at the Museum until 14 September. Having documented every piece of waste that passed through the Museum for a month, this second phase is a chance to see what would have been thrown away.

Of the material that hasn’t been selected for display, I collected a small box of bits that I hoped to turn into a product that we might sell in the shop. I like the idea that with a little bit of effort and imagination, items that would otherwise be chucked, can be turned into something desirable. Unfortunately the collection of items in the box that I had gathered didn’t look at all desirable. A couple of umbrellas, some bits from a light fitting, an old copper funnel, an ash tray, some plastic cutlery, some glass cups and a selection of ball bearings didn’t look very promising.

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

A box of bits © Mark Champkins

The germ of my idea came from digging out the copper funnel and investigating it further. It was heavily corroded and covered in green verdigris, but underneath was structurally solid, and a beautiful shape.

I read somewhere that vinegar could be used to clean copper, so I popped down to the café, to get a couple of sachets to try out. It turns out it does a reasonable job on lightly tarnished areas, but can’t handle the extent of corrosion on the funnel. However, it did encourage me that the funnel could be saved.

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

An old copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Next I pulled apart the umbrellas, lined up everything from the box and had a think what I might make. A happy coincidence was that the handle from the umbrella fitted exactly into the top of the funnel.

 

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

An umbrella handle © Mark Champkins

My first thought was to make some sort of loudspeaker people could shout through. Next, I thought the umbrella handle might plug the funnel to make a water-tight vase or container of some sort. Finally, looking at the shining clean patch of copper I thought, coupled with a 1950s-style squirrel cage bulb, it might make a really nice light fitting.

The next step was to recondition the copper funnel. In the basement, the Museum has metal and wood workshops responsible for building, installing and maintaining the structures for new exhibitions. Amongst their equipment is a sandblasting machine, which I used to blast the corrosion from the funnel.

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

Sandblasting the copper funnel © Mark Champkins

I decided to leave the matt finish left from the sand blasting on the inside surface, and polish up the outside. Using Brasso and eventually a buffing wheel I polished up the outer surface.

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Polishing © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

Using a buffing wheel © Mark Champkins

To ensure the lamp remains pristine, I decided to use a polymer based lacquer, applied in the workshop’s spray booth.

In the spray booth © Mark Champkins

Finally I added the umbrella handle, and a lighting flex and fitting. I think the finished light looks rather good. It’ll be available for purchase in the Museum shop from mid August.

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The finished light © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The lamp made from Museum rubbish © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The finished lamp at work © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

The light will be on sale in the Museum shop in mid-August © Mark Champkins

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection runs at the Science Museum until 14 September 2014.

Transforming materials – the recycling journey

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection Curator Sarah Harvey follows the route of the Science Museum’s recycled rubbish.

Joshua Sofaer’s art installation The Rubbish Collection showcases the sometimes surprising materials that are created from the everyday rubbish produced by staff, contractors and visitors at the Science Museum. After documenting all the Museum’s waste for 30 days we have traced where it goes, and how it is recycled and transformed from rubbish back into valuable materials.

Grundon Materials Recovery Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Grundon Materials Recovery Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

For recyclable rubbish put into the Museum’s recycling bins the first port of call in the journey is the Grundon Material Recovery Facility (MRF) at Colnbrook near Heathrow. Here it is separated out into several different recycling streams. First magnets remove the ferrous metals (like steel cans) and non-ferrous metals (such as aluminium cans) then sophisticated infra-red technology identifies and separates the remaining rubbish into paper, card, glass and several different types of plastics. Any rubbish that cannot be recycled, or pieces too small to be captured, are taken to the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant for incineration, so no rubbish goes to landfill. At the end of the sorting process the materials are baled as raw materials for resale to companies who take on the next stage of processing.

Artist Joshua Sofaer and Curator Sarah Harvey at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Artist Joshua Sofaer and Curator Sarah Harvey at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

For each material the recycling and recovery processes are necessarily very different, but it was interesting to find that there is always a loss of some material which cannot be recovered or usefully reused. For the plastics and the glass that loss comes from paper labels and glues that are soaked off in the washing process, forming an unpleasant sticky mulch which gets sent for incineration. Even for the steel and aluminium cans which can be endlessly recycled, there is still some loss from the paints and pigments used in printing their branded logos and decoration.

Aluminium cans at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

Aluminium cans at Grundon Waste Management Facility, Colnbrook © Science Museum

As processes improve and new technology is developed, hopefully one day these materials will either be captured for future use, or the waste will be designed out altogether. The model for keeping 100% of the materials in circulation is known as the circular economy. Sometimes only a small change is needed. In the exhibition we have the plastic label and mixed flake that is retained from PET plastic recycling. By using plastic labels instead of paper the material can be more easily collected and recycled to make new products like plastic bags.

PET plastic flakes in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

PET plastic flakes in The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

There is lots of information on the web about the processing of different materials. Some of the online resources I have found most helpful during this project are:

Glass
Aluminium
Steel
PET plastics
HDPE plastics

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection is now open at the Science Museum and runs until 14 September 2014.

Rubbish that powers homes and builds roads

In this week’s blog linked to The Rubbish Collection, Curator Sarah Harvey looks at some of the materials that are on display in the exhibition.

The second phase of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection art installation has involved tracing the journeys of the Science Museum’s rubbish, to find out where it goes, and how it is processed. This has enabled us to work out what materials to bring back for display, and in what quantities, to represent 30 days’ worth of Science Museum waste.

A giant claw lifting general waste into the incinerator at the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

A giant claw lifting general waste into the incinerator at the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Rubbish leaves the museum via a variety of different companies but the vast majority is taken by Grundon Waste Management. It goes to their site at Colnbrook, near Heathrow, which holds three centres; a transfer station, a Materials Recovery Facility and the Lakeside Energy from waste plant, co-owned by Viridor Waste Management.

The interior of the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

The interior of the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Today I’m going to focus on the materials on display from the Energy from Waste plant. When you think of an incinerator that burns rubbish you might picture a dirty, sooty, very smelly and unpleasant place, but it’s actually an extraordinary, almost clinically clean building (except for the container where the rubbish is held), and it’s surprisingly beautiful with a giant claw grabbing up to six tonnes of rubbish at a time to feed the incinerator fires.

Inside the incinerator at the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Inside the incinerator at the Lakeside Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

All the Science Museum general (non-recycled) waste goes to Lakeside to be incinerated. Four products come out of that process: energy, incinerator bottom ash, air pollution control residue and clean air. The largest output is energy, with the plant providing enough to power 50,000 homes per year. We have calculated that the energy produced by incinerating one month of Science Museum waste is enough to light one of our gallery bulbs for nearly 24 years.

Bottom ash aggregate and recyclable metal as it comes out of the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

Bottom ash aggregate and recyclable metal as it comes out of the Energy from Waste plant © Science Museum

The energy is produced by burning the rubbish for approximately 3 seconds at 950 degrees centigrade, which is long enough to combust most materials. At the end of the process, incinerator bottom ash is left over. This ash still contains large pieces of metal which are separated and sent to be recycled, and the ash itself is left to ‘mature’ so that chemical reactions can take place that lower its pH value. This aggregate is then used in the construction industry, primarily in road building. You could be driving on your old rubbish.

Bottom ash aggregate (left) on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

Bottom ash aggregate (left) on display in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

One of the most remarkable things about the incineration process is that the air that comes out of the plant is actually cleaner than the air that goes in. This is because it is very carefully filtered to contain the toxins released during burning. The filtered ash is known as air pollution control residue (APCr). Historically this toxic ash would have been contained in hazardous waste landfill, but new technologies and research are now finding uses for it. Grundon have invested in a company called Carbon8 who use carbon dioxide to neutralise the toxic heavy metals and materials, making them permanently non-hazardous. This safe ash can then be used as an aggregate and, alongside other recycled materials including wood, makes the ‘Carbon Buster’ carbon-neutral breeze blocks we have on display in The Rubbish Collection.

Carbon Buster breeze blocks in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

‘Carbon Buster’ breeze blocks in Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Katherine Leedale

It’s been very encouraging to find that the Science Museum rubbish is producing some useful and valuable products through incineration. However, one of the big findings from our documentation of the Museum’s waste was that there is still a lot of recyclable material ending up at the incinerator. Those materials retain much more value when they are recycled so by continuing to improve and refine our recycling systems, and through new initiatives like separating our food waste, we hope in the future to decrease our general waste further.

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection is now open at the Science Museum and runs until 14 September 2014.

Modern art is Rubbish

In the latest of our series of blogs linked to The Rubbish Collection Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence Mark Champkins looks back at Phase 1, while Project Curator Sarah Harvey gives us a sneak preview of Phase 2 before it opens on 25 July.

Phase 1 – Mark Champkins, Science Museum Inventor-in-Residence

Tuesday 15 July was the last day of sorting through Museum waste for The Rubbish Collection project, and my last chance to put in a shift filtering through discarded drinks bottles and leftover lunches.

The project is fascinating. It aims to examine what constitutes the waste that passes through the Museum, where it would normally go, and what might be usefully recycled.

The exhibition is split into two parts. The first involves the collection of every piece of waste generated by the Museum over a month. A team of volunteers has been sorting and photographing the contents of the Museum’s rubbish bags, and pulling out items of particular interest. The second part will start on 25 July, and will be an exhibition of cleaned and collated rubbish materials.

The Rubbish Collection Phase 1 © Science Museum

The Rubbish Collection Phase 1 © Science Museum

As I began my shift, what struck me first was the smell of the gallery. It’s a sweet, fruity smell, not unlike over-ripe apples. It comes from the vast amount of sugary drinks and half eaten fruit thrown into the bins, the likely source being the hundreds of packed lunches eaten in the Museum every day. Throughout the Museum, the usual bins have been replaced with ‘General Waste’ and ‘Recycling’ bins. It soon became clear to me that in order to avoid the worst of the smell, the bags to pick out to sort through are the ones marked ‘Recycling’. This avoids the majority of the decomposing foodstuffs.

The task is to open up the bags, lay out the contents on a large white table, sort the contents as you see fit, and then snap a photo of the arranged items on an overhead camera. The opportunity to arrange the rubbish in whatever way you want has brought out the creativity of the volunteers. To this end, within a few days, a tumblr account was opened to show off some of the most imaginative of the layouts. Amongst my favourites are the seascape, composed of blue plastic bags and fruit, and blazing sun in the sky, made from bread sticks, paper towels and what looks like parsley. You can have a look here.

Rubbish of the Day, day 27 © Science Museum

Rubbish of the Day, day 27 © Science Museum

After half a dozen bags, a disheartening pattern starts to emerge. Much of what is being thrown away is perfectly good. Lots of the food is unopened or untouched. Leaflets and flyers are almost always pristine. It’s as though the bins are being used to de-clutter, rather than being a place to put things when they have reached the end of their useful lives. It seems inexplicable how many of the items have ended up in the bins. Three wheelchairs have been collected, over a dozen shoes, two fridges, a bra and a giant toothbrush.

Spurred by the some of the weird and wonderful items collected I have set myself a challenge. Like a Science Museum Womble, I aim to filter through the items left behind to put together some items that can be repurposed and redesigned to make a one-off product, that we can sell in the Museum shop. Watch this space…

Some of the materials for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection

Some of the materials for Phase 2 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Phase 2 – Sarah Harvey, Project Curator, The Rubbish Collection

After 30 frenzied days of documenting all the Science Museum waste, you might have expected artist Joshua Sofaer to take a well-earned break. No such luck. Since the documentation finished on 15 July, The Rubbish Collection has remained a hive of activity and an almost miraculous transformation has taken place. Gone are the sorting tables, bin bags and faint whiff of old packed lunch; in their place Joshua has created an intriguing and magical exhibition showcasing 30 days of Science Museum rubbish.

The exhibition is comprised of some of the bizarre and surprising items that were retained from the bins in the documentation phase of the project, displayed alongside almost 18 tonnes of materials processed and recycled from the Science Museum rubbish. Both the scale and the beauty of these materials and objects is quite unexpected, and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’m just going to give you some teaser images (below). The exhibition opens to the public at 11am on Friday 25 July, so please come down and experience the wonder of ‘rubbish’ for yourself.

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

Material for Phase 2 © Science Museum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Phase 2 of Joshua Sofaer’s The Rubbish Collection opens at the Science Museum on 25 July and runs until 14 September 2014.

281,647 visitors: a ‘rubbish’ story

In the next in our series of blogs about The Rubbish Collection, Project Curator Sarah Harvey looks back at what we have collected and reflects on what Phase 1 of the exhibition has taught us about our relationship with waste.

Thirty days of sorting and documenting all the Science Museum‘s rubbish have come to a close. It’s been surprising, sometimes shocking and certainly thought-provoking, fun, hard work and, at times, a little bit smelly!

We’ve documented all the rubbish produced by the Museum’s 281,647 visitors, 500+ staff and contractors, five cafés, two building sites, three shops, two Science Nights, one Lates event and several storage cupboard clearances. We’re still waiting to see the figures but, it’s safe to say, it was a lot of rubbish.

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Two pairs of shoes appear in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Over the thirty days, artist Joshua Sofaer, his assistants and the Science Museum volunteers, along with hundreds of brave visitors eager to take up this unique opportunity to get up-close and personal with the trash, have rummaged tirelessly through approximately 250 bags of rubbish per day.

Along with the expected items like crisp packets, drinks cans and the remains of thousands of kids’ lunch boxes, we’ve also found some more unexpected objects hidden amongst the detritus of everyday Museum life. 16.5 pairs of shoes, two two-piece suits, a bra, three fridges, one dishwasher, a box of old floppy disks (visiting school children didn’t know what they were), piles of discarded over-the-counter medicines, three wheelchairs and a staggering volume of disposable cutlery.

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Uneaten fruit in Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

So, what have we learnt from all this investigating and documenting? Aside from the revelation that kids don’t eat the fruit in their packed lunch (one day I’ll count the number of untouched apples we documented), the most obvious thing is that we don’t recycle as much as we could.

Over the last few months the Science Museum has been working hard to put new systems in place for separating our rubbish both in public spaces and offices. The addition of recycling bins in public areas is a long overdue step forward for the Museum but we found that almost all recycling bags in public areas were contaminated with non-recyclable rubbish, so we need to do more to encourage and help visitors to recycle while they are here.

The amount of recyclable material lost to incineration because we are not yet separating café waste is a lot more than we would like but there are plans in place to roll out new segregation systems to all the Museum’s cafés in the near future. Just separating out the café food waste could reduce the Museum’s general waste tonnage by around a third.

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Food waste from the Phase 1 of The Rubbish Collection © Science Museum

Whilst the documentation was taking place in the Museum, behind the scenes we’ve been doing some detective work to find out where and how those materials are processed and what they go on to become. These days, very little is lost to landfill so most of the rubbish that left the Museum has been transformed into some other physical form, either through recycling or through incineration.

That transformed rubbish is now travelling back to the Science Museum, to be reunited with some of the most interesting items we retained from the bins. Over the next 10 days, Joshua Sofaer will be creating an exhibition showcasing what is produced from our rubbish, examining the beauty and value of the materials but also looking at the sheer volume that was produced over one month. The exhibition will open on 25 July but if you want a sneak preview before then, make sure to watch this space…

The Rubbish Collection continues with Phase 2 from 25 July to 14 September 2014.