The Rubbish Collection

16 June – 15 July 2014: Documentation
25 July – 14 September 2014: Display

Science Museum, London

The Rubbish Collection was a two-part art installation in which every single thing thrown out by the Science Museum staff and visitors for 30 days was photographed in a purpose-built temporary archive in the basement of the Wellcome wing. Members of the public were invited to open the bags of rubbish and layout the contents on an archive table, photograph their arrangement, before repacking the contents in the bag and sending it on its route towards recycling or incineration.

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.

The Rubbish Collection, Phase 1: Documentation. Bags of rubbish are opened, laid out on archive tables and photographed.

The Rubbish Collection, Phase 1: Documentation. A table top documentation image of a bag of rubbish.

We then followed the journey that the rubbish takes and recalled it to the Science Museum at various stages of transformation, for the second part of the project: an exhibition of waste materials. Visitors were able to see the elements and quantity of stuff thrown out by one institution.

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 main waste contractor Grundon.

We brought over 18 tonnes of materials back to the gallery for the second phase of the exhibition including:
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
1 tonne of various recycled plastics
and 7.4 tonnes of paper and card reels

Stacking the giant rolls of paper in the basement of the Science Museum required a gantry and winch.

15 rolls of recycled paper waiting to be installed for the display phase of The Rubbish Collection.

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
…and a crazy amount of disposable cutlery, useable stationery and discarded medicines.

The Rubbish Collection, Phase 2: Display. Photo by Glasshopper.

Humans are avid collectors. We are also nosy. We enjoy investigating the things around us and seeing material culture collated, labelled and exhibited. It was this impulse that was the incentive for the first museums. The Rubbish Collection inverts the idea of the museum preserving what is sacred or unique, asking us to consider what we choose to keep, what we discard, and why.

By handling the waste themselves, the public noticed how recycling bins are often contaminated and also how perfectly good resources are sent off needlessly for incineration when they could be reused or recycled.

Mirroring the conventional museum displays that are adjacent, The Rubbish Collection exhibition confronted visitors with a literal representation of one institution’s waste, while focusing attention on the urgent need for waste reduction.

Rubbish bags are also repositories for stories of our lives. Opening one and laying out the contents is a kind of contemporary archaeology that stimulates the imagination, as we deduce or invent the histories of the materials before us.

Seeing the towers of paper or mountains of glass sand, is similarly not only about recognising the need for more sustainable living, it is also about acknowledging the aesthetic properties and the wonder of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.


The Rubbish Collection stemmed from an invitation by Hannah Redler, Head of Arts Projects, to Joshua Sofaer, to consider a new work as part of the Science Museum Climate Changing Programme.

Project Curator: Sarah Harvey
Project Director: Sue Mossman
Project Leader: Alex Johnson
Project Management Support Assistant: Katherine Howes
3D design: NORD Architecture
2D design: Science Museum Design Studio
New Media: Science Museum New Media team
Visitor Experience and Operations: Cristina Henao and the Duty Management Team, Servest

The Rubbish Collection Assistants:
Cornelia Prior, Hannah Maxwell, Mita Solanky, Duncan Robertson

The Rubbish Collection Volunteers:
James Chadwick, Corinna Algranti, Dilen Ghetia, Enrico Napolitano, Federico Barni, Hannah Burke, Hannah Tran, Helen Hampton, Hollie White, Isobel Kaye, Jane Lane-Roberts, Janice Lavers, Jo Leonard, Katyanna Quach, Kerry Grist, Lahcen Tazi, Leshi Zou, Marta Martin, Milly De Silva, Nasif Khan, Roseanna Harries, Rosemary Hudson, Rosina Godwin, Sarah Brown, Tom Hebdige, Xeuying Xiong, Zoe Arnold

With special thanks also to: Grundon Waste Management Limited, Lakeside Energy from Waste, a joint venture between Grundon Waste Management and Viridor

With thanks to:
Agrivert Ltd
Alutrade Ltd
Balcan Engineering Ltd
Carbon8 Aggregates Ltd
Closed Loop Recycling Ltd
Cromwell Polythene Ltd
Day Group Ltd
D S Smith Paper Ltd
ECO Plastics Ltd
Grundon Waste Management Ltd
Lakeside Energy from Waste – a joint venture between Grundon Waste Management and Viridor
PlasRecycle Ltd
Proper Oils Ltd
Servest Group
Shorts Group Ltd
Tata Steel UK Ltd
Thames Water Utilities Ltd

This installation was delivered as part of the Science Museum Climate Changing programme, funded by:
Shell and Siemens (Principal Sponsors)
Bank of America Merrill Lynch (Major Sponsor)
Garfield Weston Foundation (Major Funder)
With additional support from Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Patrons of the Science Museum, and the Founders Circle (Climate Changing Programme)

Press & Links

'Sofaer brings into tangible, sticky, rotting relief our attitudes to value, hygiene, environmental responsibility and contemporary art practice.'
Nell Frizzell, The Guardian

'It was a very strong, precise and beautiful confluence of randomness; the detritus was fascinating and you left shocked by the waste, and the elegant order, in equal measure.'
Thomas Woodham Smith, Huffington Post

'...a bold attempt to engage the British public in the management of their own waste. [...] enlightening (if slightly smelly) experience.'
Adam Forest, The Big Issue

'...shows us that trash can be treasure - and vice versa.'
Mike Doherty, National Post Canada

Anoosh Chakelian, New Statesman

'...there is value and beauty in the waste we produce: rubbish really shouldn't be a dirty word.'
Sara O'Reilly, Time Out