In July 2012 readers of the New York Times were introduced to Nelson Molina, a 58 year-old sanitation worker who curates a gallery on 99th Street in Manhattan. A gallery of garbage. The venue for Molina’s “Treasure in the Trash” is the second floor of a Sanitation Department garage and, as his title suggests, each piece in the extensive collection—he estimated close to 1,000 pieces at the time Elizabeth Harris wrote the article—was retrieved from the city’s refuse during sanitation workers’ daily tours of the city. Harris described Molina’s collection (exhibit? archive?) to her readers:
Over here is a portrait of a grumpy-looking Winston Churchill, and over there, a very nice pastel copy of Henri Matisse’s “Woman With a Hat.” There are photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge; landscapes done in watercolor; ancient tricycles and toy trucks; and four electric guitars, one without pickups, another without strings, arranged around a Michael Jackson poster and gold-sequined tie. There is even a Master of Business Administration diploma from Harvard hanging by a window.
When asked why he not only culled but collected, catalogued, and curated New Yorkers’ discarded stuff, Molina explained that “I love collecting stuff, I love hanging stuff and I love to decorate. . . . It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it’s cool, I can hang it up and I’ve got a place for it.”
In the months since completing my doctoral dissertation I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to surmount the central methodological dilemma of material culture analysis: how do I get from this object to the person who touched it, saw it, neglected it, worshiped it, who maybe thought it was meaningful or maybe didn’t think much about it at all? How do I discern humor, irony, subterfuge, or delight in the material fragments of the past? What are the ethical responsibilities of deploying these fragments as historical evidence?
There are a lot of questions.
When I came across Harris’s article last summer I was giddy with excitement. I posted it to Facebook. There was talk of a conference panel on religion and trash (I clearly have wonderfully supportive colleagues). “This is it!,” I remember myself thinking, “This is the problem. This is my problem. Our problem.” I have fragments of peoples’ lives—photographs, primarily. Artifacts that they or their descendants discarded. Shards of lives that were salvaged by collectors or libraries or pickers or historians—by the dumpster divers of American cultural history.
The conference panel hasn’t sprouted wings but I am teaching a graduate seminar on material culture studies of American religion this semester where these dilemmas are addressed on a weekly basis. Perhaps indicative of my tortured love affair with material culture was the original title to the course: “Holy Crap!” (I decided that this title was probably a safer bet for post-tenure profs.) Far from a flippant dismissal of the integrity of material culture analysis, the title was intended to register both the ambivalence of “stuff” that continues to haunt the study of religion as well as the spine-tingling “aha!” moment that objects so often invoke in the course of research (well, perhaps not as often as we might prefer). Our seminar has to maintain a speedy clip to keep up with the increasingly robust conversation surrounding material culture studies from the past couple of decades but the students are extremely bright and discussions have yet to descend into a Portlandia-esque miasma of references. Unlike Molina, we are invested in pushing beyond the “I love collecting” stage of historical inquiry to a mode of analysis wherein artifacts are recognized as cultural generators rather than merely ciphers of ideas or, still troublingly common, “belief” (you can sneak into our conversation on Twitter: @rel6498fsu).
What I love most about the sanitation museum is that it makes the happenstance of material artifacts explicit. Religion is not garbage. But historical artifacts are not unlike the fragments of people’s lives that Molina has so carefully rescued. (Actually, archaeologists and papyrologists have found a great deal of religion in garbage.) Surely we should move beyond the “as long as it’s cool . . . I’ve got a place for it” standard that drives Molina's exhibit. But it’s not a bad place to start.