Disposable? Rubbish and Us: The British Museum’s Latest Room 3 Exhibition

Written by George Peckham, ITP Assistant

This week I had the chance to attend a talk given by the curators of the British Museum’s latest Room 3 exhibition: Disposable? Rubbish and Us.

With just a small number of objects, this exhibition explores the historical creation of single-use objects and the devastating global impact of plastic pollution.

Two objects which are given particular focus are two very different disposable cups. The first is a waxed paper cup made in the 1990s for Air India. The other is over 3,500-years-old and was made on the island of Crete by the Minoan people. These small clay cups, which were likely used once to serve wine at feasts, demonstrate that single-use products are not an invention of modern society.

Two single-use cups created over 3,500 years apart!

However, as the exhibition highlights, the levels of waste are now at unprecedented levels. 316 billion paper cups are made globally each year. Around 630,000 are used at the British Museum every year.

What I found most interesting from the curators’ talk was how they attempted to put their exhibition’s message of reducing waste into practice. Over 90% of the materials used to build the exhibition displays were recycled from last year’s Manga exhibition. Museums must also do their part to reduce waste.

The ITP considered environment issues in 2019. For the Summer Programme’s Museum Project Day, we asked the ITP fellows to visit other London-based museums and consider how certain exhibitions reflected themes of environment and sustainability.

Last year’s MA conference in Brighton focused on Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World. Sessions and workshops here examined museums’ roles in a changing world and in addressing challenging issues being faced globally, including climate change.