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2 minutes to read Posted on Tuesday February 21, 2023

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Blandine Smilansky

Blandine Smilansky

Head of Communications and Partnerships , House of European History Project Team, European Parliament

Throwaway - how museums are working together to explore Europe’s waste issue

The Throwaway online platform, developed collaboratively by ten European museums and launched on 18 February 2023, explores the history of rubbish in Europe from a transnational and transdisciplinary perspective. Blandine Smilansky from the House of European History tells us all about it.

A refuse collector stood on a cart
Roskatynnyreiden tyhjennystä jäteauton lavalle Punavuoressa
Heinonen, Eino
Helsingin kaupunginmuseo

Why this topic? Why a digital platform?

Rubbish has become a central issue of our time, but it’s a difficult one - it concerns what we dispose of and do not want to look at anymore. When the House of European History started developing our exhibition project about the history of waste - titled ‘Throwaway - the history of a modern crisis’, we decided it was an opportunity to fulfil ’s our mission as a European museum, working in a truly transnational fashion with fellow museums across the continent. 

We also believed that museums, as places of conservation that connect objects and stories across time, have a responsibility to address the topic of waste. The response we received from the organisations we contacted showed that many others shared our conviction. 

As a concrete result of our collaboration, we chose to develop a web platform accessible in several languages, to have a Europe-wide outreach. This content-driven online environment offers a wealth of resources in various formats, all developed by the partners themselves. It is a unique opportunity for all partner organisations to create intersections and connections between their collections and their local environments. And hopefully, to broaden their audience’s horizons.

What does this digital platform have to offer? 

Rather than an online equivalent to the House of European History’s exhibition in Brussels, the platform is a gateway for people to discover objects, places and people across Europe and their relations across countries, disciplines and periods. It provides a kaleidoscopic view of the significance of our rubbish in the past and today. 

Visitors can discover over 60 digitised objects from the participating museums’ collections.  Each object tells a story through photos and texts, making the visitor reflect on everything around us – are they disposable and valueless, or rather transitory and reusable? Rubbish or resource? 

The platform also invites people to reflect on global issues by learning about local realities and communities related to waste, through around 40 short videos filmed in the museums’ surroundings or premises. Audiovisuals show stories as diverse as the reconstruction of a house using a zero-waste approach, the management of the rubbish resulting from floods, and an interview with a member of one of the museum’s cleaning staff.

To engage online visitors in a playful way as well, we developed a game on ‘defining rubbish’, something more complex than it seems, using definitions we gathered from professionals working in the fields of waste collection, reuse and reduction in Brussels.  

Moreover, the online platform will host blogposts, photo reportages, live-streamed events and podcasts on a variety of activities and happenings around the issue of waste taking place throughout 2023. 

Map of partner museums
Map of partner museums. Permission granted for Europeana reuse .
House of European History
Map of partner museums

How did we work together?

The House of European History has played a central role as initiator and coordinator of the initiative. From the outset and throughout the process, it has proved important to provide clear and reliable information to our partners on the why, what and how of our joint project. This has been necessary for them to identify what their contribution can be, and to be able to mobilise their broader museum team. From the beginning, our aim has been to ‘Europeanise’ the discourse on a given historical topic, waste in this case. We conceived this partnership as part of a bigger museum-wide project that allows us to draw human and financial resources from the House of European History and to bring in design and production expertise from a contractor. 

It has also been crucial to build on the partner museums’ own initiatives and priorities. Initially we had to convince the museums we approached that their active participation in the partnership was not only worthwhile but also feasible despite their other engagements and sometimes scarce human resources. Together, we were able to identify how participating in the consortium was actually a way for them to deepen and enrich some of their on-going or upcoming work.

What do we achieve through this initiative?

Together, as museums, are we becoming better equipped to address the topic of waste and its history in Europe? Certainly! Are we being successful in achieving the goals we set for this partnership? We hope so! It is encouraging to see how our German partner, the Museum of European Cultures, decided to enrich its own exhibition project on menstrual waste and the environment with expertise and content coming from other European countries; to learn that the colleagues from the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art in Vienna want to organise a trip to another partner museum, the Slovenian Museum of Recent History Celje, for their Museum Association members; to hear that thanks to the project our Italian partner, the Ettore Guatelli Museum, has started to collaborate with a neighbouring centre to promote/undertake creative recycling. And these are just a few examples. 

Of course, it is too early to evaluate the project. What is certain is that this collaborative journey is proving to be a unique exercise in gathering collective knowledge that allows us to connect as people, to reflect as a group, and to act in a concerted way. In doing so, we are contributing to providing a meaningful answer to the question we have been asking throughout this project on the history of waste: what does Europe’s trash tell us about its past, its present, and its future?

Explore our platform online and do not hesitate to give us feedback!