A disposable cup – made around 3,500 years ago – is the centrepiece of a new display at the British Museum which looks at what we can learn from items that people throw away. The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? rubbish and us (19 December 2019 – 23 February 2020) will highlight 4 varied examples of objects that were all at some point discarded as ‘rubbish’ but have since been acquired by the Museum because of their historical or social significance.

The ancient disposable cup was made on the island of Crete during the Minoan period, around 1700-1600 BC. The Minoans were one of the first advanced civilisations in Europe, and they mass produced these handle-less clay cups – known as conical cups due to their shape - over centuries. Thousands of them have been discovered in high concentrations in archaeological sites across the island, demonstrating that these cups were often deliberately discarded in large numbers in one go, and likely after one-time use serving wine at feasts.

The Minoan cup will be shown alongside a more familiar example: a waxed paper cup that was made in the early 1990s for serving hot drinks on flights and at airports. It was commissioned by Air India and made in Finland. Both cups speak of wealth and power, highlighting how valuable resources and labour have often been used throughout history to make objects that would only be used once.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? rubbish and us hopes to make visitors think about our relationship with rubbish. All societies throughout history have produced waste and it is an unavoidable by-product of being human. But today, the way we make, use and dispose of material has changed dramatically, including the mass production of non-biodegradable plastics reaching unprecedented levels. This display highlights that while we can learn about the past through rubbish, today’s scale of discarded material is having a devastating impact and its effects are being felt worldwide.

The global scale of the problem is demonstrated through a contemporary yellow fishing basket on show, which is made from plastic wrapping that washed up on a beach in Guam in in the Pacific Ocean. The maker, Anthony Guerrero, intended this work in part to be a political statement, commenting on the level of plastic pollution in his local area. But Guerrero’s basket also makes us consider the difficulty in finding solutions. Fishing baskets like this have been used in Guam for centuries, originally woven from coconut leaves. Here, using discarded plastic is a creative and practical re-purposing of waste material. However, as most of the plastic in the Pacific is generated by the international fishing, food transportation and construction industries rather than locally, this object is a reminder that individual responses alone cannot alleviate the problem.

The display concludes with a range of contemporary photographs from across the Pacific, which show the extent of the plastic problem and what local initiatives are doing to help tackle the issue. The photography was sourced by a community of people working in, and connected to, Pacific Island nations who were working in consultation with the Museum to help bring a personal and nuanced understanding of the crisis.

Museums too must play their part in reducing waste. The British Museum is striving to lessen its environmental impact, with all waste being either recycled or burned and converted to electricity. The Museum is also committed to more sustainable exhibition development, and over 90% of the display materials in Disposable? rubbish and us (such as plinths and cases) have been repurposed and recycled from the British Museum’s Manga exhibition.

Julia Farley, co-curator of The Asahi Shimbun Displays Disposable? rubbish and us said: “People may be very surprised to know that disposable, single-use cups are not the invention of our modern consumerist society, but in fact can be traced back thousands of years. Three and a half thousand years ago, the Minoans were using them for a very similar reason to us today: to serve drinks at parties. The only difference is the material. With ceramics being a higher status material to us now, it seems strange to throw them away after just one use. But like plastic today, clay was readily available, cheap to acquire, easy to mould. But also like plastic, clay stays in the ground for many, many years.”

Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum said: “People have always made and then disposed of objects. But becoming rubbish is not necessarily the end of an object’s life; some items get recycled, some repurposed, and in a few very rare cases, some are reborn as windows to the past after being rediscovered hundreds of years after being thrown away. We hope that this display will make people think about their relationship with rubbish, then, now and in the future.”