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Seeing the unseen

Geographer contributes to Smithsonian cellphone exhibit


By Jeff Green

A major exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., has a strong research connection to Memorial.

Cellphone: Unseen Connections explores the technological, environmental and cultural impact of the devices. It includes more than 750 objects from around the world, as well as multimedia installations, an interactive group chat and a graphic novel.

Dr. Josh Lepawsky, professor, Department of Geography, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, played an important role in helping bring the first-of-its-kind exhibit to life, providing input on the design, narratives and the overall visitor experience.

A number of high-profile media outlets, including the Washington Post, National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News and CTV News, have prominently featured the exhibit, which runs for the next three years.

Personal connections

“The idea is to take one’s cellphone and if you explode it and follow those connections in all kinds of various directions that connect your personal device to actual people and places around the world,” said Dr. Lepawsky.

The exhibit highlights a variety of connections to cellphones including the mining industry and its workers, the fossil fuel extracted for plastics, information about software engineering and how apps are designed, cellphone disposal as a form of e-waste and cellphone repair.

“The designers have found ways to connect actual people living and working in places around the world to parts of the exhibit in Washington,” said Dr. Lepawsky.

‘Global view’

A member of the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists, Dr. Lepawsky is a global expert in the examination of electronic discards, or e-waste.

Last year, he and Dr. Max Liboiron, also from the Department of Geography, published Discard Studies: Wasting, Systems and Power and he wrote the critically acclaimed book, Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste, which was published in 2018.

Wearing white and green shirts, Dr. Josh Lepawsky displays a cell phone.
Cellphone: Unseen Connections explores the technological, environmental and cultural impact of the devices.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

Dr. Lepawsky’s initial connections to the new exhibit go back to 2014 when he received an invitation to speak at an event at the Smithsonian.

“At this point, I had been researching the international trade and traffic of electronic waste for a number of years,” Dr. Lepawsky told the Gazette during a recent interview.

“It was really the first time in this research program I’d been developing on e-waste that I could put all of the observation work that I had done, all of the quantitative work, all of the qualitative fieldwork and situate all that work within a kind of synoptic global view.”

After that initial workshop, Dr. Lepawsky was invited to be part of the Design Advisory Board for the Exhibition Planning Act for the museum in 2018.

“So again, it was a real treat to look at how a major museum exhibition comes together and the huge amounts of work that designers and curators and educators put in to make a world-class museum experience for visitors,” he said.

SSHRC support

Dr. Lepawsky credits early funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), dating back to 2007, for providing the foundation for his research interest in the area of e-waste.

“Eventually, that research deepened and expanded, and I was successful with new rounds of funding,” he said. “I really don’t think enough positive things can be said about the SSHRC funding and its support of those who are successful at it.”

More details about Cellphone: Unseen Connections can be found online.

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