New Interactive “Scrap Yard” Exhibit Teaches Kids About Recycling

Jewish Museum Milwaukee’s (JMM) newest exhibit, Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling, opened Oct. 8. and runs through the end of January.

Scrap Yard tells the story of scrap recycling, an industry that turns waste into raw materials. The industry has propelled American industry and innovation, and has given millions of people a livelihood and a community.

The exhibit is especially family-friendly, including a number of interactive displays to engage people of all ages.

Visitors can find out their weight-based value in scrap; test the magnetism of a variety of everyday objects; pull a lever to figure out the strength required to make a bale of plastic water bottles; and listen to scrap industry songs and oral history interviews.

Additional displays show how common objects are reused, including a motorcycle broken down into its recyclable parts.

This groundbreaking national traveling show is accompanied by a local component telling the stories of Wisconsin people and companies.

The exhibit features over 300 objects and media pieces, along with a number of interactive displays that make the visitor feel like they’re walking through a giant scrap yard. 

“Scrap entrepreneurs were the originators of what we now call recycling,” said Molly Dubin, JMM curator. “Hard working individuals and families who were once seen as junk peddlers grew to become the global businesses that invented solutions to what we do as a society with trash.”

For over 200 years, discarded metals, rags, paper and animal hides have provided economic opportunities for immigrants and native-born Americans who collected, stored, brokered and sold them.

The work was grueling, scrappers were stigmatized, and the industry was criticized as a source of social and environmental ills. Still, generations of individuals and families gravitated toward the work—including many Jewish scrappers, who made up 70 to 90 percent of the industry for at least half of the 20th century.  

In addition to the national perspective, the JMM exhibit explores Wisconsin’s history in the industry naming nearly 400 local companies, many of them multiple generation family-owned businesses. A scrapbook in the exhibit allows visitors to learn more about Wisconsin scrap stories.

“Our state has a very rich scrap history,” said Dubin. “In Wisconsin and across the industrial Midwest, scrap dealers became pillars of Jewish communities large and small, quickly dominating the industry.”

A variety of programs supplement the exhibit. Highlights include:

  • America Recycles DayMonday, Nov. 15
    Visitors receive free admission to commemorate the national holiday. JMM will also offer a $2 discount if visitors bring an electronic for recycling on Oct. 31 or textiles on Nov. 17.
  • Junkyard Planet with Best-Selling Author Adam MinterThursday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m.
    This virtual program features Adam Minter, the world’s best-selling chronicler of the global scrap industry. Minter takes participants on a journey from the small family scrap yard where he grew up, to massive recycling operations around the globe.
  • Conversation Startersmonthly conversations with industry leaders
    October: WasteCap Executive Director, Daniel Hartsig, reducing waste in the building industry and food waste
    November: Recycling Connections Executive Director, Karin Sieg, the 40-year evolution of residential recycling
    December: TBD
    January: Tetrapak Sustainability Director, Jason Pelz, how businesses approach environmental practice

Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling was created by the Jewish Museum of Maryland and is accompanied by a Wisconsin-focused section curated by Jewish Museum Milwaukee. Ticket information, a full list of programming and more information is available at

Major support for the exhibit and related programming comes from Alter Trading Corporation with support from the Brico Fund,  Mellowes Family & Charter Manufacturing Company, and WI Humanities. Connect with Jewish Museum Milwaukee on Facebook and Instagram @JewishMuseumMilwaukee and on Twitter @JewishMuseumMKE.

About the Jewish Museum Milwaukee 

The Jewish Museum Milwaukee is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history of the Jewish people in southeastern Wisconsin and celebrating the continuum of Jewish heritage and culture. The history of American Jews is rooted in thousands of years of searching for freedom and equality. The museum builds bridges between diverse groups of people through shared difficult histories and uses historical events and art to explore contemporary topics.

Funded in part by a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wisconsin Humanities strengthens the roots of community life through educational and cultural programs that inspire civic participation and individual imagination.

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