Sean Connaughty examines the trash found in Lake Hiawatha for art and ecology


When archaeologists go on a dig, one of the most useful things they can discover is a "midden," a.k.a. a refuse heap where a society dumped their everyday waste items. From the objects left behind by ancient cultures, scientists can learn a lot about how that group of people functioned. In a new exhibition put together by artist Sean Connaughty, Lake Hiawatha is framed as one of Minneapolis’ own dumping grounds, a place where, hundreds of years from now, archaeologists will have a heyday extrapolating information about our diets and behaviors.

Snack wrappers, cigarillo tips, plastic bottles, and lots and lots of straws are just some of the junk that Connaughty has found in Lake Hiawatha. He regularly discovers syringes, condoms, and diapers. Once he even found a sealed bottle of rubella vaccine and a beautifully hand-crafted miniature birch bark canoe. These are the remnants that we’ve left behind. Connaughty is going to be displaying these items at Sandbox Theatre this Friday as part of an archaeological midden survey.

Connaughty lives near the lake, and had been preparing to install a different art project there when he realized the extent of the garbage.  

“I had always noticed the trash, but once I started thinking about working in the lake I really noticed how terrible it was,” Connaughty says. “I decided, 'Well, I’m going to start cleaning this up,' but it just kept coming and coming and coming. That eventually led to my personal discovery that the trash was coming from the storm sewer egress right there on the north side of the lake.”

Connaughty conducted a test where he took a ball he found in the lake and wrote his address on it. He put it in the gutter in front of his house, and found it in the lake two weeks later. “That was confirmation for me,” he says.

From there, he began a conversation on his neighborhood internet forum through E-democracy, and acquired a map of the storm sewer system that drains to Lake Hiawatha, which stretches as far as Lake Street and Chicago Avenue.



“This huge area of streets drains directly, without any mitigation, right into the lake,” Connaughty says.

While other lakes in the city have mitigation, Lake Hiawatha does not. “This has been an ongoing problem,” he says. “And nobody has addressed it yet.”

For the exhibition, Connaughty has chosen not to manipulate any of the objects. Instead, he is displaying a 10-percent sample of the 70 bags of trash he’s collected.

“I’m looking at it as though we were archaeologists from the future studying this 'midden,'” Connaughty says. “This is our midden, unfortunately.”


"Lake Hiawatha (anthropocenic midden survey)"

Public reception Friday, September 11 from 5 to 9 p.m.

Sandbox Theatre

3109 E. 42nd. St., Minneapolis