Salon.com has an interesting feature today about museums struggling to preserve plastic art objects that are starting to fall apart as they age. Early polymers including cellulose acetate, cellulose nitrate, PVC and polyurethanes are all featured, and curators are struggling with ways to keep important objects from flaking, discoloring, or simply falling apart.
As of today, most chemical damage to plastics is irreversible, and conservators focus less on rehabilitation than simple maintenance. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum recently asked the Museum Conservation Institute to help preserve a high-altitude flight suit in its collection. The suit had belonged to the one-eyed aviation pioneer Wiley Post. The leather straps and cotton garments in Post's suit look fine, if a little dingy. But his plastic gloves look like the shriveled hand of a mummy. Conservation scientists said even light handling of the gloves would cause them to crack and crumble, and they admitted they can do little but put the suit in deep-freeze storage and take pictures for posterity. One branch of the art industry that has taken a particular interest in the question of how to preserve plastics is insurers, since they will have to pick up the tab for damaged goods. Insurance agencies fund much of the research into preserving plastic art, a fledgling science aching for a breakthrough. One company, AXA Art Insurance, publishes a book with the dour title Plastic Art: A Precarious Success Story, and has held numerous training sessions to teach curators the best-known methods of staving off decay (and, it hopes, to generate new ideas on how to reverse it). In a warning to museums snapping up the work of some of today's hottest artists, the AXA book states that plastic-heavy pieces by Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, and Jeff Koons will be "difficult, costly, and nerve-racking to preserve."The story notes that in the future, museums may be reluctant to display or share plastic holdings, and curators worry about this generation of artists using biodegradable plastics that won't stand up to years of display. It's interesting how museum curators are struggling to preserve plastics, while others -- concerned about issues like marine debris and litter -- are trying to deal with issues created by plastics' durability.