Plastics may last forever, but not in the condition conservators demand for museums and cultural displays.
Colors fade, resins degrade and binders break down.
So in 2020, the University of Cambridge Museums planned an in-person conference representing conservation methods used worldwide to share best practices on how to conserve art and other items of cultural importance.
But COVID-19 interfered with those plans and the event never took place. In 2023, however, the Leibniz Association of Research Museums in Germany reached out to organizers in Cambridge to recreate the content of the "Plastics in Peril: Focus on Conservation of Polymeric Materials in Cultural Heritage" in an online format.
Thirteen papers originally set to be presented at the May 2020 event have now been published, covering topics such as preserving flexible plastics in art installations, analyzing the materials used in robotic prototypes and even saving the soccer shoes of 1970s stars Pele and George Best. The Guardian has a story on the work by Kayleigh Spring and her team at Conservation and Museum Advisory Service — whose paper is part of the "Plastics in Peril" project — to save shoes whose polyurethane had degraded so badly they could barely be handled.
The increased use of plastics in everyday items means there's an increased chance those items, such as shoes, may want to be saved as a cultural artifact, Spring said. That means curators need to know how to handle plastics just as they would bronze, ceramic or wood.
"All of these plastics in our collections are getting older, and we're starting to see issues with them, so it's almost having to learn as we go along," Spring told The Guardian.