When I started working on a feature story in this week’s issue about what Smithsonian museum conservators are doing to prevent moon-race NASA spacesuits from totally falling apart, I really didn’t expect to find a connection to modern art.
First, about the spacesuits: They were worn in the 1960s and 1970s by NASA astronauts such as Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their spacewalks and on the moon. After valiantly protecting the astronauts, these outfits have since lost some serious oomph: Some suits are collapsing under their own 65-pound weight, there’s fungi growing in the nylon fabric and leftover astronaut sweat is corroding metal components—just a few amongst many ailments.
Lisa Young, the conservator in charge of the moon-race suits at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., says that the most problematic parts are the rubber bladders used to keep the air pressure inside the suit comfortable for the astronauts. These rubber components used to be stretchy and malleable but now they’ve become hard, turned orange and are starting to crack. This makes sense: Imagine trying to use a rubber band purchased 50 years ago. It would crumble in your hand as you stretched it.
But 50 years ago, artists were also incorporating rubber (typically listed as latex in museum labels) in all sorts of sculptures. Lo and behold, these rubber sculptures are also turning orange and brittle. For example, at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery, just down the street from the National Air and Space Museum, rubber components of the Fishman sculpture made in 1969 by the Brooklyn artist Paul Thek are both turning orange and have cracked in several places, says Hirshhorn conservator Kate Moomaw.
What’s happening is that the polymers in rubber are sensitive to oxygen. With time, oxygen exposure leads to the creation of more chemical connections between the polymer molecules in the rubber–making the material more rigid. These new chemical connections also give the rubber an orange tint.
The question is what to do about it. Obviously keeping rubber artwork in a zero oxygen environment is one option. But conservators are also looking for ways to heal rubber that is already so damaged and fragile that moving the artwork around or to another museum could cause irreparable cracking. In fact, Smithsonian scientists are so concerned about this that they want to start a working group across all the institute’s museums and galleries to address rubber and plastic degradation in their collections.
And here’s where those space suits might make a difference. Before embarking on a restoration or conservation project on a valuable piece of rubber-containing artwork, museum scientists practice on rubber bands they’ve artificially aged with heat and light–which they hope accurately mimics the felonies of time. (Here is what Moomaw and her colleagues did for the Fishman sculpture. Most museums–and people in their right minds–don’t have extensive collections of naturally aged rubber bands which would be the ideal test material.)
With 270 spacesuits in the NASM collection, many of which are training suits or prototypes that never went into space, Young says that “sometimes the rubber from our suits has become detached. So we have baggies full of crumbs that we’ve collected and that we of course don’t want to throw away.” But she’s willing to share some of these naturally-degraded rubber crumbs with conservators who need samples on which to try out restoration solutions before they execute them on valuable artwork.
It could be a little space age help for modern art.
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