Plastics Denial Syndrome

Dutch artist Madeleine Berkhemer uses stockings in her art, which are made of nylon and spandex. Photo Courtesy of Berkhemer.

Sometime during the 1960s, artists en masse began using plastics to make art–a trend that continues today.

The problem is that many plastic polymers have a shelf life of just a decade or so, after which they begin to crumble or crack. Consider an old rubber band or a plastic bottle left out in the sun.

And just as bisphenol A leaches out of baby bottles and into the surrounding liquid, many of the components of plastic-based art seep out of the work, causing all sorts of unpleasant consequences (details below).

Furthermore, the short lifespan of plastic art is at odds with the fact that most museums want to buy art that lasts centuries or at least decades… not years.

Yet in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s, just as plastic sculptures and designer furniture were pouring in to museum and gallery collections, staff conservators were collectively sticking their heads in the sand about the inherent vulnerability of these objects… I mean, even though plastics have short lifespans, there are ways to extend them. But conservators weren’t acknowledging that plastics were problematic.

It’s come to be known as “the plastics denial syndrome” and thankfully it’s now over, says Yvonne Shashoua, a conservation scientist at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Shashoua features heavily in an article I just wrote about how plastics are a serious problem child for museum staff and what can be done to improve some pretty impressive bad behavior.

Yvonne Shashoua cares for a 1970s crash test dummy that is literally weeping plasticizer. Photo Courtesy of Shashoua.

Case in point: the phthalate plasticizer added to make PVC (polyvinyl chloride) maleable has a tendency to leach out, so much so that small pools of the plasticizer collect in and around the art. These plasticizer puddles are not precisely aesthetically pleasing, they attract dust and actually the loss of the plasticizer destabilizes the plastic making it vulnerable to cracking.

Then there’s this more nepharious example: Acidic gases percolate away from plastic objects made of cellulose acetate and then corrode nearby metals and textiles. For this reason conservators call cellulose acetate “the malignant plastic.”

Cases like these forced conservators to take the degradation of plastics seriously. Check out the longer article to find out what museum staff are now doing to keep plastic art and artifacts alive and as well-behaved as possible.

Author: Sarah Everts

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5 Comments

  1. Funny how the short life of plastics seen here completely contradicts the battle cry of some environmentalists that “Plastics are Forever”.

  2. Fascinating to read about such an important consideration for museums as well as artists. Thanks!

  3. @John: You bring up an interesting point. I think both art conservators and environmentalists are accurate but they are just coming at the issue from different perspectives. Plastics certainly don’t breakdown quickly into compost… yet they do breakdown into unusable objects. That plastic bottle left out in the sun can’t be reused, but it’s also not about to turn into soil any time soon. Plastic museum objects can quickly become miserable-looking but they are also not going to immediately turn into dust.

  4. The links to your longer article are no longer valid. Please let me know where I can find it. Searching for “plastic” on the ACS site turned up this blog post but not the original article.