Plastics Denial Syndrome

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. 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...

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Could Spacesuits Embark On A Mission To Save Modern Art?

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...

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