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These Cultural Treasures Are Made of Plastic. Now They’re Falling Apart.

August 28, 2018
XiaoZhi Lim, The New York Times

The custodians of Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit at the National Air and Space Museum saw it coming. A marvel of human engineering, the suit is made of 21 layers of various plastics: nylon, neoprene, Mylar, Dacron, Kapton and Teflon.

The rubbery neoprene layer would pose the biggest problem. Although invisible, buried deep between the other layers, the suit’s caretakers knew the neoprene would harden and become brittle with age, eventually making the suit stiff as a board. In January 2006, the Armstrong suit, a national treasure, was taken off display and stored to slow the degradation.

Of an estimated 8,300 million metric tons of plastic produced to date, roughly 60 percent is floating in the oceans or stuffed in landfills. Most of us want that plastic to disappear. But in museums, where objects are meant to last forever, plastics are failing the test of time.

“It breaks your heart,” said Malcolm Collum, chief conservator at the museum. The Armstrong suit’s deterioration was arrested in time. But in other spacesuits that are pieces of astronautical history, the neoprene became so brittle that it shattered into little pieces inside the layers, their rattling a brutal reminder of material failure.

Art is not spared either, as Georgina Rayner, a conservation scientist at Harvard Art Museums, showed at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting in Boston this month.

Claes Oldenburg’s “False Food Selection,” a wooden box containing plastic models of foods like eggs and bacon, a banana and an oatmeal cookie, now appears to be rotting. The egg whites are yellowing, while the banana has completely deflated.

In museums, the problem is becoming more apparent, Dr. Rayner said in an interview: “Plastics are reaching the end of their lifetimes kind of now.”

Of all materials, plastics are proving to be one of the most challenging for conservators. “I find plastics very frustrating,” said Mr. Collum. Because of the material’s unpredictability and the huge variation in forms of deterioration, he said, “it’s just a completely different world.”

“We have a very short history, in comparison to other materials, in understanding how long those materials last,” said Hugh Shockey, lead conservator at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

Metal, stone, ceramic and paper have survived thousands of years, while plastics have existed for a little over 150 years. In that short time, however, they have risen to dominate the materials we use today. And plastics increasingly appear in art and artifacts nominated for preservation.

A walk through various Smithsonian Institution museums makes that clear. There’s the art, of course: acrylic paintings, a polyester parabolic lens with a mirror-like surface, a fiberglass sculpture of a middle-aged woman poised to dig into a melting banana split.

There are the triumphs of human ingenuity: the first artificial heart, Ella Fitzgerald’s LPs, the Apple I computer, a D-Tag device that helped researchers track and save endangered right whales.

And there are the mundane objects, the documentation of human life: an electric can opener, a pink Princess rotary telephone, Tupperware, a six-by-eight array of coffee cup lids, all with different designs.

“You have these objects in any museum collection, especially historic objects — they take you back to a time. But holding that moment in time in a material sense is tough,” said Odile Madden, a plastics conservation scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles.

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