Last month I went to Paris. I didn’t go to do research at the Louvre, or to attend a special exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, I went to the POPArt Conference, an international symposium on the conservation of plastic materials. The conference was the culmination of a European Union funded initiative, and like Contemporary Art: Who Cares?, it is another example of the way that European governments are supporting the conservation of contemporary cultural heritage in a way that the U.S. government does not. The goal of POPArt was to improve the conservation of plastic objects in European museums and to establish recommended practices for exhibiting, cleaning, and restoring these artifacts .
When people think about plastics, their minds don’t typically jump to museum collections. But in reality museums are filled with plastic artifacts and artworks made with plastic components. Artists and designers choose them for their working properties and aesthetic qualities that cannot be achieved with other materials. Some works in the IMA’s collection that are made with plastics include Tara Donovan’s Untitled (Mylar), Valentine Typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass II and Perry King, and Rudi Gernreich’s wool and vinyl Dress. These are just a few examples and our holdings are only growing as we are rapidly acquiring many new objects in our Design Arts, Textile and Fashion Arts, and Contemporary Art departments.
These artworks are essential additions to our collection, because they are important to the history of art and design, but the materials present unique challenges for conservators like myself. There is a common perception that plastics last forever, but this is simply untrue. They do last longer than other packaging materials that go into landfills, like paper and cardboard. But in a museum environment, exposed to light and oxygen, plastics deteriorate faster than almost any other material from which artworks are made.
Until recently, relatively little has been known about how plastics degrade and how they should be safely exhibited, stored, cleaned and repaired, whereas we have had centuries to understand how to care for more traditional materials like wood, metals, paint, and paper.
Because of this need in the conservation field, the POPArt conference brought together international experts on the conservation of plastics to share their knowledge with one another. Many of the lectures and workshops focused on ways of identifying plastics, because this information is not always known when museum objects are collected.
Knowing the exact polymer an object is made from is essential for determining how to properly display, store and treat plastic artworks, because different types of plastics present different challenges. Depending on the type of plastic an object is made from, over time it may become brittle or lose its rigidity, turn yellow or fade, exude acids and/or sticky materials, and crack and/or deform. Some plastics even emit harmful substances that can speed the deterioration of other objects kept nearby.
Identification can be done by observational methods, or more reliably using analytical instrumentation. As part of one of the workshops, I came away with a small kit of identified samples of different types of plastics. These can be used as reference materials for identification and even testing conservation treatment methods.
Most of the POPArt lectures that focused on treatment were about cleaning, because this is the most common type of treatment needed by artworks made from plastics. owever, surface cleaning is not as straightforward as it may sound. Many plastics are very sensitive to solvents and even water, especially when deterioration has already begun. An inappropriate conservation treatment can result in irreversible damage and speed deterioration. For this reason, many different cleaning techniques on many different plastic types were tested and the results of these tests were shared.
All of the work discussed at POPArt contributes to the establishment of reliable protocol for prolonging the lives of plastic objects. Despite all of this good work, the conference made it very clear that more work, especially on practical conservation treatment of plastics, is still needed.