A Different Plastic Problem: The Preservation of History

In today’s world, when we think of a problem with plastic, we always contemplate pollution, waste, and plastic strewn oceans causing difficulties for marine life. The thought is always, how can we get rid of the plastic or repurpose it into something else, like a pair of shoes. One issue that the average person does not contemplate, but which is at the forefront of the minds of conservators is, how do we preserve items of our cultural history that are made of plastics?

A fascinating piece in the New York Times looks at the historical preservation implications of creating materials from plastic. Everyday items can help paint a picture about life during a certain time period. Metal, stone, and ceramic have helped tell the story of times that came before us and remain hundreds or thousands of years later. Unfortunately, plastics are disintegrating before our eyes and conservators are having to develop ways to preserve artifacts of everyday life for posterity.

One of the main issues for conservators is first determining what the item is made from. Plastic is a nonspecific term that means something is moldable. In order to discover how to preserve something that is plastic, the conservators need to discover what polymers the item is made from and what additives are included. Early plastics were made from natural polymers like cellulose, while today’s plastics are generally synthetic. Much of the preservation work involves slowing down the aging process, whether it be by controlling the temperature, keeping an item out of oxygen, or eliminating UV rays. Controlling for these conditions may mean building special display cases to ensure stable conditions.

One of the pieces discussed in the article is the spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong when he went to the moon. The suit is made of 21 layers of different plastics including neoprene, nylon, Mylar, and Teflon. The neoprene layer, although buried within other layers is cause for concern since it will harden with age and make the suit brittle. To protect the spacesuit, the Air and Space Museum took it off display in January 2006 in order to slow the degradation process since other spacesuits with the neoprene layer shattered. The chief conservator at the museum is working to build a special display case for the spacesuit that will store it at 63 Fahrenheit, 30% humidity, and with filters to remove contaminants.

XiaoZhi Lim, When Plastics perish: New York Times, Aug. 28, 2018, D1.

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