Much concern is expressed about the immortality and ubiquity of plastic. Somewhere in the oceans is a giant floating glob of plastic debris. Around the third world plastic bottles, bags and bins litter the landscape. And it’s not going away. But artists, not to be perturbed by ordinary thinking, looked at plastic and thought – artistic medium. Now it turns out plastic isn’t durable like marble – especially in the case of art.
Museums around the world are in a race with scientists to save the art done in plastic. From the Smithsonian to the Museum of Modern Art to toy museums with historically significant dolls, the plastic is becoming undone. Who knew Barbie could be on the endangered species list? Decades ago museum curators noticed foul odors emanating from the art. Then came flaking and peeling. Then plastic eating molds and bacteria evolved. Then came Plexiglass eating beetles. A cautionary tale for owners of Michael Jackson’s sequined gloves. Imagine a sequin eating insect finding those.
While parents imagine that plastic toys last forever, what really happens is that kids outgrow the toys and it just seems they’re around forever. In museums where the works are expected to last forever, it’s a struggle for them to preserve plastic pieces. Even in controlled display cases, the chemicals evaporate then cause the equivalent of acid rain on nearby objects, leading scientists and curators to tear their hair out. Long ago, it was the chemicals in plastic film that caused movie theaters to go up in flames.
In historical museums, the best solution is digital. Forget about trying to save say, old flight suits with plastic gloves and just take digital photographs for eternity. And while it seems like a good idea for historical museums, it isn’t clear how the works of artists such as Jeff Koons would fare if the public could only view them as digital photographs or video rather than as sculptures. Let’s hope the scientists stay ahead in this game.
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