Slate on the Problems Preserving Plastic Art

Slate had an interesting article back in July 2009 on the problems faced by museums trying to preserve plastic art and artifacts,

The problem of preserving plastics isn’t limited to highbrow art. Not long after The Graduate debuted, manufacturers around the world began to incorporate synthetic polymers into their goods. As plastics revolutionized the making of furniture, toys, health care products, and electronics, museums of industry, design, and medicine began snapping up plastic objects that were either historic (the first artificial heart) or culturally important (Barbie dolls). Plastics hold up well for the decade or so during which a consumer uses most products. But museums, unlike consumers, are in it for the long haul, and when plastics crash, they crash precipitously. As a result, museums of all sorts have been having Gabo moments in the past decade.

The casualty list is appalling: Antique plastic dolls at the National Museum of Denmark have begun to peel and flake; classic furniture at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London might as well have been left out in the sun for years; the first-ever plastic toothbrush, at the Smithsonian, is collapsing into a pile of crumbs; etc. A whole generation of irreplaceable items that are as representative of our culture as pottery or flintheads were of ancient ones are dying—and many people charged with their care have no idea how to stop further damage.

And, for the most part, Slate says there isn’t really much of a solution. Plastics simply don’t last as long as other compounds and there are a whole host of challenges they face, including mold and bacteria that have evolved to eat plastic!

So I guess my action figure collection won’t likely make it to the next century. Maybe the solution will be instead of buying the actual plastic object, buying the plans to replicate it on something like MakerBot and then simply print a new one as the old one begins to degrade. Store data, not atoms.

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