German Democratic Plastics in Design: A Research Project on Material, Technology, and Conservation

The preservation of plastic objects poses a difficult challenge for conservators. Research into conservation of plastic objects, which only emerged in the 1990s, has been primarily focused on the identification of plastics, their degradation, and possible conservation and restoration methods. The extent to which industrial production processes and manufacturing technologies influence both the long-term properties of plastics and their aging has hardly been considered.

To date, conservation science has mainly focused on the influence of a plastic’s chemical profile on its degradation. Although the engineering sciences collect relevant data about the quality of new plastics and plastic objects, there are few interfaces between engineers, conservators, conservation scientists, and other scholars of cultural heritage.

Therefore, the German Democratic Plastics in Design project aims to close this gap and, through a systematic investigation and assessment of a temporally and geographically closed area (the German Democratic Republic), to clarify this connection, to identify and characterize materials, and to generate treatment recommendations from the collected data.


This collaborative research project specifically deals with the identification of production processes and technologies for plastic materials used in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) between 1949 and 1990 for the production of industrial design, their degradation, and possible preventive and active measures.

About the German Democratic Republic
Shortly after World War II, in 1946, the nation of Germany was split in two: the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) occupied by the United States, England, and France, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) under Soviet control.

West Germany and East Germany, as they were known in the United States, were rebuilt with different political ideologies and were economically and socially separated. This situation continued until 1989, when the Berlin Wall was taken down, followed by the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This project focuses on plastics from the GDR because: it was a closed cultural and economic system; and plastic production in the GDR was groundbreaking. Beginning in the 1950s, the GDR developed into one of the leading plastics-producing nations, which exported its products to almost all countries of the Eastern Bloc and even to the West via veiled channels.


Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles
Wende Museum, Los Angeles
TH Köln –Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences, Cologne
Die Neue Sammlung–The Design Museum, Munich


In this research project, two of the most important and comprehensive collections of plastic materials used in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) will be examined, measured and compared: the collections of the Wende Museum and Die Neue Sammlung–The Design Museum. Both of these museums have several thousand GDR plastic objects in their collections that overlap with everyday GDR culture. A systematic examination and assessment of these objects will take place at both museums and promises new findings regarding production history and material use and aging.

The Getty Conservation Institute will systematically and analytically accompany these investigations and provide significant support with our expertise in the field of plastic conservation and identification.

The fourth collaborative partner, the TH Köln–Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences, was involved in a research project on the subject of GDR plastics from 2009 to 2011 that researched and documented the socio-historical background of plastic production in the GDR.

In addition to the collaborative research activities, the project will include an experts meeting and a concluding specialist conference. Research results will be published internationally through the Getty Conservation Institute.

Also, among the project activities is the doctoral project: “Material Memory: How are Manufacturing, Usage and Aging Traces Related to the Respective Material Properties and What Can be Revealed by Reading the Tracks” (working title) by Helena Ernst sponsored by the Die Neue Sammlung–The Design Musem.

Project Team Members

Die Neue Sammlung–The Design Museum
Tim Bechthold, Head of Conservation
Josef Strasser, Chief Curator
Helena Ernst, Project Conservator/ PhD student

Getty Conservation Institute
Tom Learner, Head of Science
Odile Madden, Senior Scientist
Anna Laganà, Senior Research Specialist
Michael Doutre, Research Lab Associate

TH Köln–Cologne Institute of Conservation Sciences
Friederike Waentig, Professor, Conservation
Ester Ferreira, Professor, Conservation Science

Wende Museum
Joes Segal, Chief Curator
Christine Rank, Head of Collections
Janine Köppen, Project Conservator