Photo: Anna Flavin, GCI
The word plastic evokes mixed feelings, and over the decades it has assumed, for some, a slightly pejorative connotation. However, a walk through the Architecture and Design Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art can leave one with a strong sense of the beauty and innovative quality that characterize many objects made of plastic. Collections such as MoMA's not only remind us of plastics' ubiquity, but also demonstrate the remarkable and compelling ways artists and designers have employed and exploited this material. Curators identify and collect, but conservators are obliged to understand how to care for, preserve, and conserve a material that is not well understood. We need to know more, and with our colleagues and partners we are trying to untangle the complexities of the varieties of plastic.
In this issue of Conservation Perspectives we explore this diverse group of intriguing but challenging materials, highly prized for their versatility but often problematic from a conservation standpoint in ways not initially recognized with their early use. In their feature article, Odile Madden of the Smithsonian Institution and Tom Learner of the GCI examine the extent to which plastic materials have permeated art and design, as well as our lives in general, and they go on to provide a general overview of the challenges and successes of plastics conservation.
Critical to understanding the nature of plastic materials is the ability to test those materials. The GCI's research collaboration with the Disney Animation Research Library (ARL), which is focused on historic animation cells in the ARL collection—described in the article by Kristen McCormick and Michael R. Schilling—has enabled the Institute to sample and analyze several different kinds of plastics commonly used in the first part of the twentieth century; at the same time, this research has aided staff at the ARL in gaining a more complete understanding of their collection. Yvonne Shashoua's article on storage conditions for plastics offers insights into current research on how best to store particular plastic material and points toward areas where further research is needed. The treatment of plastic objects that have been damaged by either chipping or scratching is a significant issue facing conservators, one that research conducted at the GCI attempts to address, as described in the article by Anna Laganà and Rachel Rivenc. Finally, in our roundtable, Tim Bechthold, Roger Griffith, and Thea van Oosten — three leaders in the field of plastics conservation — explore in conversation a myriad of topics related to plastics and their preservation.
I hope that this edition of Conservation Perspectives will enhance appreciation not only of the marvelous objects made from this material but also of the comprehensive and dedicated efforts being made to preserve those objects for the future.
Timothy P. Whalen