When Plastics Aren’t Forever: Part III

Artists and museums are learning that works made of certain polymers, like this nylon and spandex sculpture by Madeleine Berkhemer, may have limited life expectancies.

Ruby Oval Cut I, 2005 (pantyhose, 250 cm × 300 cm × 200 cm). At Studio Madeleine Berkhemer, Photo by Kamerbeek Fotografie.


Probably the first major freak-out in the art world over a plastic object occurred in the 1960s. Curators at the Philadelphia Museum of Art noticed that Naum Gabo’s Construction in Space: Two Cones had started to smell like vinegar, and not long afterward the entire piece began to disintegrate. Gabo raged at the museum for negligence, but the real culprit was chemistry. As explained in the first two posts, early plastics—like Gabo’s medium, cellulose acetate—often deteriorated quickly. In this case the acetate leached out and turned into acetic acid (hence the smell). Within a few years Gabo’s airy, translucent cones looked like baklava crust: a brown, flaky mass that was crumbling into thousands of pieces.

That’s the danger of plastics. Their light weight and fluidity offer an artist great freedom, and she can bring her vision to life in pretty much any color she desires. Artists like Gabo also enjoyed the statement that using plastics made: they were purposely avoiding bronze and marble for a modern, up-to-date material. However wise an artistic decision, though, plastic art leaves museums in a bind.

Some names, like artist Duane Hansen, pop up time and again among those who worry about plastic art. Hansen sculpted super-realistic human figures—coach potatoes, frumpy housewives, tacky tourists, and other lowbrow characters. These sculptures suffer enough abuse as it is: they’re so convincing that people seem hypnotically drawn to touch them. (In one case a child zipped down a janitor’s fly because he had to know what, if anything, was there.) But the real threat to Hansen’s oeuvre was his choice of plastics. Many of the pieces have deteriorated to the point they can’t be displayed anymore, as too much hair has fallen out or limbs have become too brittle. To add injury to insult, Hansen himself developed cancer after a lifetime spent working with toxic plastic materials.

And it’s not just high art that suffers. Antique dolls, vintage handbags, 1960s mod furniture, wedding dresses with artificial fibers sewn in, classic films, photographic negatives—all of these plastic objects deteriorate. The world’s first-ever plastic toothbrush has already collapsed into a pile of crumbs. The flight suit of aviation pioneer Wiley Post looks fine overall (it’s mostly cotton and leather), but his plastic gloves have shriveled like mummy hands.

Developed as a less flammable alternative to cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate did not prove less ephemeral as seen in the degraded sheet above and the decay of Naum Gabo's work.

Image courtesy of Yvonne Shashoua, National Museum of Denmark.

Beyond the loss of invaluable objects, the deterioration of plastic materials has subtler, secondary effects on the art world. Plastic art and plastic objects get loaned out less often to other museums out of fear of accelerating their destruction. For instance, MoMA in New York regularly gets requests to loan out works by Eva Hesse, like Viniculum II (a series of latex strips attached to wires). But Hesse’s work simply cannot travel safely, meaning far fewer people get to enjoy it. Museums must also insure the items they buy, and the premiums for plastic pieces continue to rise.

So what can curators do? Unfortunately, unlike with crumbling paintings or beat-up sculptures—which can at least be patched up—recovery isn’t really an option with plastic objects. Their defects aren’t superficial but in their molecular bones. The best you can do is arrest the destruction by keeping these objects in dark, cool places free of humidity. Curators have also learned the hard way to separate plastic objects from other objects because the deterioration of plastics often produces acids, which evaporate from the surface and latch onto whatever else happens to be nearby.

In the end the story of plastic objects in museums is a sad one, without much silver lining. It’s not as if every single plastic object in every single museum is doomed, but year by year chemistry is winning, and with every decade that passes, we’ll have fewer and fewer objects to cherish and remind us of the lives people lived. Once again this highlights the frustrating paradox of our age: when it comes to environmental effects, plastics do, for all practical purposes, last forever. It’s just not the sense of “lasting forever” that a museum prefers.

Related: When Plastics Aren’t Forever: Part I; When Plastics Aren’t Forever: Part II


Sam Kean is the bestselling author of The Disappearing Spoon and The Violinist’s Thumb. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Mental Floss, Slate, Psychology Today, and the New Scientist, as well as on NPRs “Radio Lab” and “All Things Considered,” among other programs.  

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