This Week in History: Preserving historic plastic artifacts

This Week in History:  Preserving historic plastic artifacts
WatchWhile society grapples with the challenge of plastics accumulating in our oceans and landfills, museum conservators are facing a different challenge - how to save plastics in their collections, as those artifacts are slowly deteriorating.

Kasey Lee is the senior conservator at the Royal BC Museum.  In 2019, the Museum began a long-term research project focusing on deteriorating plastics in the modern human history collection.

“There’s a huge cross-section of our twentieth century material culture that is made of plastics” says Lee.  “If we start to lose a large quantity of these plastics, we loose the record.”

Lee goes on to explain that “keeping these [plastic artifacts] in regular storage, like we do for the rest of our collections, at a room temperature, and average relative humidity, just isn’t good enough for the early plastics such as [those made of] cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate, so we’re looking at alternative storage solutions for those plastics.”

The museum conservators use chemical spot tests to identify the type of plastic, and to note its state of preservation.

“By using very minute samples from the plastic artifacts, [a conservator] is able to drop a single droplet of the chemical onto the microscope slide, and if it turns a bright blue colour, then we know absolutely that we have a cellulose nitrate plastic” Lee explains.

“These plastics were unstable from the start, the way that they were made.  They date back to the nineteenth century, and so over time, they deteriorate, all on their own. As they deteriorate, they release acidic gases, and that causes artifacts that are adjacent to them, in the same cabinet or drawer, to also deteriorate.”

This is just one of many compounds that museums are studying.  Items made with styrofoam, polyurethane foams, and rubber are some of the other artifacts that are reaching the end of their lifespan.

“It’s a wonderful world in conservation” Lee says.  “We do a little bit of science, a little bit of artwork, and a lot of just thinking about the collections and how we can devise new strategies for preserving them. Cleaning them, presenting them, making them available to the public.”

Veronica CooperVeronica Cooper

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