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Museums: Plastic exhibits are threatened with decay

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Around 1840 things started slowly with rubber tires: plastics began to penetrate our world. Today they are everywhere and cannot be broken. They also pollute the last corner of the planet – plastic now has a bad reputation. Friederike Waentig from the Institute for Restoration and Conservation Science at the Technical University of Cologne is convinced that the problem is not with the plastic, but with too little knowledge about the material. The disintegration of polymers is even going too fast for her: In museums the plastic disintegrates and of our recent technological history only crumbs and sticky piles remain without rescue attempts.

Plastic in museums is much more than a technical legacy in the form of films, glasses frames, computers, spacesuits or radios. Pop art artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein painted their works in acrylic – suspensions of polymerized acrylic acid esters. In the 1970s, even Picasso resorted to hardening polymer paints. And Niki de Saint Phalle, who has become famous in Germany for her Nanas, relied entirely on plastic for her sculptures. Duane Henson has also made his realistic human sculptures entirely from fiberglass and polyester resin and equipped them with accessories such as dralon skirts, nylon stockings, polystyrene curlers and PVC handbags.

“The problem is that these artists didn’t always think about what they were working with, they just thought plastic was great – you can cast and shape it,” says Christian Bonten, summarizing the problem that museums have today. He is the head of the Institute for Plastics Technology at the University of Stuttgart. “Whether at the Tate Gallery or the Museum of Modern Art – they all have the same problems with decomposing plastic.”

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