Museum Conservators Are Racing to Preserve Plastic Artifacts

Historians are struggling to save plastic objects for posterity.

Smithsonian Museum is trying to save plastic artifacts, like spacesuits. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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We hear a lot about how plastic is ruining the Earth and causing an environmental disaster. Plastic has been found to leach chemicals, choke wildlife and turn up as litter everywhere, even floating in giant masses at the surface or fouling the deepest parts of the ocean. But the ubiquity of plastic doesn’t mean it is indestructible. That’s why some scientists and conservators are trying to understand the destruction and decay of plastic art and artifacts in order to preserve them for generations to come. Conservators like Tom Learner and Odile Madden are racing to stay ahead of the breakdown of historic plastic-based objects, such as space suits, sculptures and house paint. They hope to learn more about the “first plastics,” which have been around for more than 150 years, but might not be around for another 150.

“There isn’t a lot of fluency in what plastic is,” Madden said, according to National Geographic. “We know an awful lot about metals—we grow up with an intuitive sense of what is gold and what is brass—but we don’t have that kind of ability to identify what a plastic is made of, or what polymer you’ve got.”

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