Plastic People of the Universe. (Retrieved from http://new.lincolncenter.org/live/index.php/lc-ood-images)
1967. A big year for
plastics: The Graduate and Frank Zappa’s “Plastic People”
on Absolutely Free were released. The song
inspired the naming of The Plastic People of the Universe (PPU),
a Czech band formed in Prague in 1968, two months after Soviet troops invaded
Czechoslovakia. (The Plastic Ono Band, featuring Yoko, John, and others debuted
in 1969.) Arrest of The Plastic People of the Universe band members in 1976, in
turn, partially influenced the drafting of Charter 77, a petition written by
Czechoslovakian writers and intellectuals, including future Czech Republic
president Vaclav Havel, demanding the Communist Czechoslovakian government to
recognize basic human rights.
Plastics, they make things happen.
Plastics are organic polymers of high molecular weight and go back further than 1967. Natural plastics, such as horn, beeswax, and bitumen, can be found throughout the collections of NMAI. However, the more modern synthetic materials, like polyurethanes, polyethylenes, polystyrenes, that we so often think of--or don’t think of, as they have become so acculturated to our present lives --are not often found in the NMAI collection. That is until the acquisition of Brian Jungen’s Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky). This piece, which comprises five-larger-than-life animals made of plastic suitcases, has made up for the dearth ten-fold.
For conservators, plastics in museum collections can be a challenge. Despite the apparent resilience of plastics, they are susceptible to degradation by the forces to which they may be exposed every day: light, heat, moisture, and, yes, even oxygen. For example, UV (ultraviolet) light and moisture can cause cellulose nitrate, a plastic first made in the 1860s and used to imitate tortoise shell and ivory, to convert its nitrogen oxides to nitric and nitrous acids. This acidic reaction can cause severe degradation of the object. A classic example of this can be found in the exhibit Rotten Luck: The Decaying Dice of Ricky Jay at the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. Check out slight-of-hand master Ricky Jay’s explanation and beautiful images of a slightly tragic process.
(The Museum of Jurassic Technology was co-founded by David Hildebrand Wilson, a MacArthur Fellow, who gave a great talk at the Hirshhorn Museum, just down the street from NMAI, last November. It just so happens that Mr. Jungen will be discussing his own art there as well on October 16, 2009. Mark your calendars.)
Degraded cellulose nitrate. (Retrieved from: http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/37958/title/Long_Live_Plastics)
While Crux is made from new plastics (suitcases even, which are supposed to withstand the utmost rigors), it is part of our job as conservators to mitigate future degradation so that the pieces may survive even longer and, we hope, retain their current aesthetics, as wished by Mr. Jungen. To do this, we will identify the actual type of plastics found in Crux and make projections about how they may age. We will test samples of the plastics of Crux by exposing them to high doses of visual and UV light to determine what we might expect to happen to the actual object under certain conditions. We will strongly recommend that Crux be exhibited in an area in which UV and visible light have been suppressed, in order to slow fading, darkening, or yellowing of the different types of plastic. It is also recommended that the length of time the pieces are on display be curtailed, so that they may be exhibited again at another point in the same condition.
This is part of what we are doing. More to come.
For those of you who can’t wait, check these out: