Brian Jungen - Strange Comfort

August 30, 2009

One Word

  Plastic People of the Universe. (Retrieved from

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.

Wrestling an eighty-pound plastic alligator from Crux.

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:

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:

Thom Yorke mournfully sings about degraded polystyrene.

(Spoiler alert?) Cellulose nitrate helps win the war in recent movie box-office hit.

More about the challenges of preserving plastics.

Also more plastics research by Jia-sun Tsang, a conservator at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

Comments (18)

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Awesome post, Anne! I've never been so excited about plastics. And thanks for the Museum of Jurassic Technology exhibit link.

Andy Warhol: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to *be* plastic.”

And now I want to be plastic, too; degradation be darned!

(Merci pour le blog!)

You still got it!!!

wow Crux is amazing!

now this is what i called real museum.. cool and have high creativity..

agen bola

I do not like plastics for some reason... Global Warming may be? Well I know few people do not believe the Global Warming thing but I do and I just do not like plastics. Yet, I so love that museum. It is highly innovative :-) Good Job, Anne!

My Website -

Noo! Im using my iphone and I cant seem to be able to access the page right. I will be back to read this tonight when I get home from school. The title looks like something I need to read.


I hate plastics(material things and people). They are toxic to our environment.

My blog

The world now is almost covered with plastics. We should make an alternative way to minimize the multiplication of plastics in every places. This site is a good example of recycling plastics. This encourage a lot of people to recycle plastics. A big help to fight Global warming. Cheers for this post!

Plastic is a big problem for environment, say Global warming. When we traveled in China, there are full of white plastic bags along the railway. We must do something about it.

Thanks for writing such a great post!

Cool and awesome!

wooww veryy nicee. I would like to go there

This is so cool.

wooww veryy nicee. I would like to go there

This is so cool.

I like this web page.

awesome post, re-use of recycled objects is likely to reduce the pollution of natural

I love the way their hair goes. It is challenging to have those plastic have in real good shape.

July 30, 2009


DSCN9694 About a month or so ago, a crocodile, a shark, an emu, a sea eagle, and a possum not of scales, fur, or feather, but of Samsonite plastic luggage were wrangled through the back doors of NMAI’s Mall Museum. In early June, artist Brian Jungen followed. 

Mr. Jungen’s monumental piece Crux (as seen from those who sleep on the surface of the earth under the night sky), which comprises this menagerie, is a recent acquisition and will be installed in the NMAI rotunda, known as the Potomac, late this summer. The upcoming exhibit Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort, opens at NMAI in October 2009.  From British Columbia with Swiss and Dunne-za First Nations ancestry, Mr. Jungen, a Vancouver resident, paid a visit to the museum in early and late June, and worked with members of the Exhibit Fabrication staff to make some changes to his pieces, improving his aesthetic ideas, facilitating more appropriate hanging. He also attended some meetings.

These blog posts will follow, from a mostly conservation perspective, the ins and outs of the installation of Crux and Strange Comfort.  Some may think that a conservator is just the person you turn to when you find moths have eaten holes in your wool suit collection. Although sometimes this is very much the case, conservation is in fact a confluence of disciplines, sometimes melding high science with ideas of artistic and conceptual significance.  These posts may serve as a platform to feature a variety of topics for discussion; it may, though no promises can be made, discuss inherent vice, rigging, plasticizers, artistic intentions, some common ethical conservation struggles. Possibly contemporary Native art. There may be time-lapse video. 

I am an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in the NMAI Conservation Unit. I am a Californian, and like running, reading, and barbecue. I recently completed my graduate degree at the University College London, Institute of Archaeology, specializing in ethnographic objects conservation. During my conservation training, I studied the effects of Indian gaming on the resurgence of Native American cultural heritage and sovereignty; cleaned mold off the walls of a Roman bathhouse in the Cotswolds; researched the history and appropriate conservation of doll’s undergarments; wrapped taxidermy animals in plastic, among other activities. Contemporary art conservation is new for me, but perhaps approaching Samsonite luggage is not really so different from approaching any other media. I hope that if you feel so inclined, you will, from the comfort of this NMAI blog, participate in discussion and witness the installation of this piece and exhibit and all that it may entail.

Comments (5)

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This is *great* stuff. I'm doing a course on Western images of indigenous peoples at the Corcoran College of Art and Design this semester, and only just learned of he Brian Jungen exhibition (it's actually a little hard to find from the NMAI site). He's a favorite of mine.

If you want to see what we're doing, you can find a class blog for one section at: What isn't reflected is the research students will start in a few weeks, looking into associations, lobbying groups, tribal websites, etc., to present information on indigenous peoples in the world today, in conjunction with readings from the past.

I'll be looking for a way to work the Jungen exhibition, and I'll post a link to your blog. Hope we ghet to talk about this at some point.

This sounds pretty original, too bad I cannot see the full collection. :( I am definitely going to look forward to more of his work.

Very nice Site.

This sounds pretty original, too bad I cannot see the full collection. :( I am definitely going to look forward to more of his work.

This is something relevant for art conservation. Thanks to this museum. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to this article. I really appreciate it.