Image of Joseph Beuys’ Stempelplastik, one of the two items actively deteriorating, courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
Recently Slate.com’s Sam Kean wrote on the challenges of preserving plastic art. It’s a startling piece, detailing how a handful of unstable plastics are breaking down, wreaking havoc on museum collections worldwide. Symptoms include flaking, peeling, discoloration, and as Kean explains, smell:
Often the only clue a plastic is degrading is its odor. Some begin to smell like ammonia or take on a sickly new-car smell. PVC weeps chlorine, giving it a swimming-pool smell, and any plastics with acetate eventually give off whiffs of acetic acid, which is found in vinegar. Other plastics are redolent of burnt milk, burnt hair, celery, cinnamon, raspberry jam, or camphor “muscle rub.”
I checked in with the Walker Art Center to see whether its collection has been suffering from any of these symptoms, and if so, what they’re doing about it. Here’s what Walker associate registrar Joe King had to report:
The Walker has two works in the collection, both by Joseph Beuys, that are actively deteriorating. Both are made of PVC, as the Slate article discusses. The plasticizer is migrating out of the plastic, making the surface wet and sticky. This has been called weeping Barbie syndrome as Barbie dolls from the 1950s suffer from the same deterioration. We have had the works conserved, cleaned and wrapped to slow the loss of the plasticizer. The works are stored in isolation to prevent damage to adjacent works. At this point there is nothing further that can be done with them, except to freeze them. We are hoping that as additional research is done, a solution for the preservation of these works will emerge.
For now, those artists who choose to work with plastics are encouraged by curators and conservationists to read the directions carefully, especially as a number of “green” plastics are coming on the market, made specifically to be biodegradable.