Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

The Problem with Plastics

two plastic flamingos with a plastic bag caught on them

We’ve all heard the dire news. We’ve seen the straw drawn out of the turtle’s nose. We carry our reusable bags, whether or not our town has outlawed them. We know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In ways large and small, the people of the world are grappling with the looming environmental disaster of plastics. But we know that the issue is complex. Plastic straws are a necessity for many members of the disabled community. Plastic treasures, from the earliest celluloid jewelry to the first artificial heart to myriad acrylic paintings and fiberglass sculptures, fill our museums. For museums, the problem with plastics threatens to destroy a century of treasures.

The New York Times recently detailed the issue facing the conservators of many institutions, including those at the Smithsonian, struggling to save Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit from the moon landing. The suit includes twenty-one different types of plastics, all deteriorating at different paces. The suit has been taken off display to arrest its decomposition, but the damage has already been done to other historic suits. In those, the neoprene found within internal layers of the suit has turned brittle and shattered. At the Smithsonian and many other art, science, and history museums around the world, conservationists and scientists are racing to figure out the best ways to preserve and repair artifacts that, despite having a half-life of a thousand years, seem to have a useful life span of less than a hundred years.

The first sign that a plastic object is deteriorating is usually yellowing or microfracturing of the object. While unsightly and inconvenient, this is essentially a warning sign that worse conditions are coming. Offgassing, shrinking, and other kinds of visible degradation are soon to follow. In creating plastics, molecules are arranged and frozen in an inefficient manner. Over time they regroup, separating the object itself into brittle structures with white powdery materials or sticky substances emerging. Some earlier types of film create acetic acid in the course of deterioration, causing what archivists call “vinegar syndrome”. As with film, this short shelf life of plastics is also affecting archivists who are rushing to save information stored on physical media. As the space and time needed to store content shrank, the amount of information saved exploded, resulting in a surfeit of information that needs to be evaluated and conserved in a relatively short amount of time. Whether cassette tape, CD, flash drive, or physical server, plastics are integral to the modern world’s ability to save itself for posterity and renewing the lifespan of plastic objects with information stored on them requires money and time that many institutions unfortunately do not have.

In the short and medium term, trainings on how to deal with plastic should become more widespread and additional funds will need to be allocated to deal with issues of plastics conservation and preservation of information and objects currently stored via plastics. However, the long-term state of preservation is going to require new thinking about how to display and discuss a culture who so thoroughly relied on an object with such a limited lifespan. Future historians will also need to explain why such reliance on a temporary material with harmful environmental effects was considered a desirable solution for twentieth century humans. The sooner those conversations commence, the more useful they may be in mitigating culture loss and environmental damage.

What Does it Take to Restore a 19th Century Eakins Portrait?

Thomas Eakins was an American painter, photographer, and sculptor most known for his portraiture and genre works. Born in Philadelphia in 1844, Eakins has been called the “father of modern realism in American Art.” His work has been exhibited internationally, in institutions such as the Louvre, Met, LACMA, and the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts in Japan. Although Eakins’ works have been widely displayed and researched, his Portrait of Ella Crowell, completed in 1882, has never before been exhibited. The Fitchburg Art Museum recently sent this painting to be restored, and intends to one day bring this painting, and its dark story, to light.

The Portrait of Ella Crowell is in fact a double-sided oil painting of Eakins’ oldest niece, Ella Crowell, who studied with him before her death. The front side, or recto, depicts Ella in profile, who looks down towards the bottom left hand corner of the canvas. Eakins has carefully highlighted her face and neck, while her dark hair and burgundy dress blend in with the background. The canvas’s verso showcases Ella seated on a wooden chair, her entire body in profile. Her shadowy representation almost foreshadows the tragic events that unfolded a few years after the completion of her portrait: in 1897, Ella committed suicide, after making accusations of her uncle’s sexual misconduct (see Museums in the Age of #MeToo).

While the painting is an outstanding example of Eakins’ technique and style, it was covered with dust and debris, and in dire need of restoration. The Fitchburg Art Museum sent the Portrait of Ella Crowell to the Worcester Art Museum’s conservation lab to be retouched and shined. There, conservators delicately toned and re-saturated both sides of the canvas, significantly brightening its now-lustrous appearance.

Upon the painting’s initial inspection, conservators found a small tear along its side. Removing a single thread from the canvas’s edge, conservators were able to sew the tear, ensuring the patchwork matched the original canvas. Several drops of white paint were also scattered across the seated portrait of Ella. Using a process known as “X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy” to analyze the elements found in the paint drops, it was revealed that the white dots did not contain titanium, meaning they were original to the painting. Conservators carefully removed the distracting white dots by using a special solution of water and heat. Finally, several layers of varnish were removed, producing an overall more illuminating effect.

Today, the multidimensional Portrait of Ella Crowell now shines, and is ready to be exhibited for the first time. However, it is also a painting that tells the hushed story of Eakins’ controversial behavior, a story that is now more important than ever to tell in the age of the #MeToo movement. The Fitchburg Art Museums intends to one day share this painting, and Ella’s story, with visitors.

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