Life in Plastic: It’s … Fantast-ick? Fleming College student exhibit addresses sustainability and collections care

Today’s Guest Post is by students in the Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management programme at Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario. Each year students research, develop, create,  produce, and install an exhibit that will remain on display in the College for approximately a year. This year, the topic provided was “Plastic.” It was important for them to touch on multiple sides of the topic: as a sustainability concern; as well as a collections care puzzle.

Plastics are versatile, practical in many ways, and inexpensive, all contributing reasons to their rapid adoption and current indispensability to our lives. Despite being a relatively new material – Eduard Simon first discovered polystyrene in 1839. Plastics are taking up more and more space within “museum” collections and cultural heritage conservators are challenged with understanding how plastics are affected by the agents of deterioration on a long-term scale. Contrary to popular belief, plastics are not timeless

Plastic troll dolls that were experimented on to showcase the effects of the agents of deterioration on plastic. Photo courtesy Fleming College

Plastics are complicated, some even degrade faster than anticipated, such as earlier forms of plastics including cellulose nitrate. Once this degradation process begins, it is impossible to reverse. While much has been written about the topic, preventive measures – cool temperatures, low Relative Humidity, low light levels, and removal of pollutants – are still the primary courses of action in the care of plastic collections.

Additionally, plastics and their rampant accumulation pose massive environmental concerns. With this in mind, we must consider how many plastic-based materials are used in our exhibitions, facilities, and in general all aspects of our work.

Brainstorming mount options. Photo courtesy Fleming College

Given this timely topic, we set out to build an exhibit that would address the following:

  • what is plastic?
  • why do museums care about plastic objects?
  • how do museums care for plastics in their collections?
  • why are we conserving plastics when plastics are so detrimental to our environment?

We wanted to create an exhibit that would grab attention and educate the audience. With the additional support of a $500.00 grant from Fleming College Office of Sustainability, we were able to do just that.

We also wanted to take the opportunity during our exhibit launch, which coincides with the College’s Spring Open House, to engage with our visitors about plastic and why talking about it is important. A key theme we wanted to highlight was the use of plastics in the building of the exhibit.

During installation. Panels and wall-mounted objects are up, and our timeline is in. Photo courtesy Fleming College

During the Open House, we marked every plastic construction material with a colourful sticker, asking our visitors to seek out how much plastic was actually on exhibit. Our panels (coroplast and vinyl), Plexiglas mounts, and props (a mannequin showing how even our clothes are made of plastic) were all stickered, begging the question –

how can museums become more sustainable within the creation of our own exhibitions?

Since the 1950s, approximately 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been manufactured, the majority of which was produced in the last 10 years. Of this, only 23% has been recycled – the rest ends up in landfills or oceans. An average 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans annually, where marine animals can mistake it for food or become entangled in it, both of which can cause death. These plastics may also break down into harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), which can cause cancer and reproductive problems in marine life as well as humans.

Dry-fitting some plastic objects from our timeline. Everything from gas masks to glitter to galoshes are made of plastic! Photo courtesy Fleming College

That being said, museum professionals are tasked with preserving and sharing historically significant items, and that includes plastics. While single use plastics have a negative impact on the environment, historical plastics help show our history and heritage, just like any other object found in a museum. For this reason, it falls to our profession to care for plastic objects so that we can benefit and learn from their continued existence.

The Fleming College Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management Class of 2020 is a group of 11 students from a variety of academic and professional backgrounds. Our class’ prior experience is primarily in anthropology, archaeology, the fine arts, and history. Located in Peterborough, Ontario, we are currently striving to further develop our research, writing, visual presentation, and artifact treatment skills. Our “Life in Plastic: It’s Fantast-ick?” exhibit has been a semester in the making and officially premiered for the Fleming College Open House April 6th thanks to the dedication, hard work, and fantastic – no pun intended – talent of this year’s team.

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