Bioplastics are a category of plastics that are relatively new to the museum field. They can be, often by design, relatively unstable in the context of other artist materials found in museums. This paper discusses works of “designed decay” in contrast with “inherent vice”- a term long used in the heritage field to describe misbehaving materials. Drawing on literature from material culture history, material ecology, material politics, industrial ecology, and economics, I argue that we should use the framing of “emotional durability” (a term borrowed from design/economists) and “uncanny preservation” (described here) to help shed light on this problem. For bioplastics designed to decay, treating them with other materials in a state of suspended or arrested change is counter to their stated purpose, yet essential to maintaining displayable examples for the future, according to current norms.
First, we must acknowledge that museum professionals frame material durability in very different terms from the general public. Plastics are a paramount example-- if you asked most conservators whether plastics were durable materials, they would certainly say no. Plastics in museum collections are problematic: oozing plasticizers, blanching, cracking, crazing, and fatiguing. But in terms of environmental impact, plastics, especially single-use plastics designed for packaging, are far too permanent and degrade too slowly. How can we, as caretakers of cultural heritage, reconcile these philosophically conflicting issues? What would it look like if conservators abandoned their habitual behaviors to preserve and protect materials and instead actively encouraged decay?
Jessica Walthew is an objects conservator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She completed her MA at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center and postgraduate fellowships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bard Graduate Center and American Museum of Natural History. Since joining Cooper Hewitt, she works primarily with Product Design and Decorative Arts and Digital departments, with particular research interests in digital media, plastics, and especially bioplastics.