March 11, 2013

Plastics in our Collections: A Sign of the Changing Material Culture?

"Before Plastics" objects on display
in the Plastics Unwrapped exhibit
The Burke Museum’s new exhibit, Plastics Unwrapped, examines how plastics went from being rare to being everywhere in a short period of time, and how material culture was changed by plastics.

To help visitors explore what life was like before plastics, several objects from the Burke’s ethnology collections – made from a range of materials found in nature – are on display. These objects include: a rain hat made of twined cedar bark, a child’s waterproof parka made of seal gut, toy blocks made of wood, and containers made of clay.

That made me wonder, will more and more plastic objects begin to make their way into the Burke Museum’s permanent collections as a reflection of this shift in material culture?

I asked Rebecca Andrews, ethnology collections manager, and she pointed me towards several objects in the ethnology collection that are either partially or fully comprised of plastic. For example:

Fish Bait Container
This fish bait container, or ha’apee, is from the Society Islands of French Polynesia is used to hold fish bait. It attaches to the side of a boat so the fishermen can simply reach into the hole at the top and grab the bait they need as they fish. Before plastic, fishermen typically used a ha’apee made from bamboo. This particular ha’apee is made from a 20-liter plastic container and was added to the Ethnology collection in 1994. According to the information provided by the collector, a plastic ha’apee lasts longer than its wooden counterpart.

Fish Bait Container, Burke Museum Object #1994-76/2
At first glance, this Yup’ik bag from Bethel, Alaska does not appear to be plastic, but it’s actually plastic shopping bags crocheted together with wool yarn. If you look closely, you can see the detail from the plastic sacks on the sides of the bag.
Bag, Burke Museum Object #1996-37/3
This radio, which dates from about 1968 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was a part of the former Burke Museum travelling exhibit, Ordinary Life, Extraordinary Times. While the radio is a relatively new invention in the grand scheme of material history, it was impacted by the invention of plastic. Radios were originally made of wood and metal, but this radio shows that plastic quickly became the preferred material for production. There’s a quote at the top of the radio from Mao Zedong that reads, “We should try to have the best radio to serve the people of the world.” 
Radio, Burke Museum Object #2001-11/71

Objects made of plastic introduce a unique set of challenges for long-term storage based on the plastic’s chemical structure and engineering. For example, some plastics, like those made in the early 20th century, contain additives that make them unstable and likely to release harmful chemicals if they deteriorate.

To assist collections staff in caring for these objects, the National Park Service created guidelines that offer a framework for proper care of plastics. This often includes maintaining a cool, stable temperature, being mindful to the amount of light and humidity plastic is exposed to, and regularly monitoring the object for signs of deterioration.

When the Burke acquires an object in its collections, they promise to take care of it forever. Each object has its own special needs based on a number of factors, and collections managers play an important role in documenting and preserving all objects in the collections to ensure that they are around as a permanent resource for future generations.

Danielle Acheampong is a second year museology graduate student at University of Washington. She works in the Communications Department at the Burke Museum and serves on the Burke's Student Advisory Board.