Inevitable Plastic. Surveying works on plastic supports at the Art Institute of Chicago

Maria Kokkori, Ken Sutherland, Céline Daher

The Art Institute of Chicago, USA
Sorbonne Universités, Paris, France

Polymers such as cellulose acetate in museum collections have become a critical concern because of their potential for degradation and outgassing that may also be harmful to other objects. Numerous works in the Art Institute of Chicago collections include “plastic”, “acetate” or “Mylar” as part of their object descriptions, although such terms are often used generically or imprecisely. In 2015, a selective survey was undertaken of ten 20th century printed works on plastic sheet, using non-invasive, portable Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy and an in-house database of reflectance spectra generated from plastic reference materials. [K. J. Nichols, Y. Sorokin, K.Sutherland and C. Daher (2018) Preserving process: conservation of a Helen Frankenthaler maquette for Card, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 57:1-2, 35-46] Seven of the works were found to have cellulose acetate supports, and other identified materials included polyester (Mylar) and polyvinyl chloride-acetate.

In 2018, the FTIR survey was extended to an additional 100 works in various collections to determine the identity of many types of plastic sheet and film used in these objects. The results advanced art–historical knowledge of materials used by artists, while also informing appropriate treatment options and display and storage conditions. Examined works included prints and drawings, constructions, moving image films, books and audio records dating from 1930-1990.

Employing this project as a reference point, this talk will explore the challenges museum curators, conservators and conservation scientists face when dealing with works on plastic supports held in multiple collections, discussing issues in acquiring, cataloguing, storing and preserving these materials, and illustrating broader challenges in collection care and stewardship.

Acknowledgement: the research described in this paper was funded through the University of Chicago by a gift from Suzanne Deal Booth.