Deterioration of modern materials - finding the cause, finding the cure

Modern materials, especially synthetic polymers and plastics, had a significant influence on industrial, domestic and cultural life through the 19th and 20th centuries. The Smithsonian's museums and collections are depositories for many different forms of modern materials, from fine arts in the Cooper-Hewitt and Hirshhorn museums to industrial objects in the National Air and Space Museum and National Museum of American History (NMAH). Now some of these modern materials are exhibiting signs of deterioration; past exposure to light, heat, moisture, chemical, and gaseous pollutants are reducing their integrity and longevity. The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute’s (MCI) modern materials program is examining the deterioration of polymers and plastics in industrial plastics, painting varnishes, conservation adhesives, and sculpture coatings. In one project, MCI researchers have studied a set of 1930s Lumarith cellulose acetate samples from the Division of Medicine and Science of the NMAH to discover why a few of the 49 color samples on a salesman's ring are weeping and crizzling. This research is reported in Studies in Conservation. With a better understanding of these materials and their degradation, MCI will help Smithsonian museums find ways to extend the longevity of 19th and 20th century art and objects.