Although plastic is a big problem in the ocean, museum conservators are rushing to save spacesuits, animation cels, and other pieces of history.
Mowgli of Disney’s The Jungle Book and Duchess from The Aristocats are frozen in single frames before Tom Learner’s eyes—pieces of history from an era of hand-painted animation cels. But Learner knows the plastic sheets have come to him at exactly the right time. Learner is a conservator, a chemist, and the top scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, and he wants to save modern materials.
Conservators like Learner and his colleague, Odile Madden, are at the edge of discovery at all times. They’re racing to keep up with the breakdown of objects as diverse as animation cels, historic space suits, sculptures, and house paint. The oldest synthetic polymers, the “first plastics” as we think of them today, are more than 150 years old, and without close attention they might not be around for another 150.