Communist East German aging plastic comes under scrutiny in Getty research project



Toy car Cybernet (1974) by VEB Piko Sonneberg
© Die Neue Sammlung — The Design Museum / A. Laurenzo; Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Hairdryers, televisions, typewriters and milk jugs are just a few of the hundreds of plastic objects made in Communist East Germany between 1949 and 1990 that will be analyzed in a research project involving Getty Conservation Institute, the Wende Museum near Los Angeles and Die Neue Sammlung Design Museum in Munich.

The science of plastics conservation is a complex field that only began to develop in the 1990s. Various plastics composed of various materials and produced with different manufacturing processes age in radically different ways: while some plastics become brittle and crack, others begin to liquefy and ooze or bubble and warp. Many discolor.

As a result, conservation requires a range of approaches, depending on the makeup of the plastics, says Odile Madden, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “A cellulose nitrate bowl will deteriorate differently than a cellulose acetate bowl, and so the care will likely be different,” she says.

Watering cans for flowers and plants (1960)
© Die Neue Sammlung — The Design Museum / A. Laurenzo; Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust

Information on conservation care remains insufficient, says Tim Bechthold, conservation manager at Die Neue Sammlung, which has more than 1,000 East German plastic objects in his collection. “The aim is to write a manual for museums and collectors to help them identify different materials and learn how they age, ideally with notes on how to handle them,” he says. The two-year project will result in an exhibition with the working title House of Plastics at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.

East Germany was a major manufacturer of plastics, exporting them widely throughout Eastern Europe and even to the West. Bechthold says that West German mail-order companies such as Quelle and Otto sold East German products such as cassette players under different labels to conceal their origins. Die Neue Sammlung’s collection even includes a Wartburg P70, one of the first cars made with a plastic body in the 1950s. The material used was Duroplast, a reinforced plastic resin.

The project will examine 600 objects from East Germany in the collections of Die Neue Sammlung and the Wende Museum. The latter’s collection of Cold War artifacts was assembled by private collectors to preserve the legacy of the Soviet Empire after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

SKR 730 radio device (1990)
© Die Neue Sammlung — The Design Museum / A. Laurenzo; Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust

According to Friederike Waentig, professor of conservation at the Institute for Conservation Sciences at the Technical University of Cologne and member of the project team, documents from the extensive archives of the Wende Museum can provide insight into the processes and substances used. in the manufacture of plastics in East Germany. While in the West, disposable plastic items such as razors and cutlery were widely used in the 1970s and 1980s, in East Germany “there was no such thing as a disposable mentality,” she says. “The products were made to last 30 or 40 years.

The researchers’ first task will be to take a close look at selected objects from the two collections to identify the components and processes used in manufacturing, Madden explains. This work requires careful examination under a microscope and equipment such as infrared spectrometers and X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to analyze the materials used. The identification of materials should allow researchers to develop conservation methods accordingly, from preventive measures to optimize storage conditions such as protection against light or oxygen, to cleaning treatments for products which begin to liquefy. , she said.

The different ways the Plastic Ages have one thing in common: They usually don’t improve the appearance of an object, Madden says. “The concepts of patina, or softening over time, like the romanticism of ruin we associate with metals and woods, don’t apply to plastic,” she says. “Other than curators and conservation scientists, no one is charmed. “



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