Inside the conservation lab: modern materials

May 7, 2014

When you think of objects in Historic New England’s collection, modern materials such as plastic or rubber probably aren’t among the first that come to mind. But in fact, as our collections span the seventeenth century to the present day, conservation of modern materials is an increasing part of our team’s responsibility. 

Gropius House, the Lincoln, Massachusetts, home of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus design school, and his wife, Ise, has a large number of modern objects. Ise Gropius loved bold, geometric costume jewelry made of plastic, aluminum, and glass. She kept a swirled earring stand on her dressing table that itself looks like a piece of artwork.

In preparation for Historic New England’s upcoming jewelry exhibition, Mementos: Jewelry of Life and Love, the stand and the earrings displayed on it came to the conservation lab for minor treatment. 

The conservation of plastics is a complex topic. Because it is a relatively new material, standard treatment protocols have not been established. Treatment of early plastics is especially problematic due to their experimental nature and manufacturing processes that often resulted in inherently unstable materials. Plastics are sensitive to many of the cleaning agents that are typically used in conservation treatment.

Another problem is perception. While we accept “patina” and “wear and tear” on other types of objects, we expect plastic to look new and shiny. Each pair of earrings was assessed and lightly cleaned before returning to the stand.

See Ise Gropius’s jewelry up close when Associate Curator Laura Johnson presents Small but Perfect Things: The Style and Jewelry Collection of Ise Gropius at Gropius House on Friday, June 27, and Saturday, June 28.