A Matter of Material: Plastics in museums in the 21st century
Accredited museums have mission statements and collecting policies that reflect their purpose, with subject as the usual. These subject-based collections necessarily include materials; however, they are an incidental consequence of the subject rather than the material itself being the primary reason for collecting. This project is an investigation looking into the significance of collecting objects because of the material family they are made of rather than the subject matter they describe.
Traditionally, early museums looked at ‘high culture’ such as art, science, or natural history. This concentration on ‘high’ or ‘elite’ culture, means that in many museums if an object has been collected with its material in mind, it is because it is made of a high status material, for example a silver teapot. In comparison, my project will be looking at the material most associated with ‘popular culture’ or everyday life. Plastics have the connotation of being inexpensive and disposable, ordinary, everyday and often something to avoid. Plastics are classless materials that we all encounter on a daily basis regardless of our social standing. They are practically impossible to avoid. Plastics as materials have no intrinsic shape, or colour, unlike natural materials. They surround us and when they are working well they are overlooked or taken for granted, but when an object does not do its job well the material becomes noticeable, and is criticised and the object is described as plasticy, tarring all plastic materials with the same brush. An equivalent phrase for something that does not work well would not be metally it would be, perhaps, tinny showing recognition that tin is a cheap metal usually used for inferior objects.
There are many instances of when the word ‘plastic’ is used today it refers to disposable packaging or carrier bags along with the pollution and destruction these items cause to environmental wellbeing. Plastic is invariably seen as a single use, cheap, mass produced material of little consequence, or huge environmental consequence depending on your point of view. However, the technically correct term plastics shows us that it is actually a family group of materials with many different qualities and uses, in the same way that metal and wood are families comprising materials as diverse and interesting as wrought iron and platinum, and balsa wood and ebony. The difference with plastics is that the members of the family are constantly changing with some older materials falling out of favour and newer, younger materials taking their place and venturing further into our lives. The fashionable style might change over time but plastics can be always up-to-date in terms of colour and shape due to being a formless substance.