Preserving Plastics

November 16, 2018
POLISHING UP Lisa Young, of NASM, cleans dust from Armstrong’s space suit. It can cause plastic to degrade.
COURTESY SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to walk on the moon. The space suit Armstrong wore to the moon has come to symbolize human achievement. In 1971, Armstrong’s suit went to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM), in Washington, D.C. It stood proudly on display. But there were changes to the suit. “Over time, the suit started to show signs of deterioration,” Lisa Young told TIME for Kids. Young is an objects conservator at NASM.

“Plastics are tricky to conserve,” Young says. They tend to degrade over time. Neoprene is a type of plastic in Armstrong’s suit. The material can break into tiny pieces. This can ruin the space suit. NASM wanted to preserve this treasure. So they removed it from display in 2006.

Odile Madden is a scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, in Los Angeles, California. She says sunlight, water, humidity, and dust can cause plastics to degrade.

Yet history can still be saved. Scientists have found that storing plastics in cooler temperatures can slow degradation. So can lower levels of humidity. Armstrong’s suit is now in storage at a temperature of 63°F. The relative humidity there is 30%. These conditions will be the same when Armstrong’s suit returns to a museum display case.

Keeping Art Alive

FADING FOOD The plastic banana in Claes Oldenburg’s False Food Selection has flattened.

COURTESY HARVARD ART MUSEUMS

Plastic degradation affects art, too. Artist Claes Oldenburg created False Food Selection (pictured) in 1966. It’s made up of plastic food in a wooden box. Some of the food has flattened. Georgina Rayner is a conservation scientist at Harvard Art Museums, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She says the artwork’s wooden box produces a gas. The gas eats away at the plastic. But Rayner is motivated to conserve this artwork. “Plastics are a part of our history,” she says. “It’s important to preserve them so that future generations can understand the journey we’ve taken.”