Is a mass produced plastic chair just as good as an old, handmade wooden one? Yesterday Susan Lambert, Head of the Museum of Design in Plastics in Bournemouth, and professor of art history Marcia Pointon visited us to look through our collection of artifacts made of plastic. They are planning a new research project focusing on our relationship with plastics in a hospital context, and would like to have Medical Museion as one of their research partners.
Ion showed us plastic dentures from the 1860s, a very realistic plastic arm with painted finger nails, and colourful plastic leg pads for children. Even though museums in general look down on plastics as an inauthentic material, we actually found a lot of objects in the collections, which partly or totally consist of some sort of plastic. The two plastic-lovers enjoyed the tour, even though Susan was a bit frustrated because of not being able to touch the displayed objects. The wonderful thing about plastics is that it can look exactly like any other material. But as Susan put it;”Once you touch, you know”.
Plastics are discount: Plastic is also an interesting material because it is highly used, but not very highly thought of. Unconsciously a lot of people today think of plastics as a discount material, as the fast, cheap unnatural solution. The wide range of functions that makes plastics so usable is the same feature that alienates it from us. One can make anything out of plastic, which means that plastic in itself is invisible and without identity. Plastic is, what it is made into. Alone it is formless, it is nothing. It is hard to develop a relationship to an thing made out of plastics, when one knows that there are a million plastic objects out there exactly like it.
Plastics are clean: already from the mid 19th century the first synthetic materials began to appear and in the beginning of the 20th century, Bakelite (phenol formaldehyde), which was used for electric apparatus like telephones and plugs, was invented. It was not until the 1960s that plastics became the most common material to use in almost all areas of human life. Susan and Marcia are focusing on plastics in a hospital context, because in hospitals one will find both plastic object of everyday use and highly specialized hospital objects in the same material. At the same time the many single use objects exemplifies the good aspects of plastic products, like good hygiene, and environmentally bad aspects like waste problems.