Plastics are synthetically manufactured materials. In the early 19th century, vulcanization was used for the first time to improve the physical properties of natural rubber, and a century later great strides were made in the area of polymer chemistry. Polyethylene, for instance, was first manufactured in 1933. The materials produced over the following years could be used in a wide variety of applications and came to dominate many different areas of industrial production, from cosmetics, textiles, and everyday objects to packaging and much more. These synthetic materials were more resilient and initially proved to have a high chemical resistance. They were malleable, affordable, and extremely versatile.
Today, we are witnessing the impact of ageing on numerous objects in the museum’s collections that are made in part or entirely of synthetic materials. As plasticizers degrade, the materials become fragile and brittle. At times the dimensions of the objects change irreversibly. Appropriate storage conditions are essential, mostly at cooler temperatures. Due to the particular challenges of this material group, a specialized conservator is responsible for the conservation, restoration, and collection care of all synthetic objects at the Deutsches Historisches Museum.