"Plastics Unwrapped" puts eyes on everyday objects at Burke Museum

Dec 20, 2012

The  University of Washington’s 113 year-old Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is debuting a new look and feel. Curators there say they want people to think more about everyday objects and how they evoke our place in the world.

“The Life Before You” is the new tag line encouraging visitors to discover and explore the Burke’s collections. First up, as the rebranding rolls out, is a new temporary exhibition called Plastics Unwrapped.

It’s a technology most of us have never lived without. Yet the invention of plastics happened only about 60 years ago. The first objects made of it inspired awe and wonder, starting in the 1940s. Consumers got them after the end of World War 2.

In the historical section of the exhibition, a reel of old TV ads captures the early excitement about all the innovations plastics could bring.

Out of the flames of battle, the promise of a new day. Plastics take their rightful place in a world at peace. A world dedicated to a richer, fuller life for all,” blares old-timey narration.

Watches, vacuum cleaners, mass-produced telephones, food containers and raincoats – all were enabled by plastics, says Burke Exhibit Coordinator Ruth Pelz.

 "Convenience and Glamour. This was one of the promises,” Pelz says as she reads the inter-titles between ads by companies such as General Electric.

Pelz worked with a panel of 20 experts to develop this new show. From pro-plastics chemists, to environmentalist worried about its effects on marine life, they all gave their input. Pelz says the museum’s aim is to get people thinking about solutions, by creating memorable impressions.

For example, the large "statistical sculptures,"as the shows creators call them, that fill the room and show people just how much plastic trash we as a nation are currently producing. There’s whole wall covered with disposable bottles. Pelz lists all the stats on display.

“1500 water bottles a second; 3,000 plastic bags a quarter second; over 650 pounds of plastic packaging in less than a second; 179 pounds of  e-waste discarded every second," she says, gesturing to the large bales of plastic surrounding her in the gallery.

And there’s a tower of beach debris collected by 6 volunteers in less than an hour on the Washington coast, last Earth Day. Next to it are a dead sea-otter and plastics from the belly of an albatross, starved to death because of them, in 1966. And Pelz says the amount you would find in an albatross' belly today has increased exponentially.

But there’s also a wall devoted to medical advances, with a survey of prosthetic limbs from the past century, including some used by Olympic sprinter Astor Pistorius. And there’s a display case showing all of the plastics needed for a typical surgery, including sterile tubes, valves and other medical devices that keep patients alive.

Curators at the Burke say they hope they’ve created an exhibition that enlightens and empowers, rather than depressing people. Because the chemists advising them insist there is a future for better plastics that will be easier to re-use and could come from renewables such as corn or sugarcane instead of fossil fuels.

For a list of activities planned to go with the exhibition, click here.

The show has already been booked at six other institutions around the country. It will be up in Seattle through May 27th, 2013. Next up is a stop at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Oregon.