Plastics: Preservation and Conservation

In my last post, I discussed techniques one can use to identify the plastics in the casings of the consoles. The three plastics commonly used in the casings are likely polypropylene, impact styrene, or ABS. For example, when I did a cursory visual examination of a few consoles from more recent video game generations (5th, 1993 – 2003), I found ABS stamped into the plastic casing. We may not be as lucky when dealing with older systems. Once we have an idea of the plastic, we can move onto concerns about preservation, storage, and conservation.

While  numerous resources are available online, for this post, I wanted to mention three specifically that helped me. We have already met the Plastics Historical Society  and POPART from the last post. The third source is the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI). The GCI publishes a newsletter called Conservation Perspectives and their Spring 2014 issue was dedicated solely to plastics.

The most common environmental degradation factors for plastics include light, UV radiation, oxygen, water/moisture, heat, and pollutants. If possible, store the consoles and peripherals in a cool, dry, and dark place with stable humidity. In an earlier post, Matt described a rehousing program for consoles and peripherals lacking their original packaging.

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For loose items not yet rehoused, they are in a room that receives very little light.

Some of the sources also mention storing items in a room with some ventilation and warn against storing items in completely sealed containers. At the same time, you may have noticed that the console in the above picture is……in a completely sealed polypropylene bag. We felt that sealing the bags is preferred for two reasons. First, the importance of maintaining the connection between the item and its identification card outweighs the risk of reducing air flow, especially when considering materials moving from storage to a reading room and back again. And, second, water/moisture can cause severe problems for the more delicate components of a console’s motherboard. It is possible that the electronic components fail before the plastic does.

It is also possible to put mechanical stress on plastic objects when being stored or being handled. Even though the consoles are composite objects, it is possible to cause damage by taking the object apart. As much as possible, we plan to try to support objects in their natural shape while maintaining their integrity.

The sources suggest yearly inspections to check on the objects. As the consoles were originally designed to be played, these inspections should probably include turning the consoles on and checking game play. This reminds me of PREMIS: consoles as objects, inspections as events, and inspectors as agents.

While the plastics probably used in the casings are relatively inert and stable, there is one caveat. The wire sheaths inside the consoles may be composed with PVC plastic, one of the ‘problem’ plastics as defined by the Plastics Historical Society. PVC is designed to be more flexible and, as a result, is less stable and, overtime, may off gas some harmful chemicals. Although the GCI notes that little scientific investigation has been done, one could add an adsorber, like activated carbon, to the storage container/bag to adsorb volatile and/or toxic gases. pH indicators can be placed in the storage container to check for the presence of harmful acidic gases.

Ageless oxygen scavengers could also be added to storage to provide an oxygen free(-ish) environment or perhaps silica packets to adsorb water, formaldehyde, and acetic acid. If used, these adsorbers would need to be replaced on a consistent basis.

In the end, sometimes doing nothing is the best chance for doing no harm. Blessed are those consoles in their original packaging!

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