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American POP Exhibit Prevents Fading Memories

By Chris Carron, Director of Collections

Popular Culture is by nature ephemeral—here today, gone tomorrow. Our favorite new trends are shiny and exciting for now, but will be tarnished and fading from our memories by next week. We’re so fickle and our attention spans are so short that popular culture manufacturers don’t make the products we buy last for a long time either. Why should they, when we’re always ready to buy the next new thing?

This presents a challenge for The Children’s Museum’s collections staff who are working on the new exhibit American POP in The Galleries for American Arts and Popular Culture. The exhibit will be permanent, meaning you will be able to visit it year after year. It will include everybody’s favorite nostalgic items: Star Wars action figures and Air Jordan shoes, Batman walkie-talkies and stage-used costumes of our (once) favorite rock stars. The problem is, so many of our superhero toys and concert t-shirts, our My Little Ponies and Wonder Woman comic books are made with materials and chemicals that deteriorate quickly under certain conditions. 

What does light have to do with it?

Exposure to light causes permanent and irreversible damage to the chemical composition,  physical structure, and appearance of many objects. Things like photographs and textiles made with certain dyes are extremely sensitive to change. But most objects made out of organic materials like paper, wool and cotton, and leather can be affected, and so can many synthetic rubbers and plastics. The damage is cumulative, so it can be caused by short amounts of really bright light, or long-term exposure to dim light. The museum’s conservator Christy O’Grady checks the amounts of visible light, ultraviolet light, and heat that are produced by all of our exhibit lighting to minimize the damage. She also monitors the temperature and relative humidity inside our display cases to make sure the environment is stable and allows for the best care of collections. 

Will the objects in the exhibit change?

Since fading can still occur with long-term exposure, exhibit curator Andrea Hughes has also gone a step further—she has acquired multiple copies of some artifacts, and will periodically switch out what is on display, to “rest” certain artifacts in our dark storage areas. Because of this, you may see some different lunch boxes, Barbie dolls, purses and board games each time you visit, as they are rotated in and out of the exhibit. 

This rotation of artifacts will also serve another purpose—it will keep the experience fresh and current. Like I said already, popular culture is always changing. New trends appear overnight, while we put old ones to rest. But the experience of laughing and reminiscing about the things we wore when we were growing up, and of seeing and discussing what was popular for different generations, will never go out of fashion. 

The Galleries for American Arts and Popular Culture are made possible through lead gift support from Lilly Endowment, Inc., Mel and Bren Simon, Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, Gerald and Dorit Paul, Thelma L. “T” Wilds, Sharon W. Doiron, and Shirley S. Bryant.

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Categories: Collections, Exhibits
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