Special Collections Research Center Contributes to University of Toronto Art Museum Exhibition on Plastics

Multiple artifacts from Syracuse University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center’s (SCRC) Plastics Artifact Collection are currently on display in the University of Toronto Art Museum exhibition titled, “Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through.” This exhibition, open from September 8 through November 20, 2021,draws on the existing work of the Synthetic Collective, an interdisciplinary collaboration of visual artists, cultural workers, and scientists based in Canada. The exhibition features data visualizations, artworks created by the Synthetic Collective in response to their research, as well as new commissions by contemporary artists from the Great Lakes Region. Also included in the exhibition are historical installations, including the artifacts on loan from SCRC, and objects that used early plastics that are now degrading, evoking questions of conservation and preservation in museum culture. This exhibition spotlights the connections between scientific and artistic methodologies and challenges the viewer to explore how arts-based approaches to thinking and working can make viable contributions to environmental science and activism.

SCRC’s Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts, Courtney Asztalos, will be participating in the “Plastic Heart” exhibition public programming as a member of the panel discussion “Dialogue # 3: The Plastic Conservation Conundrum: Preserving Plastics in Museum Collections and Plastics’ Durability in the Environment” on Wednesday, October 13, 6pm–7:30pm EDT. Asztalos says, “The Synthetic Collective’s groundbreaking work in their experimental exhibition “Plastic Heart: Surface All the Way Through” brings necessary awareness to the plastics lifecycle in exhibition-making, art and collections while proposing exciting alternative models and methods forward for change. I am thrilled to participate in a conversation on how plastic cultural artifacts within the context of special collections pose unique challenges and opportunities, emphasizing how SCRC’s plastics collections are rich resources for researchers and artists to investigate for activism, and unearth for the creation of new scholarship and artmaking. As a special collections curator, I am committed to bringing greater awareness to the broader public about how our collections can support innovation, change and agency within our current global plastics pollution crisis.”

“The Plastics Collection”, initially conceptualized as an umbrella term for the plastics-related collections at SCRC, serves as a research and programming resource to advance the study and understanding of plastics in modern society. These collections include manuscripts, photographs, time-based media, books, periodicals and over 5,000 plastic objects produced from the late 19th century to the present day. To learn more about the SCRC’s collections in this subject area, please visit https://library.syr.edu/scrc/collections/areas/plastics.php.

More information regarding the Plastic Heart exhibition, public programming and registration information can be found at https://artmuseum.utoronto.ca/exhibition/plastic-heart/.

Image of Courtney Asztalos, curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts, superimposed on Plastic Heart exhibition. Image credit: Synthetic Collective


New Special Collections Research Center Exhibit: ‘Provisions for Your Research Journey’

Syracuse University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) announces a new exhibition located in the Plastics Pioneers Reading Room on the 6th floor of Bird Library. The exhibition, entitled ‘Survival Kit: Provisions for Your Research Journey’,  is on display now throughout 2021. It utilizes a selection of artifacts, documents, and photographs from the Edwin F. Bushman Papers, a mid-century plastics engineer, and the Plastics Artifacts Collection, to guide students and visitors through developing primary source-based research projects that dare to inquire into the unexpected.

From the discovery of materials, to the unfolding of their analysis, this unique exhibition has been designed to function as a standalone resource for students, as well as a scaffold for instruction in any course that emphasizes primary source research. An artifact can be an object of inquiry even on its own, but in finding and articulating relationships among artifacts, a world emerges with its own history to tell. SCRC intends to provide live-streamed interactive class sessions, as well as asynchronous video tours, to immerse students in the environment of the exhibition. 

“Our plastics-related collections are unique to Syracuse University and I am excited for students to walk away empowered with skills for primary source research and the knowledge that these collections are available for them to engage with and interpret,” said Courtney Asztalos, Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts. “Immense potential exists within the plastics collections in discovering untold histories and imagining new plastics futures—my hope is for this exhibit to inspire students to follow their curiosities within this unique resource.”

The labor, skills, and perspectives that built this interdisciplinary exhibition were a collaborative effort between Courtney Asztalos, Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts; Jana Rosinski, Curatorial Assistant of the Plastics Collection and PhD student in Composition & Cultural Rhetorics; Lynn Wilcox, Design Specialist, Syracuse University Press; Ann Skiold, Librarian for Visual Arts; and Emily Hart, Science Librarian, Research Impact Lead. Exhibition curators also acknowledge the invisible labor and absent voices of those who made the manufactured objects from which the plastics collections were created.

For more information about the plastics collections in SCRC, please visit https://library.syr.edu/scrc/collections/areas/plastics.php and https://plastics.syr.edu/.


Syracuse University Libraries and Department of Chemistry Collaborate to Identify Chemical Composition of Plastics Artifacts Collection

Syracuse University Libraries has collaborated on a first-of-its-kind project between the Special Collection Research Center (SCRC) and the Department of

Syracuse Chemistry of Artifacts Project (SCOAP) team in front of Plastics Artifacts Collection on 6th Floor of Syracuse University Libraries’ Bird Library. From left to right: Chemistry PhD candidate Elyse Kleist, Dr. Mary Boyden from Syracuse University Chemistry Department, and Dr. Timothy Korter, Chemistry Professor.

Chemistry. Courtney Asztalos, the Libraries’ Plastics Pioneers Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts, partnered with Syracuse University Chemistry Professor Dr. Timothy Korter to investigate the chemical composition of objects from the Plastics Artifacts Collection, located on the 6th Floor of Bird Library. Along with Professor Korter, Dr. Mary Boyden and Chemistry PhD candidate Elyse Kleist created the Syracuse Chemistry of Artifacts Project (SCOAP) to use Raman spectroscopy to analyze plastic items from the Plastics Artifacts Collection. Raman spectroscopy is a non-destructive technique using a laser beam to enhance knowledge of the chemical composition of plastics. This information is critical to the Plastics Artifacts Collection’s conservation, preservation, and curation.

In addition to the benefit to the Libraries, the collaboration is also providing a research opportunity for the Chemistry Department. With a solid foundation now in place through the creation of a comprehensive reference database of known plastics and formation of research protocols, the SCOAP team has set the stage for undergraduate students to engage in undergraduate research beginning in the fall of 2019. “It is magnificent to see the plastics artifacts being utilized in new and exciting ways, especially in contributing to SCOAP’s chemical research,” said Courtney Asztalos, Plastics Pioneers Curator. In the fall 2019, students enrolled in CHE450 (Introduction to Chemical Research) will work alongside Prof. Korter and Dr. Boyden on the project as part of their American Chemical Society certified degrees. They will use Raman spectroscopy to identify the chemical composition of items in the Plastics Collection and will also work with Libraries staff to understand the historical and cultural value of important plastics artifacts. “From a chemistry perspective, this is an outstanding example of applying rigorous analytical chemistry techniques in a real-world scenario where the students can immediately see the positive impact of their investigative work,” said Dr. Korter.

“We are delighted to partner on this innovative research project,” added David Seaman, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, “which combines skills and materials from the Special Collections Research Center with faculty and student expertise, and which adds to our knowledge of important items in our collections to benefit future research. This is exemplary of the kind of work an R1 research university is engaged in.”

This initiative was made possible through financial support from Invest Syracuse and the Department of Chemistry for the purchase of a portable Raman spectrometer, microscope, computer, and supplies, as well as SU Libraries for project space and the purchase of modern polymer reference samples that were used to create a plastics reference library. Members of the Plastics Pioneers Association also donated reference samples to SCOAP’s plastics reference library.

For additional information, visit SCOAP website at https://tmkorter.expressions.syr.edu, Plastics Artifacts Collection at www.plastics.syr.edu, or SCRC website at https://library.syr.edu/scrc.