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Decay, rot on display at Chemical Heritage Museum

Exhibition explores the inexorable decay of everything - and the human urge to stop it.

Curator Elisabeth Berry Drago stands next to decaying doorway to exhibit “Things Fall Apart.”
Curator Elisabeth Berry Drago stands next to decaying doorway to exhibit “Things Fall Apart.”Read more(CAMERON B. POLLACK / Staff Photographer)

Decay. Disintegration. Degeneration. Rot.

Whatever you want to call it, make no mistake — stuff falls apart.

There really is no end to it and really no stopping it. Iron rusts. Ceramics break. Wood putrefies. Paint flakes.

At the Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Old City, this universal, obdurate fact of life is the inspiration for a small exhibition, aptly dubbed "Things Fall Apart," on display until Feb. 2.

But just as certain as things going to pieces is the seemingly irrepressible human urge to hold them together, arrest natural decay, forestall destruction, and rescue the broken.

Greeting visitors at the exhibition entrance is an old wooden door, encased within glass, its peeling, flaking white surface slowly rupturing into shreds.

"This is from 413 Locust St.," said Elisabeth Berry Drago, public history fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and curator of the exhibition. "We embrace the flakes. We lined the bottom of the case with black [cloth] so visitors could actually see them. We don't want to hide the paint flakes. We want people to see it. It's a reality."

"Things Fall Apart" is about the push-pull of life and death, inexorable decay vs. relentless efforts to slow if not stop it. In short: Mortality.

The exhibition tilts toward the conservation and preservation (if not immortality) of buildings and their materials, of art, of books, and of ordinary objects found anywhere — bowls, bottles, dolls, clothing, even chemistry sets.

And there are four new works of art — by Aubrie Costello, Dominique Ellis, Michelle Marcuse, and José Ortiz-Pagán — that explore the themes of the exhibition.

"Decay and breakage and transformation are such central metaphors for art and literature and poetic reflections, we invited contemporary artists to be part of the show, to create pieces that spoke to the themes of change over time, disintegration, the loss of things out of the record," Berry Drago said.

The flaking white door that greets visitors barely managed to escape elimination from the record. It dates from when its original house (known as the Berry-Coxe House) was built in the beginning of the 19th century. But the door was removed at some point and tossed away, only to be rescued by the National Park Service from a trash heap, Berry Drago said.

"It's beautiful, but it's got tons of humidity damage, tons of splitting, cracks," she said. "It's a doorway to the show and it emphasizes one of the aspects of "Things Fall Apart" — which is stuff, things, really the most mundane objects that surround people in their everyday lives. It's not just about the science of materials decay — it's about people's emotional attachment to objects and their material environment. We don't think about doors, but we do care a lot when they fall apart."

From slowly disintegrating artworks to 1920s  Eastern State Penitentiary padlocks in varying states of multihued corrosion to 1960s plastic Barbie dolls, ordinary artifacts suffering the ravages of decay molder throughout the gallery.

rom the vantage point of the 21st century and a world choking on plastic, it might seem discordant to find plastic exhibited in the context of conservation. OK, wood disintegrates. But plastic is forever.

"Plastic is a major concern of conservationists and preservationists," Berry Drago said. "The problem with plastics is that they decay rapidly in one sense and decay very slowly in another.  Their usability, their shelf life as usable objects, is relatively short. But they don't disappear. They become more brittle or more porous or they get … oily residues fairly fast. We make a joke — you don't inherit the family plastics. They won't be usable in the next generation, neither will they be dust to dust. Plastics linger in this horrible half-life. It's plastic mush in the landfill, but it's still plastic mush. It's not going away."

So much has been made from plastic in the last 75 years, however, that to maintain a record of material life, plastic objects must be preserved and conserved.

Don't forget: Jackson Pollock loved cheap latex house paint. Plastic. He wasn't alone. Latex paint is cheap.

But what kind of latex? What kind of acrylic? Such questions bedevil conservators.

As different plastics emerged in the 20th century — what Berry Drago calls the midcentury plastics boom — different scientific instruments were employed to determine plastic composition. "Things Fall Apart" has a healthy assemblage of devices, such as the spectrophotometer, which can measure plastic reaction to beams of electromagnetic radiation — useful in unraveling the mystery of composition.

Knowing what's in a plastic is the first step in finding a means to conserve it. In other words, irradiating Barbie may save her plastic good looks.

Such instruments also have helped conserve countless works by abstract expressionist painters and other artists who have used latex, vinyl, and plastic-based substances in their work.

In the end, "Things Fall Apart" is as much about conservation as it is about destruction.

"It's kind of half and half," Berry Drago said. "We embrace the idea of transformation and decay. I think it's half a celebration that things will fall apart and half a celebration of, even knowing that, we'll still fight to save them. Conservators are realistic about entropy as a general thing. They know that nothing will last forever. But they're trying to stretch them into the next generation."

"Things Fall Apart: An Old City Walking Tour," narrated by curator Elisabeth Berry  Drago, is available as an app for iPhones.

"Things Fall Apart" at the Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, 315 Chestnut St.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and until 8 p.m. the first Friday of every month March to December.