Slice of Life

The Plastics Collection to use $1 million donation to hire a curator

Rebecca Shays | Contributing Photographer

The Plastics Collection is located on the sixth floor of Bird Library and hosts about 2,500 artifacts.

“Just one word: plastics.”

These were the words spoken to Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock in the famous 1967 movie, “The Graduate,” but could also very well serve as a catch-all motto for Syracuse University’s Plastics Collection.

On the sixth floor of Bird Library are the Syracuse University Archives and Special Collections. One of its acquisitions, The Plastics Collection, is home to approximately 2,500 artifacts. The collection specializes in 20th century plastic materials and also contains books, periodicals and manuscripts on the topic of the synthetic.

In February, the collection received a $1 million dollar anonymous donation to fund a curator position and allow the collection to grow even bigger.

The Plastics Collection began with help from Harry Greenwald, a 1951 alumnus who is also a donor on the libraries’ board of advisors and prominent figure in the plastics industry. In 2007, Greenwald gave money to fund a temporary curator position for a collection started by SU and the Plastic History and Artifacts Committee of the Plastics Pioneers Association.

The collection was to be housed at the National Plastics Center and Museum of Leominster, Massachusetts. Even a year after its founding, the collection failed to take off, so the materials were sent to SU.

Ronald Thiele, assistant dean for advancement of Syracuse University Libraries, said this donation will allow the collection to grow even more.

We really, sorely needed to have somebody who could focus part of their attention as a curator on maintaining the collection, growing the collection, developing the collection.
Ronald Thiele

In 2013, donor Glenn Beall made a gift of $100,000 to fund the creation of The Plastics Reading Room, a study space featuring a curated assortment of items from the collection on Bird Library’s sixth floor. Last November, Beall called to notify Thiele of a donor wishing to gift $1 million to the collection in order to hire a permanent curator for it. The donor wishes to remain anonymous, but is a prominent figure and original entrepreneur in the plastics industry.

“He felt he wanted to do something that would help sustain the plastics collection,” Thiele said of the donor’s intentions behind his philanthropy. “As much as plastic is a great material … some of these older things, they need to be stored carefully; they can deteriorate.”

He reflected a need for careful conservation of the older and rarer materials the collection is fortunate to be endowed with.

In just 30 days, Thiele said they were able to get the endowment agreement together and move forward with the advancement of the plastics collection.

Lucy Mulroney, senior director of the Special Collections Research Center, is thrilled with the donation.

There’s such rich material here, looking at the way plastics were used — from fashion to household goods, to chairs, to buildings, to clothes, hairbrushes, toothbrushes.
Lucy Mulroney

There’s something in the collection for everyone, Mulroney said. Architecture and design students will be able to look at prototypes, sketches and drafts, and use that as source material for their own creative processes. She added that science students can use the collection is to think about the chemistry and the evolution of plastic as a biochemical medium.

Because the field of plastics is such a diverse and interdisciplinary one by nature, Thiele said the library is lucky to have such an abundant resource of primary source materials.

Mulroney said there haven’t been a lot students up on the sixth floor using the collection, but hopefully this donation will change that.

“Having this plastics curator come in and be able to work with the faculty to get students in is what we’re really trying to do,” Mulroney said. “Nobody knows about it — we’re a hidden gem.”

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