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Storage shelves inside the EMP Museum vault

I have seen the future. And it looks a bit ratty.

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“Futuristic Shades” from Waterworld

That was my not-so-charitable reaction when I got up-close with eyewear from the 1995, post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner film Waterworld in EMP Museum’s collection. Though merely two decades old (from a film then said to be the most expensive ever), the glasses appear to be disintegrating.

Yet the specs neatly illustrate the challenges preservers of pop culture face when we want visions of tomorrow to last forever.

The temples of the Waterworld-labelled “Futuristic Shades” appear to be twisted-together pieces of metal clothes hangers. Those look OK. But on the back, rubber bands to secure the glasses to the head seem to have become brittle. Front rubber nose pads look slightly gooey.

Welcome to the practical world that exists behind-the-scenes of Seattle’s EMP Museum. And enter a seldom-seen workroom and vault where the task is conserve and keep presentable artifacts of pop culture, from music to science fiction, fantasy and horror.

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A mini-lobby card from the 1968 film 2001

I was inside to donate roughly 50 mini-lobby cards displaying images from classic science-fiction movies of the 1960s and 70s: blockbusters like Fantastic Voyage, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, as well as cult faves such as Slaughterhouse Five, Phantom of the Paradise and Colossus: The Forbin Project.

What I found were preservation challenges that rival anything a monolith could put in front of Keir Dullea. Gleaming visions don’t hold up well to the harsh elements of reality, as represented by temperature and humidity.

Plus, there’s the overarching, unforgiving factor of time. “Pop culture artifacts that are produced for a film, for example, are often produced in quantity and are only expected to last for the length of the filming – not in perpetuity,” explained EMP Museum Collections Manager Melinda Simms.

Simms gave me a tour of EMP Museum’s vault to explain the work, and let me take what I was told were the first photos allowed.

In the Workroom

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Inside the EMP Museum workroom

We started in the prep area, or workroom, an industrial-looking space filled with tables of varying heights, supply cabinets and bins, blue quilted moving blankets, glue guns and mannequin parts. Against a tall set of metal shelves a headless, one-legged female mannequin lay on a table wearing a white Sea Gals uniform.

I found out that the paper of my movie lobby cards, along with objects made of wood and cloth, are among the more stable materials. But color photo prints, film, negatives and audio tape are less so. “Color dyes in photographs are fugitive and fade,” said Simms.

Though Dustin Hoffman was once cinematically advised the future was plastics, the real future is most unkind to them. Especially plastics beloved for their sleek appearance on screen.

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Klingon knife from Star Trek: TNG

“There was a neoprene jumpsuit of sorts that we exhibited in the science fiction gallery years back that, because of the inherent vice in the fabric of the costume, was literally turning to dust,” Simms mentioned later.

As we walked through the workroom, I noticed a nearby latex costume had that odd, sticky look that aging soft plastic can get.

“Plastics can always pose a problem,” she said. “There are so many different chemical make ups that compose a plastic and often the exact type of plastic is unknown to us when an object enters the collection. Is it primarily latex? Neoprene? Vinyl? Celluloid? I had a graduate school colleague who wrote her entire thesis on the preservation of plastics in historical collections.”

The solutions to keeping pop culture artifacts healthy, it turns out, vary in effort and complexity.

In the Vault

EMP Museum Collections Manager Melinda Simms in the vault.
Simms in the vault

The vault itself is directly behind the workroom, entered through two doors (presumably to allow for huge artifacts), one of which has a whimsical, handwritten “The Doctor Is Out” sign on it. Simms said it’s to let staff know if the lights in the vault are on or off – the flip side “Is In.”

Inside is a large rectangular room with a smooth floor and good indirect lighting. It could probably hold a retail pharmacy, if it weren’t for the lack of windows and the row of floor-to-ceiling, deep collection shelves on tracks that take up the entire far wall (and most of the room’s visible space). They sit end-out, and turning a three-handled crank on the end of each shelving unit opens up a walkway to the contents.

Tucked away in a corner of this vault is the entrance to, well, another vault. It looks like a walk-in refrigerator (a sign admonishes, “This area is humidity controlled. Please keep door shut.”). And it is. But for artifacts, not food.

In the Cold Room

Materials like photos, slides, film negatives and audio tape are most likely to find their home in this temperature-and-humidity controlled “cold room” on more moving shelves on tracks. When we went in, the temp was a comfortable (for objects) 44.22 degrees Fahrenheit at 28% relative humidity. But even this more-protected vault isn’t a fix for everything.

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Cold storage in EMP Museum’s cold room

Artifacts that are already damaged are difficult to manage – and potentially dangerous to other items. “I remember a sketchbook that we have in our collection that was moldy,” Simms said. It was treated by a paper conservator before being loaned to a show in France. “We were uncertain as to whether or not the book would continue to mold into the future so the conservator recommended we store the book in a micro-chambered box, to prevent mold spread to other objects, in cold storage.”

And, of course, there are the plastics. One EMP Museum music artifact is a Charlie Feathers acoustic guitar with a pick guard made of a celluloid material. “In a closed environment the pick guard was off-gassing and curling like a potato chip and warping the wood base layer,” Simms said, also affecting the guitar’s finish. Ultimately, the pick guard had to be removed (it’s now stored in the cold room as a teaching tool) and the finish cleaned.

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The vault doors

For those who think, going forward, that digital artifacts — such as computer-generated images or video games — will prove easier to conserve than physical ones, code and pixels are no panacea. Consider the computer floppy disk and CD-ROM media common when Waterworld was made.

“Digital is great until it becomes obsolete,” Simms reflected. “Basically what we all learn is that the preservation of data is only as good as the storage medium.”

Museums, she said, are now moving toward acquiring equipment so that outdated media can be heard or seen on the original hardware. If, that is, they know how to operate it: “Who knows how to use a reel-to-reel (audio tape recorder) anymore? Or even a typewriter?”

Fully digitizing a physical artifact that may be beyond repair, so that it can be displayed in some form, isn’t necessarily a straightforward process, either. Trevor Owens, a digital archivist at the Library of Congress, told me that digital “surrogates” — three-dimensional or otherwise (think microfilm of old newspapers) — require up-front judgment calls about what features should persist, and how to scan an object.

It “ends up requiring us to figure out a lot of things about what it is about any given thing that really matters,” he said. “What matters about something is always going to be an issue of perspective.”

All of this probably doesn’t matter at all to the fan who just wants to ogle a genuine Klingon knife from Star Trek: The Next Generation or view an original Princess Bride sword. But work being done at the EMP Museum, and by other collectors and institutions, should matter if fans want their geeky human offspring to have the same experience.

The real measure of success may be in how many of these futuristic artifacts actually make it to the date of their speculative manufacture. My 2001 lobby cards, at least, are a safe bet.

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