Reducing efflorescence on a pair of Christian Dior heels (c. 1968/9) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art study collection. Image courtesy of Melissa King.


Plastics are all around us, from silicone solvents in our cosmetics to microfibers in our clothes. Over the last two centuries, semi- and fully synthetic materials have increasingly replaced natural materials. These objects are being collected by museums, some as records of technological developments, others as artworks, unique or replicable.

These complicated materials pose seemingly endless challenges for conservators. As an emerging conservator passionate about research and collaboration, I am learning as much as possible about the complicated world of conserving items which were often not intended to last more than a few decades. To understand this class of materials better, I am treating three objects that parallel the development of plastics, from natural thermoplastics to semi-synthetics to fully synthetic, that permit me to conduct analytical and heuristic research to determine appropriate treatment protocols. These projects allow me to work across specializations and find commonality through materials, methods, and philosophy.

Examining Robert Rauschenberg's Copperhead metal paintings with Michelle Barger. Image courtesy of Thomas Roach.


A visitor to the Winterthur Museum conservation labs recently asked me why the PMA’s Christian Dior heels were worth saving. A dialogue ensued on how we understand value – and how the definition can shift when considering different cultural artifacts/materials.

This pair of heels may not seem initially seem important, given their lack of association with a famous owner or highlight of Maison Dior design aesthetic. Their value is revealed when context of manufacture is considered:

The shoes (c. 1968/9) were produced as part of Dior’s daywear collection, a newly developing idea in the fashion world in the 1960s that allowed a broader audience to access designer brands. The original high-gloss patent leather finish is looking forward, both in the physically, being made of a polyester/polyurethane blend, and idealistically, drawing inspiration from the vinyl space suits of astronauts. The pilgrim-style pump with thick heels and square toes is a nod to practicality, but designed to be paired with either a miniskirt or a pant suit – these shoes were made for a modern woman.

Experiencing the sculptures by Barbara Hepworth installed in the Rietveld pavilion at the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands

I am fascinated by how the object’s biography and materials guides decision making and how to rationalize and document those decisions.

The complex and innovative world of modern and contemporary art can complicate 20th century conservation ethics and philosophy. As an ethical and conscientious conservator, I aim to bring this awareness to all projects. At the same time, I appreciate that modern and contemporary art often requires these thought experiments. These ideas excite and motivate me to continue learning about modern and contemporary art conservation.

Natalya Swanson