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Exhibit review: 'Plastics Unwrapped' at the Burke Museum

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Twenty-five cities across the United States, including Seattle, have banned single-use plastic bags. Disposable packaging made of compostable materials is becoming more and more prevalent. An entire industry of reusable water bottles has risen up in opposition to disposable plastic water bottles.

But what’s so wrong with plastic that it must be banned, replaced, and opposed so vehemently? In light of growing hostility toward plastic, the Burke Museum unwraps the full story behind the most prevalent — and most detested — material in our lives. From now until May 27, “Plastics Unwrapped” tries to makes this problem, and some of its possible solutions, more transparent.

The exhibit opens with a simple message: “We need to rethink our relationships with plastics and find ways to use them more appropriately.” This sentiment has been widely propounded by environmentalists attempting to eliminate the widespread use of plastics that end up in landfills or the ocean, but “Plastics Unwrapped” adheres more literally to the definition of “rethink.” Within the exhibit, viewers are asked to truly reassess and reconsider their daily interactions with what was once deemed a “miracle” material.

The opening half of the exhibit is devoted to the development and implementation of plastic in everyday life. It focuses on history, science, and technology, and ranges from times before plastic to the modern world absolutely inundated with the material.

One corner display offers examples of everyday pre-plastic items, showing how much of a need the discovery of plastic fulfilled. Any Seattleite would rejoice on seeing the rain jacket made out of seal guts and knowing they don’t have to wear it. Then across from this, a wall hosts a variety of current everyday items — from a toothbrush to an iPod — that wouldn’t be possible without plastic.

Full of fascinating facts and interactive, hands-on components, the exhibit makes learning about plastic enjoyable. The material so often taken for granted, as we encounter it so often we don’t even have to think about it, gets to showcase its usefulness and proves itself pretty remarkable. Viewers can’t help but realize how much modern lives depend on plastic, and come to see why the name of “miracle material” is appropriate in spite of currently prevailing indifferent or negative attitudes.

The second half of the exhibit provides the more expected, negative take on plastic use. “WASTE” is printed across the wall above a display of hundreds of plastic bags. The taxidermied carcass of a seal strangled by plastic fishing equipment sits depressingly next to the predominantly plastic contents of an albatross’ stomach. While plastic’s possibilities may seem endless, we’re confronted with the environmental catastrophes committed at its hands. The exhibit presents the inevitable skeletons in plastic’s closet.

Though discouraging, this part of “Plastics Unwrapped” is still fascinating and necessary. The visual displays of waste and destruction garner more power than everyday anti-plastic notions. Viewers get a firsthand look at how much of a problem plastic really is. It’s not all bleak though. Hopeful “Rethink” tips are offered alongside every unfortunate statistic.

Plastic is portrayed at once as really incredible and extremely harmful. The exhibit allows both sides of the story to exist. It avoids belligerence and condescension, taking time to thoroughly consider why plastic is such a force in modern lives. Discarding our plastic-using habits isn’t as easy and straightforward as discarding the plastic itself, but “Plastics Unwrapped” questions our plastic-use in a productive manner, providing the knowledge needed to consider real solutions.

Reach reporter Kali Swenson at Twitter: @kaliswens


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