The Plastic Bag Museum archiving the disappearing everyday object

We spoke to curator, founder and Glasgow-based artist Katrina Cobain on capturing the beauty, history and cultural significance of the once ubiquitous object in the age of sustainability.

by Katie Goh
08 September 2020, 3:00pm

Imagery courtesy of The Plastic Bag Museum

To sum up the last seventy years in a single object, you needn't look further than under your kitchen sink. The humble plastic bag — once an everyday object carelessly picked up, used and disposed and now environmentalism’s public enemy number one — became readily available in the post-war 50s, peaked in the 90s and is slowly disappearing from our streets. As we move from plastic to totes, the significance of these seemingly worthless single-use bags is being archived in a recently opened digital collection, aptly named the Plastic Bag Museum.

Glasgow-based artist and Plastic Bag Museum founder, Katrina Cobain, literally dreamt up the idea last January. “I was really ill and had a fever,” she explains. “A few weeks later, envelopes started arriving stuffed full of plastic bags. I looked in my phone notes because they always contain whatever’s going on in my head, and found this manifesto for a plastic bag museum I came up with when I was really unwell. Apparently I’d started ordering bags from eBay!”

Lockdown was the perfect time to photograph the collection, build a website and launch the museum online, and, since May, bags have been readily donated. Classic Marks and Spencer’s Christmas bags sit alongside Royal Wedding memorabilia bags, a Soviet Union bag and badly aged tobacco bags. We caught up with Katrina over Zoom to discuss the museum, plastic bags as taste statements and the future of the everyday object.

So, other than a fever dream, what was the inspiration for the Plastic Bag Museum?
Katrina Cobain: It all revolved around thinking about the climate crisis. In museums you have all these Egyptian objects and it gives you an insight into a completely different civilisation and I was thinking about the climate crisis and thinking about landfill sites as the archaeological digs of the future. All of that plastic that doesn’t break down being discovered later on. And when you think of single-use plastic, it’s always plastic bags you think of.

The first one I bought was from Woolworths because Woolworths is quite significant to me, having huge childhood nostalgia of buying pic ‘n’ mix and CDs, as well as being the first shop I remember completely disappearing during the credit crunch in 2008. That was a key historical event in my life. So I collected Woolworths pic ‘n’ mix bags for a while and then the bigger bags and Christmas bags. As I started getting more into it, people would give me their bags. Everybody has some strange plastic bags under their sink or in a random drawer and people would look into them for me and check their granny’s house and find pristine Marks and Spencer’s bags from the 1980s.

It’s interesting to think of plastic bags as class and taste signifiers — something that disappeared along with the bags themselves. 
There’s a real sense of been there, done that, got the bag. At school people would carry their lunch in a Jane Norman bag, or if people had been to America, they would carry a bag from America. The plastic bag has this whole deeper layer of significance to it, especially historically. I was looking through the British Culture Archive and they have an archive of documentary photography of working-class Britain and what kept cropping up in those images were women walking around their local high street with Kwik Save bags. There are a handful of stores left across the UK but they used to be a huge discount retailer in the 80s and 90s. Whenever you look through those photographs, this bag keeps appearing and, through that photography, becomes almost iconic of this class of people from this time.

Nowadays, it’s much better to be seen with a classy tote bag or a fold-away bag that’s reusable. It’s less about what brand you’re carrying on a plastic bag, more about not being seen with a bag at all. Recently, the football player Kieran Tierney was photographed carrying his toiletries in a Tesco bag. And that became a massive thing with everyone saying it shows how humble he is, because his toiletries aren’t in a Gucci wash bag. Something as simple as a plastic bag has that social impact.

When do you think the public view of the plastic bag shifted from being a taste statement to almost taboo? 
I think the 2010s. I remember in 2008, if people went to Habitat and got the bag with the nice slick logo, they would make sure to carry it around. But then they slowly began to disappear alongside water bottles. Plastic bags and water bottles are quite closely linked as personal, practical items that are becoming more of a design and taste statement. I think the disappearance of the plastic bag might tie in with the 5p plastic bag charge in supermarkets because I think that’s when people’s perceptions really started to change. People who would do a big shop in Tesco and use 10 plastic bags started using a big IKEA bag or something else instead to avoid that tax. But nowadays it definitely feels like you wouldn’t be seen dead with a plastic bag because of the environmental impact.

The historical event bags are really interesting because they’re so easy to date, but in the future there won’t be as many of them. Do you think the plastic bag’s significance as a historical document is diminishing going forward? 
Yeah, I think the further down the line we get, they’ll disappear completely. I know that Germany had an aim to ban plastic bags in 2020 and the EU has been clamping down on single-use plastic. I think they’ll disappear from the streets and they’ll no longer document these businesses and aspects of society. But I think that’s interesting in itself because it follows along with this idea of late-capitalism and preempting sustainability problems. The fact that there were all of these bags produced — for every single event, charity and even Christmas versions of bags — will really illustrate the complete excess that was happening during the mid-late 20th century and early 21st century. Soon we’ll be asking why they were even making plastic bags for royal weddings? It’s so ridiculous even now. But I think when plastic bags disappear completely, that’s when they’ll become the most interesting and people will become interested in seeing them again.

Do you have a favourite plastic bag from the collection? 
The Woolworths pic ‘n’ mix bags are a firm favourite. Also a bag that says “Water works! Keep it public.” I did some research into it and it was produced during the Thatcher years and the privatisation of water. This bag is from a protest against that change in legislation and that was their protest slogan so these bags would have been used as an additional placard. I love that complete shift in narrative: the plastic bag was used as a placard in that context and now you see plastic bags on placards with big crosses through them on climate marches.

What’s the long-term goal for the museum?
The dream is something physical: to apply for some funding and have a big plastic bag show. But in the meantime, it’s great having the website because people can look them up, enjoy them for what they are and donate to the museum. Plastic bags are objects that are so everyday that everybody has access to them, and yet are slowly becoming historical objects that in the future will sit in museums.

Follow the Plastic Bag Museum on Instagram.

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