Katrina Cobain unwraps a parcel and removes its precious contents, slowly and delicately as if she were handling an ancient scroll of papyrus.
But the items she places on the table of a makeshift studio in an old tobacco pipe factory in the east end of Glasgow are rather more mundane — plastic carrier bags. Yet, to many, they are considered historical items, representing the consumer excesses of the 20th and 21st centuries.
For Cobain, 24, every plastic bag tells a story of the modern age and so, two years ago, she became a collector and plans to start a museum. “The original idea started because I felt that landfill sites could be archaeological digs of the future and for our civilisation they would be filled with plastic,” she told AFP. “They reveal so much about our lifestyle in the last 60 years in terms of consumerism and social history. They can document or reveal key shifts in our lifestyles, key historic events and also changes in graphic design styles.”
When Cobain put the word out that she intended to start a museum she was inundated with bags from around the world. Her growing collection includes ones from New York and the old Soviet Union. Others commemorate the supersonic passenger jet Concorde, and even the marriage of Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest son and heir Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.
“Why they were making bags commemorating the royal wedding, I don’t know,” said Cobain. “It shows you the level of production of plastic bags at that time that such events were being printed onto bags.”
Cobain’s most prized bag is one she bought from a Woolworths store where as a child she would buy CDs. She remembers “Woolies”, which once had more than 800 stores in the United Kingdom, completely disappearing after the credit crunch in 2008 and classes it as a key moment in her life.
Cobain’s plans to hold an exhibition were scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic, prompting her to move online. The lockdown proved an ideal time to photograph her collection, build a website and to launch plasticbagmuseum.com. A physical exhibition is still in the pipeline.
Despite her affection for plastic bags, which are increasingly attracting charges for use, Cobain is looking forward to a time when they are consigned to history. “They are obviously very damaging for the environment,” she said. “Photographs show how many bags there are in the oceans and how disruptive they are for other natural habitats for animals and so on. And they are just incredibly unsustainable to produce and use. So by making a plastic bag museum, it kind of helps people along to the idea that these are objects that do belong in the past.”
(Main and featured image: Andy Buchanan/AFP)