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Plastics in Peril: Focus on conservation of polymeric materials in cultural heritage


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  • ItemOpen Access
    Helping Hinz and Kunz? – Analysing and conserving two robotic prototypes from the Deutsches Museum in Munich
    (2023-11-01) Sawitzki, Julia; Pamplona, Marisa; Dittmann, Frank
    In robotic research and the robots’ pre-production phase, the goal is to develop a functional robotic prototype, at least in the short term. As an initial model for subsequent research or production, mainly built in research facilities, laboratories or workshops, the choice of materials is neither always fully thought through nor designed for long-term preservation. Since the materials used are rarely documented, it is very difficult to obtain information about them via the literature or other written sources. Consequently, the preservation of these prototypes and their technology is linked to mostly unknown materials, and is a challenge for collections and museums like the Deutsches Museum in Munich. An example of such a challenge is represented by the two robots ‘Hinz’ and ‘Kunz’ from 1963. Being the first cybernetic models in Europe, they were built to demonstrate learning processes in the human brain. The two prototypes mainly consist of metals and plastics, some of which show severe signs of degradation varying from embrittlement, yellowing and cracks to the migration of crystals. To investigate the material composition, the synthetic polymers were closely examined and analysed using Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy with attenuated total reflectance (FTIR-ATR). Based on the information about the material, tailored measures were taken to improve preservation of the robots, using a combination of conservation treatments and custom-made storage and mounting solutions. This case study demonstrates how complex objects like prototypes have special requirements and that they need to be researched to make sure they survive for future generations.
  • ItemOpen Access
    The Plastic Bag as Art: Three case studies on the treatment of clear, flexible plastic sheeting in contemporary art
    (2023-11-01) Bloser, Joy
    As the world races to ban the plastic bag, its use in art as a reclaimed and repurposed material is still very prominent. Treatment options for clear plastic bags, film and sheeting, primarily composed of various densities of polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and ethylene vinyl acetate are not yet codified in the care and conservation of contemporary art materials. Experimental methods are often necessary to achieve conservation goals set by artists, institutions, or the artwork itself. Through the lens of three case studies, both interventive and non-interventive treatment options for different polymer compositions used to make clear plastic bags will be discussed.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Conserving Line Vautrin’s Talosel resin objects
    (2023-11-01) Mannina, Loredana; Crowther, Gabrielle
    This paper presents the research and conservation of two plastic mirror frames by the celebrated mid20th century French designer Line Vautrin, which were encountered by the authors at the same time in private practices in New York and London. Vautrin’s prolific oeuvre in early 20th century semi-synthetic plastic is largely owned by private collectors; research showed that her favourite material ‘Talosel’ was patented by her and was in fact cellulose acetate (CA) sheet manipulated in various ways invented by Vautrin. The large volume of Vautrin’s work in Talosel resin is threatened today by the material’s inherently unstable aging characteristics and the lack of art historical reference to Vautrin. This case study discusses in detail the materials used by Vautrin, their inevitable degradation and the approach used to conserve one heavily deteriorated mirror so it could be hung on a wall again, despite knowing that it will only have a relatively short lifespan.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Approaching the preservation of polyurethane ester soles on football boots
    (2023-11-01) Spring, Kayleigh; Flexer, Gabrielle
    This paper discusses the condition, research and treatment of two pairs of football boots, one worn by George Best in 1976 the other by Pelé potentially from 1969. Owned by the same individual who requested the boots to be reconstructed for display, both treatments focus on the plastic soles of the football boots, both identified as polyurethane ester via FTIR, which displayed severe deterioration in the form of cracking, areas of loss, blooming on the surface and failed previous treatments. In both cases, conservation to prevent further loss involved making substantial fills. This paper presents details of the treatment developed to stabilise the soles on both pairs of boots and make them fit for short term display, comparing the different methods chosen and outlining the decision-making process. A long-term packing solution was also developed for both objects. A review of the treatment after a few years indicated that not all the problems were fully resolved, and the authors present a range of alternative options which could be considered to conserve similar boots in future.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Preserving plastics in the collection at the Harvard Art Museums
    (2023-11-01) Costello, Susan D.; Rayner, Georgina; Chang, Angela; La Duc, Elizabeth
    In 2016, the Harvard Art Museums began the first comprehensive survey of polymeric materials in the collection, finding almost 500 objects. The survey sought to determine the scope of plastics in the collection, to identify the polymer through the tandem use of FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) and pyrolysis-GC-MS (Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry) and to implement a conservation plan. The bulk of the conservation work is preventive, focusing on improving storage conditions. Positive results have already been observed: a polyvinyl chloride object sealed in Mylar® polyester film reabsorbed all the pools of plasticiser that had migrated to the surface. Interventive conservation forms a smaller portion of the work, and the treatment of a regenerated cellulose book cover is presented. Mock-ups determined Aquazol® (Poly(2-ethyl-2 oxazoline)) was the best adhesive, one-ply goldbeater’s skin the most appropriate backing material, and Mylar® with goldbeater’s skin adhered with isinglass the best fill to match the aged plastic. To allow a water-based adhesive to work, the surface of the Mylar® was chemically modified.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Beg, borrow and steal: developing preservation strategies for plastics in large multidisciplinary collections
    (2023-11-01) Cannon, Alice; Goodall, Rosemary; McCartney, Elizabeth; Palmer, Karina
    The last two decades have seen many advances in the identification, preservation and conservation of plastics in museum collections. Museums Victoria has invested significant time in conducting condition surveys and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) analysis of hundreds of plastics objects within its collection. Yet the scale of the problem defeats us. Many preservation approaches are relatively quick to implement but can only be applied item-by-item. Other approaches can be applied to whole collections, but have a long lead-in time to plan, fund and build, and significant capital and ongoing operational costs. The quantity, physical size and complexity of objects containing plastics in social history collections complicates any decision-making process, particularly when resources are limited. However, these issues are not unknown to cultural organisations. Archives and libraries have management strategies such as ‘distributed’ digitisation programs and the concept of ‘sentencing’, where the lifespan of records is designated on acquisition and subject to disposal schedules. The conservation of contemporary art, kinetic art and time-based media increasingly focusses on thorough documentation and frank discussions with creators about how to preserve works once key components become unusable. Can such approaches also be used to manage plastics in large, multidisciplinary museum collections? This paper presents a range of management options begged, borrowed and stolen from related disciplines—including scaled storage approaches, documentation and decision-making protocols, triage and demand-driven prioritisation, disposal schedules, and distributed resource networks—and shares Museums Victoria’s path and progress towards a deliberate preservation strategy for plastics.
  • ItemOpen Access
    A tale of two National Collections, Canada
    (2023-11-01) Warren, Sue
    This paper is based on experience working with two of Canada’s National Museums, namely the Canadian Museum of History and Ingenium, during their respective collection risk assessments. Both institutions carried out overall collection risk assessments, but both also examined risks specific to plastics. The paper discusses how a collection risk assessment can influence and assist with the preventive care of plastics in a collection, and help in reducing and mitigating risk to these materials in long-term storage. The two museums used different risk assessment methodologies and carried out condition surveys of plastics at different stages, either before or after the overall collections risk assessment. This difference in approach produced dramatically different types of collection information, which is useful in different ways. By discussing the process in both museums, this paper highlights how and why the results are different and how they can be used for risk mitigation.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Save the Plastics! Identification and condition survey in Belgian museums
    (2023-11-01) Hendrickx, Hannah; van der Velde, Eline; Kockelkoren, Griet
    This paper discusses the workflow and results of an identification and condition survey carried out at the collections of S.M.A.K. (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst) and the Design Museum Gent within the project Know, Name and Assess your Plastics (October 2018–June 2021). The plastic materials of over 2000 objects and artworks were identified with sensory and archival identification methods or by scientific analyses. A prioritisation and monitoring plan was designed, in which each object received a condition check, a frequency of monitoring and a conservation priority. This enabled the museums to take charge of the plastics in their collections in a structured manner.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Plastics in Peril: Focus on conservation of polymeric materials in cultural heritage
    (2023-11-01) Rowe, Sophie; van Aubel, Carien; van Rooijen, Olivia; de Groot, Suzan; van Keulen, Henk; Beerkens, Lydia; Hendrickx, Hannah; van der Velde, Eline; Kockelkoren, Griet; Cannon, Alice; Goodall, Rosemary; McCartney, Elizabeth; Palmer, Karina; Warren, Sue; Costello, Susan D.; Rayner, Georgina; Chang, Angela; La Duc, Elizabeth; Spring, Kayleigh; Flexer, Gabrielle; Mannina, Loredana; Crowther, Gabrielle; Bloser, Joy; Sawitzki, Julia; Pamplona, Marisa; Dittmann, Frank; Coughlin, Mary; Morrison, John; Nel, Petronella; Sofer, Gates; Cane, Deborah; Townsend, Joyce H.; Creamer, Megan
    ‘Plastics in Peril’ was originally planned by University of Cambridge Museums as an in-person conference to be held in March 2020 in Cambridge, UK. The global pandemic threw all plans out of the window and we found ourselves stuck at home in lockdown. The future of the meeting was very uncertain when the Leibniz Association of Research Museums in Germany contacted the Cambridge organisers to discuss their own plans for a conference on plastics conservation. In short, we decided to work together to host an online conference blending contributions from both meetings. This volume contains the 13 papers selected for the original in-person Cambridge conference, and they reflect many of the themes that came out in the wider joint meeting.
  • ItemOpen Access
    The Case of the Vanishing Gabos at Tate
    (2023-11-01) Sofer, Gates; Cane, Deborah; Townsend, Joyce H.
    Many different staff have examined, documented, monitored and analysed the plastics-based sculptures by Naum Gabo in the Tate collection, numbering over 40 works, since the 1980s when the first significant deterioration was noted in some. They are made from cellulose nitrate, cellulose acetate or polymethyl methacrylate, sometimes with more than one polymer present in each small model or sculpture. The deterioration has ranged from colour change, increased opacity, delamination and deformation to total collapse. Documentation has included conventional photography, laser scanning, photogrammetry and touch probe sensing, most of which have given rise to problems with data retention and readability. Today, accurate measurements made with digital callipers and detailed observations are used when deterioration is first noticed and these have been logged in a long-running spreadsheet (Excel). This captures details of manufacture and construction that would enable a replica to be made with the permission of the artist’s estate and many Tate stakeholders. FTIR (Fourier transform infrared) microscopy applied to small samples removed from accessible parts of the works has given more useful information than portable FTIR instruments, and all have been analysed. The Gabo collection has contributed to a number of collaborative research projects over the years. Improvements to packing and better-informed decisions on the best storage environments compatible with the normal operations of an institution which loans and moves a very large number of artworks each year are described.
  • ItemOpen Access
    The Dynamic Composition: Learning from CH1 38 (Rho) Space Modulator
    (2023-11-01) Creamer, Megan
    This paper presents a case study of the history, condition, and treatment of CH1 38 (Rho) Space Modulator (1984.42), a cellulose acetate work of art by Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy. The transparency and modernity of clear cellulose acetate substrate as a painting substrate was prized by the Constructivist artist, but the colour, shape and texture have changed dramatically as it has aged. Held in the collection of Historic New England’s Gropius House, this case study tracks the implementation of conservation best practices for cellulose acetate in the context of historic house museums since the 1980s. The physical changes and conservation efforts across nearly 40 years are documented, looking at how interventive and preventive conservation treatment, reproduction, display, and storage environments have impacted these changes. A corresponding environmental monitoring and identification project further explores issues and implementation of best practices for cellulose-based polymer objects that are accessible to small-sized historic house museums.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Should we Clean Plastics like we Clean Paintings?
    (2023-11-01) Morrison, John; Nel, Petronella
    Cleaning plastics poses a significant issue in cultural collections. Highly susceptible to attack from mechanical, organic and ionic cleaning agents, it can seem impossible to find products that adequately clean plastic materials without causing damage in the process. This paper aims to address these issues. It explores how techniques, knowledge and decision-making processes used in painting conservation can be adapted and used to deliver sophisticated, inexpensive, and accessible strategies for cleaning plastics. Using plasticised polyvinyl chloride as a case study, this paper demonstrates how principles of pH, ion concentration, polarity, chelation, gel-formulations and colloidal interface can be used to arrive at optimal methods for cleaning plastics. Combinations of Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy with attenuated total reflectance (FTIR-ATR), optical microscopy, colourimetry and accelerated ageing were used to determine the effectiveness of and damage levels of the cleaning processes being evaluated. Ultimately it was found that neat solvents, detergents and acidic or basic aqueous solutions should not be used unaltered but should rather be tailored specifically to the needs of the polymeric material being treated.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Ozone Test Strips for PVC Plastics?
    (2023-11-01) Coughlin, Mary
    Polyvinyl chloride or PVC has been one of the most commonly used thermoplastic polymers in the world since World War II and is found in nearly all museum collections, whether as accessioned items or materials used in storage or exhibition. Most PVC contains a high level of chlorine as part of its manufacture, and dehydrochlorination, a reaction in which hydrogen chloride is removed, is the primary degradation pathway. This is an autocatalytic reaction so allowing the hydrogen chloride to remain in the surrounding environment accelerates the rate of degradation. In a museum context, knowing if PVC is emitting an oxidant such as hydrogen chloride, which can form hydrochloric acid with atmospheric water, could provide insight into how collections are aging and influence storage and display decisions. Since the majority of museums are small, understaffed, and underfunded institutions, access to scientific analysis is limited. The application of an inexpensive and easy-to-use monitor that identifies degrading PVC would enable more museums to identify potentially harmful PVC plastics in their collections. Ozone Test strips, a product marketed for the detection of ozone, can get a false positive when exposed to oxidants such as chlorine. This small study found that these noninvasive commercially available test strips may be able to be repurposed to detect some degrading PVC and that detection was possible even before signs of deterioration, such as weeping or discolouration, were obvious.
  • ItemOpen Access
    Plastification: the Plastic Identification Tool and workshop that helps to identify plastics in your collection
    (2023-11-01) van Aubel, Carien; van Rooijen, Olivia; de Groot, Suzan; van Keulen, Henk; Beerkens, Lydia
    Unstable plastics are becoming a well-known phenomenon in contemporary art and design collections. To catalogue and care for the plastics in a collection, it is essential to know the types of plastic present. Therefore, the Foundation for the Conservation of Contemporary Art (SBMK) and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE), launched Project Plastic in 2017, a project within the Netherlands Institute for Conservation, Art and Science (NICAS). During this project, which lasted two-and-a-half-years, a Plastic Identification Tool was developed along with a workshop that facilitates a learning environment for organisations caring for plastic artworks in their collection. The workshop was initially set up in Dutch, but due to international interest was translated into English. The practical use of this tool is taught in a two-day workshop where participants learn to identify plastics by seeing, feeling, smelling and listening. A physical toolkit enables them to compare these characteristics. Following the workshop, participants have the opportunity to identify plastics in the collection of their own museum during a collection survey. Furthermore, the Plastic Identification Tool provides guidelines regarding the preventive conservation of the plastics. The identification and the created awareness of plastics in the collection may lead to improved circumstances that can prolong the lifetime of the plastic objects in the collection. This article will outline the shape of the tool by using examples from the collection surveys performed during the project.