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Beg, borrow and steal: developing preservation strategies for plastics in large multidisciplinary collections


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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.



Plastics in Peril, Object conservation

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

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